Sue Blacker of The Natural Fibre Co. and Blacker Yarns at MDSW

May 16, 2012 § 4 Comments

The highlight of my MDSW experience was attending the lecture by Sue Blacker about the importance of genetic diversity in animals, specifically sheep, and how her companies have promoted British and breed-specific wools throughout the UK and even worldwide.

Sue Blacker, along with her husband, is the owner of three companies, Blacker Yarns, The Natural Fibre Co., and Blacker Designs. Each company serves different customers and needs:

  • The Natural Fibre Co. mostly mills for small farmers and producers (and they are the only mill in the world who produce both worsted and woolen spun yarns under one roof) including having spun a few batches of wool from and for Stella McCartney (she has, I believe, at least Gotlands and Bluefaced Leicesters, though my memory could be off about the latter);
  • Blacker Yarns is the yarn label and distributor of breed-specific wool yarns for the handcrafts market;
  • and Blacker Designs produces end-product textiles such as wraps, blankets, scarves, garden twine, and socks.

Sue Blacker is therefore one of the leaders of the push to using more breed-identified wools in both handcrafts and commercial textile production. (They also have a flock of Gotlands, including a sheep who was hand-raised and enjoys riding in the car, and also some colored BFLs).

In her talk she gave an excellent overview not only of their companies and how they came to own The Natural Fibre Co. and then expanded, but also the history of many sheep breeds and their experiences building up a business based on sustainability. There was a discussion about the importance of genetic diversity in animal breeds, especially in sheep (of course) and also in bovines, thanks to a contribution by Deb Robson, one of the authors of The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, who grew up on a dairy farm. Regarding the Blacker product and the wool market, there was an explanation from sheep to final product about how value is added to the wool to therefore help it sell for more. Not only does this involve painstaking animal care, but also involves steps in the manufacturing process and afterward, including how the yarn is marketed. They also discussed similarities between certain US and UK breeds.

However, the most exciting part of the lecture was learning about the fantastic breeds of Castlemilk Moorits, which are apparently quite rare, and the Boreray, an even rarer breed who come from way beyond the Outer Hebrides and now live in flocks throughout the UK. A Raveler, JaneKAL, along with Sue Blacker, spearheaded a campaign to produce the first millspun Boreray yarn, which is the only yarn I am allowing myself to buy this summer. However, if I don’t get a spot in the pool (the first batch is a limited run, with each person getting a chance to purchase two skeins and a hat pattern) I might have to tie myself to a chair to prevent consolation shopping! Though really, if there is enough demand for the yarn, hopefully more Boreray flock owners will be interested in selling their wool; this time they donated it. The Boreray should go on sale around the end of June or early July and a portion of the proceeds will go to the breed society to help them promote Boreray sheep and their wool.

The Boreray are part of the Northern Short-tailed group and therefore I think if you like North Ronaldsay and Shetland you will enjoy working with Boreray, though North Ronaldsay is a bit rougher than the Boreray. It is delightful, being an especially woolly wool, with a hint of crunch, and the color is a beautiful pale fawn.

Sue Blacker was very careful to get her lone sample skein back (I guess I wasn’t the only one to direct covetous looks at it!), though as consolation we got to each take home a ball of Blacker yarn, as she’d brought a sampling of their product lines. After the talk we all crowded around the table and there was fortunately no competitiveness, we all ended up with a ball that we like, after much sniffing and squooshing and chatter over colors and textures and potential uses. I managed to snag the only skein of Castlemilk Moorit with Silk and Alpaca (well, at least DK weight), which I chose because it was used as an example of how value is added to the product (since the wool is quite short, it is blended with silk for strength, but to preserve the natural coloring of the Castlemilk Moorits, a bit of alpaca is added in too). Of course, the Castlemilk Moorit sheep and yarn have a lovely toffee-colored hue, and the yarn itself seems rather smooth and sturdy, so I admit I chose it too for its aesthetic qualities.

We also filled out some market research forms (mine was quite long, causing them to remark that it was like a school essay!) and got a chance to ask more specific questions; I asked some about how they incorporate flax into a BFL-flax blend in both woolen and worsted spun — it’s during the stage where the fiber gets whirled around and around on this huge drum-like machine with massive spikes on it (I forget the name but it’s meant for blending the fibers). I will probably try that on my next order. I’ll also be ordering some Devon and Cornwall Longwool garden twine for my dad, since he’s from Cornwall and pretty much has everything he wants or needs already anyway. So, garden twine for his birthday it is.

Anyway, if you ever get the chance to attend a lecture by Sue Blacker, definitely go! I learned so much in the hour and a half (we ran over the scheduled time) and only wish we could’ve spent longer discussing the sheep.

As I’ve purchased some wool from them last fall, I can recommend, in addition to the Castlemilk Moorit with which I will make some mitts, the North Ronaldsay and the Ryeland and Manx Loaghtan, the latter of which I have in aran weight, though it appears to be out of stock at the moment. Though really, at the end with the wool sampling, I have to say that every yarn appears to be produced with care, so I don’t think you can go too wrong, especially since each breed’s page helpfully indicates the wool’s recommended uses, how it was spun, and what the texture is like.

(By the way, if you’re an LYS owner, they’re looking to expand their distribution in the US and elsewhere outside the UK.)

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