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?
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.