A couple of posts ago I wrote about my habit of mill-visiting. There’s often an exciting opportunity for unusual stash enhancement when you visit a mill, and I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t give in. Mill shops – sometimes away from the actual mill itself – can be interesting. I don’t mean giant outlets, selling all sorts of stuff unconnected to the activity of the mill, the local area or indeed the country. I mean a specific mill’s outlet, possibly somewhere more visitable than a glorified shed up a single-track road, selling the products of that particular mill. OK, there’ll be blankets, toy sheep and sheepskin slippers, but somewhere, maybe at the back, maybe round a corner, there will be wool.
A classic example from years ago was the Hunters of Brora shop in Brora itself, which used to be by the station. It was fab, especially in its later incarnation, and had – I think I’m remembering correctly – a whole wall of cones of wool. I bought two, one brown tweedy, one grey tweedy, both Aran weight. That was in 1998, and I’m still using them.
Hunters closed eleven years ago. It was originally started in Wick (Caithness) in 1901, but moved down the coast a little to Brora, where it was based until 2003. Brora is a small town on the east coast of Sutherland, and was often where we went to do our shopping (the drive coastwards along the glen was particularly spectacular, though not one for bad weather).
In the 1990s and into the 2000s the firm had a patchy history with different owners – plus some ridiculous infighting, chronicled in the pages of the local and national press – and was in and out of receivership twice before it finally died.* During the last few years there was plenty of public investment (£5.3 million from Highlands and Island Enterprise, and £2 million from European funds) which eventually came to naught – and, inevitably, a consequent loss of ‘real’ jobs in an area otherwise highly dependent on tourism. Hunters was the largest private sector employer in Sutherland at one stage, which makes the infighting seem even more – reckless, perhaps. There are other words…
I loved Hunters tweed – still got a couple of metres stashed away somewhere, must turn it into cushions – though it was the wool which claimed my heart. But the supply in the shop was nothing compared to how the yarns used to appear in the mill itself. I found a wonderful photo on the website of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, which I just have to share:
This was added to their collection of images in 1997, and it’s the Yarn Store at the mill.
I am currently engaged in a campaign to make inroads on my stash. When I started spinning I was warned that my stash would increase enormously, and so it has. I have banned myself from buying more wool (hah!) until I at least use some of what I’ve got, and what I have got is some from Hunters. The last from Hunters, no doubt. The two cones were washed and skeined and hung outside the croft to dry, and flew back to London with me (they had to be skeined; I failed completely to persuade various family members to drive them south and couldn’t fit them in my bag). They then matured a little in my stash, as is normal.
I eventually made one into a giant cardigan, and the other into a big sweater, and I still had plenty left. But not enough for one garment. I toyed briefly with the idea of sleeves in different colours, but decided it would look even madder than usual. So I went stash diving.
There was a lot of Aran-weight brown tweed, which I remember buying years and years ago at the Otterburn Mill in Northumberland. Some of it was knitted up but the vintage pattern was so remorselessly 80s that I frogged it. Got lots of that. And then there were the leftovers from Hunters. And some blue tweedy aran-weight I bought in my by-now-standard last-minute buying frenzy at Wonderwool: not enough to do anything with, but I liked the colour. And it was all in good condition: by no means a given.
The Otterburn stuff was quickly discarded: it was more of a worsted weight, slightly thinner, plus the colour was a bit too red in tone to work with the others. But the rest went well.
Oh, I know I’ll have fun weaving in the ends, but it’ll keep me quiet. I don’t knit them in as I go because I feel it gives more bulk on one side and makes a piece difficult to block, but I don’t mind sitting calmly watching telly, weaving in ends and swearing occasionally that I’ll never do it this way again. Of course I will… Ahem. It’s going to be a cardigan, with blue (got more of that that the others) ribbing, loosely based on a Rowan pattern. The challenge will be to rework the sleeve cap so the stripes match (they don’t on the original, as far as I can tell from the pics).
But I am so enjoying using the yarn. It’s soft and the colours are gorgeous and it’s Sutherland on my needles, here in Snowdonia. Gorgeous. And irreplaceable. Now.
* Hunters brand was bought and the tweeds have been relaunched, but it’s now based in Coldstream in the Lowlands; Brora, the cashmere brand, is unrelated though the founder’s family did own Hunters at one point.