From the mill, to the stash – to the needles

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.

Sutherland1859Hunters 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:

Hunters of Brora wool store (RCHMS)

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.

sweater repairI 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.

stripe detail

* 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.


19 thoughts on “From the mill, to the stash – to the needles

    1. kate Post author

      Me too… Cape Wrath is such a fantastic name – and quite accurate – but I’ve never actually made it there. Set off several times when I was acid – we had friends who didn’t live that far away from it – but stopped by military exercises. Oh well…

  1. Elaine

    How sad to see such mills go away!! The picture inside the mill with all the yarn cones is great. It’s nice to have such happy memories of pleasant trips which also involve feeding our habits! Yes, spinning does increase our stash greatly. No matter how fast I knit my wooly stash, my handspun fast still takes over I will be doing a lot of weaving this summer to use up some of this stash.

    1. kate Post author

      Isn’t it? And such – grrrrrrrr. So much money…

      I think I must diversify into weaving at some point, preferably before I am forced out of the door by the Giant Stash Monster, which I see as being rather like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters

  2. starproms

    Yes, here’s another one! I love my handspun, but I’m spinning it up in at least two colours and then mixing some. What I make with it will be unique! but I want to make sure I have enough to finish a garment. There are only so many hats and scarves, aren’t there!
    The picture of the mill is fascinating. I can’t believe these places are closing or have closed.

    1. kate Post author

      That sounds lovely – and you’re so right. I’ve got a couple of Gotland x Black Welsh fleeces I’ve just washed, and I’m hoping to get a garment out of them.

      And isn’t it sad?

  3. Catherine

    The mill yarn store is fabulous! A sweetie shop for knitters (and weavers!). I remember Otterburn Mill! My father was from Northumberland and a visit to the mill was always on our itinerary when we paid a visit to my gran. I had an Otterburn pram rug for my babies passed down from a friend. It kept seven babies warm in all but sadly when I got it out for my granddaughter it was full of moth holes

    1. kate Post author

      Isn’t it though? YUM…

      Hah, another Otterburn fan. I always liked the distinctive tweed – knew someone who had a set of Northumbrian small pipes and the bag was in the Otterburn weave. Boo to moths!!

    1. kate Post author

      Thanks – I am a bit of a stripaholic, er stripe-aholic, nothing whatsoever to do with stripping, believe me. At the moment I’m looking forward to the challenge of getting the stripes to match on the sleeves. Bet I’ll feel less enthusiastic about stripes soon…

  4. grackleandsun

    I love this! Mill shops and tweeds and stripes and stashes! All good things (except for the mill/shop closing part). I’ve put the nix on my yarn buying, too, promising that I would knit up a bunch of it first. But then I went to the fiber retreat with all that homegrown wool, and, well, that rule went out the window, lol.

    1. kate Post author

      Love stripes! Love stripes! We should all come out and shout it!

      Fibre retreats should only be attended IF – what am I saying? WHEN you have cut up all credit and debit cards, closed bank accounts, renounced the money economy completely, made sure all your friends have done the same… and then, of course, made sure you have nothing whatsoever to barter for fluff. I wil be doing all this before Wonderwool Wales.

      Yeah, right…

  5. louise

    I’d love to go mill visiting. I already have a few in mind. All that industry – some with long, long histories of creating wool! Thank goodness for mills!

    1. kate Post author

      Indeed, and the one near me is sooo sad (plus their knitting wool – they don’t do much, of anything really – is incredibly scratchy and tough). Memo to me: buy lottery ticket. You never know…

  6. knitsofacto

    It’s beautiful! And it tells a story … I’m a total sucker for clothes with history that have a tale to tell. Don’t forget to show us the done deed, when you’re done, will you 🙂

    1. kate Post author

      I won’t – progress slow at the moment though… and I have to go to WordPress HQ and reprogram some of their software monkeys with a mallet first! (Sorry – they’re messing about with image editors… Blogger is on the cards. Or it would be if I didn’t have so much stuff to short.)


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