In search of Yarnworks

I started knitting in the mid- to late 1980s (well, I had knitted one thing before that, for a badge in the Brownies*, but my mother had to finish it and it doesn’t count). If you ignored the shoulder pads and scary intarsia, it was a good time to pick up the needles. Interesting yarns were available, not always in acrylic and often from the continent, and there were some great patterns. At the same time there was also a growing interest in high-quality British wool. And that’s where the northern company Yarnworks comes in.

I lusted after their wool. I couldn’t afford it, though I did save up and bought a little – once, as you can see, in Liberty’s sale:

(I know that seems cheap, even for then, but I was being paid about £90 a week, had to cover all my expenses and still eat.)

However, I keep coming across it in charity shops and it is still gorgeous.

I have also laid my hands on what I think is their one and only pattern book, and I’ve knitted several things from it. Adapted, of course – no tight ribbing gathering all that bulk in at the waist; more modern sleeve shapes. Some of the patterns are still unavoidably frightening, but there is one I go back to again and again because it’s so damn useful:

Please ignore the styling. I do not, never have and never will, possess such a cap. Nor do I knit it in stripes, have aggressive gathering at wrists, or pose with ropes. I always fiddle with patterns.

In fact I blogged about the demise of one incarnation of this favourite way back in the early days of Woolwinding, here. I’m currently knitting up yet another, this time in Jamieson’s Shetland Heather in a colour called Leprechaun (that would be green). It acts as a great cover-up for those autumn or spring days when it’s not quite warm enough to brave a lighter garment, but when a heavy jacket would be too much. I should probably hurry up with the knitting so I can wear it soon, in fact. And this got me thinkling about Yarnworks.

Their wool is beautiful – or should that be ‘was’?

Because they have died and gone to wherever all good yarn companies go – Leeds. Seriously. It’s taken me a while to work it out, aided by some knowledgeable people on Ravelry who got the bit between their collective teeth. Yarnworks Limited is now inactive, having been taken over several times, but the company name is still registered and part of Thomas Ramsden (whose active brands include Wendy and Twilley’s). The yarn, however, has vanished. Unless you’re exceptionally lucky.

As far as the company background goes, I’ve only got my book to go on. It was published in 1987, and the back-cover blurb informs me that the company ‘was formed three years ago to utilise the traditional skills of wool-spinning and dyeing in the Yorkshire Dales’ (the address given is near Wakefield, mind, and currently looks like a breaker’s yard).

The main reason I love Yarnworks is their commitment to lovely colour and natural fibre, which was comparatively rare at the time. They also used a lot of British wool. They focused on Merino: ‘…we only spin our wool from Merino fleeces. The Merino sheep is the aristocrat of the sheep world and produces wool which is both soft and durable’ as it says in the book’s introduction, which is by Yarnworks’ Steven Grant.

Durable, I’ll say. It’s still in perfect condition:

This heap is their Donegal Tweed, of which I seem to have acquired quite a bit over the years. Better do something with it… I’m envisaging colour work as the shades go together well (the purple’s brightness is a little distorted by the crappy light when I was taking the shot).

Yarnworks prided themselves on their colours – ‘we then hank-dye this wool to produce exactly the right fashion shades’ – which I have always found to be excellent, free of 1980s nightmares. You just have to do a bit of editing. Like ignoring the brights here (and they’re fine, just not like this):

I’ve knitted this, in the purple. I wore it a lot, got bored of it, found it again, wore it a lot, then went through the elbows and finally felted it and made a cushion cover out of it, but only last year (I decided I really was bored of it this time).

But I’m still intrigued. How come Yarnworks didn’t survive? Perhaps one clue is in their stockists. As one of the Ravellers pinted out, these were expensive yarns. The four London stockists listed in the book are Harrods, Liberty’s, Fenwicks and a rather flash knitting shop in Clapham, K1 P1, which is where I went mad and blew the household budget on some of their mohair.

(I made this little roll-neck sweater –

apologies for the quality of the shot, but it was snapped in hurry as I left for a craft fair, where I accidentally sold it – er, pressing it gently first, of course…)

Maybe Yarnworks were just too good, too high quality, too in advance of their times. And yet Rowan – founded in 1978 with a similar ethos – survived. Perhaps Rowan had more of a focus on design, more of a link with the ‘couture’ handknitting world, with people like Artwork and Kaffe Fassett (I’d not heard of them then, but I was a relative newbie – a broke relative newbie). Like Rowan, Yarnworks had good coverage in the US, but I suspect that also like Rowan – who sold to Coats in the 1990s – they suffered too much in tough economic conditions, conditions which coincided with a dip in knitting’s popularity. And unlike Rowan, their owners had no commitment to preserving the Yarnworks brand. Presumably it wasn’t strong enough.

I’m making assumptions here, and I’d love to know more. I’ve got as far as I can – does anybody else know any more? Anyone worked for Yarnworks? Anyone got a secret stash?

Apart from me, that is?

*Brownies:
A paramilitary organisation for small girls, worryingly insisting – at that time – on the wearing of brown shirts and strange badges. I was put in the Leprechaun six (maybe the memory called me to my current yarn, but how about that for stereotyping in action?) and our badge depicted a small figure writhing on a stake. There were other types of badges which you could win by doing various exciting tasks, like the incompetent knitting of nasty scarves in red, white and green stripes. My mother claimed that helping with the housework was one such activity, and I think she may well have been right. I left, much to everyone’s relief.

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20 thoughts on “In search of Yarnworks

  1. islandthreads

    sorry Kate I can’t help as your post is the first I knew there is no Yarnworks any more, I haven’t bought any yarn for ages because as I’ve said I accumalated so much before moving here,
    in the eighties I was working in central London and found the Patricia Roberts shop in Covent garden she also create her own yarns which included British wool, about 10+ years ago I went looking for her but she was gone too, I still have 2 of her knitting pattern books and some small amounts of her yarns,
    it will be interesting if you get a reply about Yarnworks, Frances

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      I didn’t know Patricia Roberts did her own yarn too – it was just like now…

      I must admit that I’m not much of a PR fan, though I do like some of her designs. I think I’m allergic to bobbles.

      Reply
        1. kate Post author

          Thanks Annie!

          There you go, Frances, the shop does still exist – mind you, I shouldn’t be tempting you, I know you’ve got all that stash to use… not like me at all, ooooo noooo….

  2. Annie @ knitsofacto

    I’m going to skip the knitting bit because I’ve never heard of Yarnworks – sorry, and I know I probably should have – and go straight to what is probably the most perfect description of the Brownies I have encountered … pure flippin’ genius. Yours in admiration, a pesky Pixie 😉

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      I only joined the Brownies so I could go to camp. Little did I realise I’d be sucked into a world of bad knitting and racist stereotyping (I did get to camp, and left soon after we got back along with my fellow Leprechauns – what a surprise – Bridgie and Bernadette who had the same motivation). The more I look back, the more I realise what a fascist Brown Owl was. No surprise there, then…

      I’m coming more and more to the conclusion that Yarnworks were just too exclusive to survive but it’s unlike me to have discovered something lovely but comparatively obscure, so I may be wrong. If so, it was such a shame they didn’t recognise it in time to do something about it, but maybe one reason for exclusivity was that production was limited. Wonderful yarns. Sigh.

      Reply
  3. Freyalyn Close

    Your description of Brownies is frighteningly accurate; I was a Kelpie. I managed to struggle through to being a Guide, but left after a camp when the highlight of our skill-learning was to make a stand for a washing up bowl and integral draining rack, from sticks and string. In the middle of the woods. I decided I didn’t share those priorities…

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      Hee hee – that sounds typical. I seem to remember ironing for some badge or other, with my (alternative – I must have been rebelling by joining up) parents discussing the sheer horror of what was going on.

      When it came to boring old camp, we didn’t go near the washing up bowl thing (!!!!), but I do remember that we weren’t allowed to climb trees. I did anyway, was severely reprimanded and told I was a bad influence. I regaled my Dad with this when he picked me up, and he said ‘good!’ very loudly, probably so Brown Owl could hear.

      Reply
  4. karibu57

    Your knowledge is amazing, as I never even heard of this yarn company and I am supposed to know these things 😉 thank you for enlightening me and as always a pleasure to read.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      I’m not so sure about that; I just think I have too much stash!

      Seriously, Yarnworks were so good – I can’t quite believe how completely they have vanished from the picture. I’ll try and remember to bring a ball along the next time I manage to get to one of your workshops (I think my Donegal Tweed is the best quality DT I’ve come across. But I MUST use it, not just admire it)…

      Reply
  5. randipants

    I was a Brownie but I never made it to the real-live Girl Scouts. I so wanted to be a Girl Scout – they got to wear green! In the end, I just got my one year of brown polyester pants and bright orange shirt. That was a baaaaaaaaaaad look.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      I don’t know, it sounds lovely (NOT!). Green would have been much better….

      The Guides were far too serious. Occasionally they visited us and I always got the feeling they were particularly hostile to small, stroppy, glasses-wearing Leprechauns with red pigtails. Maybe it was the way I didn’t think they were wonderful… but then I didn’t want to be one; I only wanted to go camping. And it certainly wasn’t worth the (vile) uniform.

      Reply
  6. caityrosey

    Wonderful to read about your life long love story with this yarn. The only yarn relationship I’ve had that long is with cream and sugar cotton yarn for dish cloths.

    Reply
  7. Lily

    Hi i have just seen you’re post and if anyone is interested I have an assortment of 100 balls of double knitting merino wool from a business that is now closed down, which I am now looking to sell as they are taking space up. It is such a waste. Please feel free to get in touch. I am based in North London. Brilliant post by the way! Kind Regards Lily

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      If that’s the Yarnworks Merino, it’s lovely….

      Have you tried Ravelry? It ought to go to someone who’d really appreciate it!

      Reply
  8. Sharon

    I have a Yarn Works Gladrags pattern I’d love to knit again having lost the original garment. Gladrags was a textile yarn, wish I could find some more or even what weight it was.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      I’ve had a quick look at my old Yarnworks book, and there’s something called French Poodle (!) but no Gladrags, and it’s not listed on Ravelry either, but then none of ‘our’ Yarnworks yarns are. There must be a textile yarn something like it though – there are quite a few out there, like Katia’s Ribbon or Colinette’s Giotto. Have you tried taking it into a really good wool shop and seeing if it compares to anything modern?

      How dare these companies go out of business! Hrrrumpf!

      Reply

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