My journey for traceable yarns to knit with took me on an adventure this year that has changed my whole outlook on the way I knit. No longer satisfied to just shop local, I began wanting to explore the stories behind yarn production and in doing so befriended the inspiring team behind Blacker Yarns
As a reaction to Karen Templer's final prompt for Slow Fashion October, I'm honoured to host this powerful guest post from managing director of Blacker Yarns (and The Natural Fibre Company), Sue Blacker:
"I spend a great deal of time in the supermarket – much too much according to my family – even though I actually go there very rarely (I prefer to delegate!).
Why do I go there rarely? Because we buy eggs from the farm on the way to my field, fish, fruit and vegetables from the local greengrocer who sources quite a lot locally, milk from the newsagent who gets it from a local dairy, meat from a butcher to whom we have been going for over 25 year and whose meat is all locally grown and slaughtered, bread from the local post office who get it from the local bakery, and so on. Also I am in the fortunate position of breeding all my own lamb and when I have time I make jam, bread, etc., though growing fruit and veg I leave to my sister, who grows all her veg and lives in a city! That I can do this is partly a result of living in a rural area and partly because that’s what I believe in. We gave up doorstep mill in the end because deliveries were completely unreliable and the milk was less local than that from the newsagent – not because of price!
Why do I take so long when I do go? Well, by the time I have checked where things come from and what they contain, it just does take a long time. I have to reject things from regimes I don’t like, reject things which are out of season and/or have travelled too many miles and lost all flavour, reject things containing added sugar (except chocolate of course) and then of course there are few things which we simply don’t like much!! Of course, I also select things which can show they are British, local, organic or have relatively few ingredients and taste good.
Being a farmer, as well as a wool mill owner has made me even more conscious of not just where things come from. In the first place, unless animals are healthy, with good husbandry practice, they will not produce good things: whether it be eggs, milk, meat or wool. So, of course, I want to know that a yarn is from a high quality version of the animal and not mixed up with some other stuff to improve it (like sugar or sweeteners in fizzy drinks!). And I want to know where the animals have been, how they have been cared for and who they are!
And then I want to know how the animals were treated in harvesting their product, how the products have been made, with low environmental impact and also that the workforce at every stage is also able to feel free. Workers in the EU have the right to consultation about their conditions and to decent working conditions, even though this is not always adhered to in practice. Worldwide, there are now also informal regulatory systems, such as Fair Trade or via standards set by individual businesses, such as Eco Age with its Green Carpet Challenge. There is also the organic movement, through the Soil Association and other sister organisations across the world, where the standards and inspections also involve ensuring fair treatment of workers. And in the UK there is also the Living Wage Foundation …
Why does this matter to me? Because it does and I cannot cope with the idea of any other way of doing things. I also like it to be fit for purpose, well designed and durable!
So how can we tell what it means to buy British or local wool and, better still, to buy farm assured wool?
- The Five Freedoms laid down by the Farm Animal Welfare Committee are at the beginning of all farming regulation in the UK: freedom from hunger and thirst, from discomfort, from pain, injury and disease, to express normal behaviour and from fear and distress. These are worked in tandem with EU regulation, so farming across the European Community is also based on these principles.
- We know that there are scandals surrounding the treatment of animals, sadly even sometimes in the UK and Europe, and there are reporting systems, inspectors at markets and abbatoirs, such that sick animals cannot get into the food chain and the reasons for any signs of ill treatment or neglect will be investigated. The recent news has been of tearing the hair off angora rabbits or kicking sheep, and I know from talking with them that it upsets our British farmers and shearers terribly to hear of it – because they are close to the animals, respect them and would not wish to harm them.
- We have strong safeguards in place with a bio security regime, reporting movements, to reduce the risk of spread of infectious diseases. The plans have been updated and improved since the horrific Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak in 2002 and are now shared by farmers, vets and regulators alike for better, faster responses.
- All of this puts into place assurance (using brands such as the Red Tractor) to show that the standards are being met for food – while we can assume that this is the case in the UK, because we can all go and see it if we wish, it is a little harder to be sure right across the EU and certainly across the world – also we know that differing interpretations of the same regulations can happen in different places, and that not all inspection regimes are as rigorous – this means that, when in the UK, we should seek British first. The same applies to each country – we all know and understand our own culture and standards best and so are best qualified to make good choices locally.
- The same applies to wool: the British Wool Marketing Board buys wool from all farmers with 4 sheep or more unless under various exemption schemes. The Board then quality assures the wool, grades it and markets it worldwide on behalf of the farmers. In addition, the Board operates a national training scheme for sheep shearing, with qualified trainers and inspectors to maintain welfare at shearing. Their approach to quality control is summarised at http://www.britishwool.org.uk/page/wool-sales/quality-control.php
- The Wool Board also has two trademarks. There are two levels: standard British Wool (when the wool is British but may be blended with other fibres) and Platinum Certificated (when the wool is 100% British, complies with the Board’s Life Cycle Analysis, ISO 14040 accreditation and has been collected and marketed through the Board).
I also know that there are those who comply with the standards on paper but not in their hearts, and I have found that this shows if you visit, listen, talk and see, so we always encourage everyone working with us to come and see and expect to reciprocate. Inevitably, we have to make some compromises to get things to happen sometimes, so we try always to think carefully about that before we do it and be willing to explain it. Unless we can be trustworthy, we cannot expect trust from our customers. We also have to own up to making mistakes and find acceptable ways of dealing with them.
We have a pride in our provenance:
- at my farm
- at The Natural Fibre Company where we guarantee that each customer gets their own fibre back when processed, into the product they have ordered
- at Blacker Yarns where we buy fibre from people we know and trust, in long-term partnerships, and selecting quality by hand to make yarns totally under our control under one roof or sometimes with trusted sub-contractors
Within the mill, we have a system which starts at the entrance door, recording what comes in, from whom and from where. We then keep track of it through every stage of the journey to final product – each batch going through the mill has its own individual “passport” – in this case a clipboard with the production sheet for the order, recording each process as it happens. WE have been working on updating the system so that we can be even more exact, with the exact component sources of supply for each batch of Blacker Yarns identified as well as just the breed and a list of the suppliers from whom we buy. So we know! We know because it matters to our customers and it matters to us.
The final bit, about fit for purpose, good design and durability is partly down to the wonderful attributes of wool and other protein fibres, which can do much of this anyway. Then we add expertise in selecting the fibre most suited for the yarn and end product required, and of we try to add as much timeless classic essence as we can in terms of colours and pattern designs.
I expect to be able to wear my clothes for decades, not just weeks! And to love and care for them and, given this, I am also willing to spend quite a lot on getting that quality.
Most known and closest of all, I also have some very special clothes and a few pieces of jewellery, along with my fountain pen (which I generally use to sign copies of my book) and some pictures and furniture, which link me to my mother, father and brother, and other family members because they once owned them or gave me them, and so I can and do sometimes choose to take them with me when I need their support. Many of these are old … and I care for them to make sure they will last. The emotional importance of provenance is very powerful and links us back to the known, familiar, local, comfortable and valued essence of our lives."
If this story has captured and moved you as deeply as it did me, please check my Instagram later today for your chance to win a skein of Cornish Tin, Blacker Yarn's special 10th Anniversary celebration yarn. Cornish Tin is a steely grey woollen spun yarn is blended from a collection of the highest quality British fibres including Alpaca, Gotland, Jacob, Shetland, Black Welsh Mountain, Mohair, and English Merino. It's rich with local provenance and I can't wait to give a skein away.