Book review: Pure Wool by Sue Blacker

Sue Blacker is wise in the ways of wool, especially with regard to making high-quality yarns from special batches of fleece, including many from rare breeds of sheep that live in the British Isles. She has written us a lovely book that features single-breed yarns, specifically those made at her mill in Cornwall. If you don't know about these yarns, you will want to discover them.

Because I want you to appreciate the unique genius of Sue's Pure Wool: A Guide to Using Single-Breed Yarns, just released, let me begin by telling you about my major quibbles with it. If you are alerted to these at the start, you can get on with the business of enjoying the book's substantial benefits without wondering exactly how many small typos and other bothersome glitches have been allowed to slip through and get into print. The answer to that is: too many. The project would have been greatly improved if the publisher had paid closer attention to copyediting and proofreading. This applies to both the text and the patterns. These matters are important enough that I'd recommend that some ability to independently troubleshoot a pattern be considered a prerequisite for working the designs; that should be sufficient, and they are appealing, so if you have this, go for it. I plan to. The index is also rudimentary. While I generally like the unusual choice of doing color printing on uncoated (not-shiny) paper, in some cases—and this is one of them—crucial images, especially those with dark components (like black fabrics), lose all their detail. A number of finished products are shown for which the source patterns are neither included nor referenced. All these matters are significant; I suggest that you determine not to let them keep you from this book.

So now let's talk about the good stuff, of which there is plenty.

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Sue's unique body of knowledge, and what that brings to this book

Sue Blacker began with sheep (Gotlands, which she still has) and then bought a fiber mill, called The Natural Fibre Company. Sue is a wizard at using the mill's equipment to make well-constructed breed-specific yarns, spun either woolen or worsted, available to people who want to experience these fibers without making handspun. Obviously, I'm a spinner. In a way, that makes me even more appreciative of the quality of the yarns produced by The Natural Fibre Company, especially those that are produced under the mill's own label, Blacker Yarns, and are featured in this book. (It's not necessary to have access to or to use Blacker Yarns to get a lot out of the book or its patterns.)

Sue knows a lot about value added: the multiple techniques available to shepherds through which they can increase the financial return they see from their animals' fiber. This is critical to the humans' ability to continue raising the sheep. Whether the value-added chain involves turning the fiber into neatly spun and packaged yarns ready to be worked on crafters' needles or the production of finished objects—blankets, socks, all-natural garden twine, and more*—Sue and The Natural Fibre Company help owners of small flocks in Britain increase their incomes. She also offers consultations to other small mills on how to process challenging fibers into predictable, practical, pleasant yarns.

       * Bookmark for the holidays!

For yarn-users, Sue provides a guide to enjoying materials that are not generic (I might add to my description "that are not bland"). She has an intimate understanding of a number of breed-specific wools grown in Britain, of their processing on the small-mill scale (the only way to keep the breed identities distinct), and of how to make good use of the resulting yarns, with their distinctive and sometimes challenging characteristics. (As a bonus, she lightly seasons her comments with her delightfully wry sense of humor.)

Here are some of Sue's observations on spinning single-breed yarns in small commercial batches [my comment in brackets]: "Where a wool is very rare or pretty good as it is [meaning not blended or dyed], we have suggested leaving well alone!" (p. 133) and "As the Wool Qualities and Yarn Types chart . . . shows, soft wools do not necessarily make fine or drapey yarns, and coarse wools do not inevitably have to be consigned to the Aran section. Also a luster wool will be considerably denser than a non-luster, so will make very heavy garments if used as a worsted-spun yarn, in chunky weight, or for larger items. In fact, it is better to use woolen-spun, semi-luster, or non-luster yarns for these" (p. 134).

Her appreciation for the fibers' individuality imbues every page. While other people may make other choices in handling the fibers, of course, Sue offers her experienced opinions firmly and with supporting reasons: "North Ronaldsay makes a soft 4-ply if de-haired of its coarse hairs but loses its character—better to use Shetland" (p. 135). From her viewpoint, based on having processed a more wool than most of us could imagine even seeing in a lifetime, she considers blending, yarn weights, and applications for unusual wools, as well as dyeing for good results on wools that have natural colors to start with. 

If you want to be convinced beyond a doubt that Sue knows what she's doing, order sample skeins of a number of the Blacker Yarns offerings and make swatches or fingerless mitts. I've got an ongoing project of doing just that, and it's always a pleasure to pull out a skein spun at The Natural Fibre Company and cast on. One of my favorite discoveries has been the Herdwick, overdyed. Herdwick is one of the least mainstream-familiar yarns to use. In Pure Wool, Herdwick gets equal time with the more familiar, and more pliable, Bluefaced Leicester. Thank you, Sue.

Breeds covered

For each breed, there is an introductory segment about the sheep and the wool. The sample shown here is the Hebridean.

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These are the breeds in the book, with links to a few of the yarns spun from these breeds that are currently available through Blacker Yarns:

Patterns

Following the breed information is information on using the wool, including a pattern—or two or three, if small. This is a pattern for a shoulderbag made with the Hebridean wool shown in the previous example:

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The designs offer classic-but-interesting approaches to making useful items, with information on why a particular breed's wool was chosen for the project.

In many of the patterns, the introductory description covers variations: changing breeds, combinations of yarns, needle sizes, and structures to individualize the final results. This sort of creative approach to the craft may alarm beginners, but it's how intermediate to advanced knitters think. Any nudging in this direction is all to the good, and beginners will benefit from choosing one of the simpler projects and experimenting with customization.

At least eight photographs are included of items for which instructions are not in the book. The good news is that I've tracked down patterns for most of them (or for patterns that sure look like they'd produce the same or very similar results) by digging around on the Blacker Yarns website. In case other readers find the items shown in these images as appealing as I do, here are the results of my quest:

  • p. 27: The Bluefaced Leicester vest was made with the Jester Waistcoat pattern.
  • pp. 34, 60, and 125: The vests made from Castlemilk Moorit, Gotland, and Zwartbles appear to be variations on the V- or Round-neck Sleeveless Slipover/Tunic (vest) pattern.
  • p. 91: The Manx Loaghtan cardigan is the Chevron Cardigan.
  • p. 98: I kind of struck out on the North Ronaldsay vests shown on this page (and there is a North Ronaldsay waistcoat, or vest, pattern given in the book, but it's not like the vests on p. 98). Something relatively similar to the vests on p. 98, albeit with fancier patterning, could be made from the Diamond Cluster Fitted Waistcoat pattern.
  • p. 111: The Ryeland pullover was the first item I went looking for, even though I'd probably draft my own version, and I found it (modeled as sized with a good deal more ease than in the book's photo) in the Cable Panel Unisex Pullover.
  • p. 117: That Shetland kids' pullover is the Child's Henley Sweater pattern.

It would be very handy to have this information in the book.

For the designs that do appear in the book, the printing choices obscure the detail on photos of the dark-colored items, and the pattern instructions reside in a stylistic realm somewhere between British and North American conventions. Those with moderate familiarity with both systems will do fine. The sizing designations don't conform either to Craft Yarn Council of America standards or to so-called US standard clothing sizing, with at least one tempting garment (the Pucker Cable Tunic, from Galway yarn) having wandered closer to the vanity-oriented catalog sizing realm in which I am a 4 or 6, which is absurd, and makes me wonder what small people wear: size 0000? So ignore the so-called size designations and head straight for the body and finished-garment measurements; that's the only sizing that matters in any pattern, in any case. Some of the schematics don't match the knitting instructions, so either use those with caution or skim past them as well.

The huge strength of the patterns is in the coordination between the qualities of the individual wools and the items designed to be made from them. The comments on how the items were designed are worth reading, even if you never knit any of these things—although I am strongly drawn to:

  • the Scallop Shell Top by Rita Taylor (Bluefaced Leicester),
  • that Pucker Cable Tunic by Amanda Crawford (Galway) (the one with the down-skewed size designations),
  • the Long Cardigan with Hand-Warmer Pockets by Myra Mortlock and Sue Blacker (Gotland, although for such a great winter-jacket design I'd use the optional buttons or a zipper),
  • the Fall Leaves Beret by Rita Taylor (Gotland, and the photos miss the design's most interesting aspects—which I figured out by reading the pattern, those being the leaf forms at the juncture between the crown and the ribbing),
  • the Hebridean Handbag by Sue Blacker (guess the breed!),
  • that Ryeland pullover noted above in the missing-patterns section,
  • the Ryeland Child's Hooded Jacket by Myra Mortlock and Sue Blacker (another breed-guessing occasion), and
  • the Climbing Vine Cardigan by Sian Brown (Zwartbles, but there's a much clearer photo of the design, knitted in Jacob, on p. 82).

For me, that's a huge number of patterns having immediate appeal in a single book. And on another pass-through six months from now, I might come up with an entirely different selection. There's a Guernsey pullover by Sue Blacker (Romney) and a color-pattern vest by Sasha Kagan (Shetland) that are already exerting a certain amount of pull.

Supplementary sections

The front and the back of the book contain general information, called "Pure Wool Basics" in the front and "Pure Wool Practicals" in the back. The information in the back is meatier, giving insight into the breeds covered from different angles and incorporating three charts that consider wool characteristics and qualities from the small-mill perspective, and a visual representation of suggested substitutions between breeds for the patterns in the book. The dark red indicates the breed suggested in the book; other breeds Sue considers as appropriate substitutions get progressively lighter with their decreasing suitability.

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There's also a chart on natural colors along with general thoughts about dyeing these fibers. It does not include information on using any specific types of dyes, but the overview and way of thinking about dyeing apply to any type of supplementary coloring.

The "Wool terminology" and "Yarn terminology" (front of book) and "Knitting know-how" (back of book) sections appear to have been put together quickly and could have been made more useful with appropriate editorial guidance.

In sum

There's a tremendous amount of unusual and intriguing information in Pure Wool.  If you like breed-specific fibers and yarns, it will be a fine addition to your library, despite the shortfalls in the editorial processing and production. Although I was provided with a review copy of the book by the publisher at the author's request, that obviously has not influenced (and never would affect) what I have to say. I would have happily purchased a personal copy—and would have paid significantly more than the US$19.95 cover price for a book that had been edited more thoroughly.

There is excellent material here. I would have liked to have seen it fully honored in its presentation.

Forewarned, do seek out Pure Wool for all that it does provide.

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4 Responses

  1. I get the Blacker Yarns e-mail newsletter, and one just came in. There will be a new section of the website through which some clients who use the mill’s custom-spinning will be able to sell their yarns and reach a wider market. Blacker is also planning a pure Castlemilk Moorit yarn–so far, they’ve needed to blend with silk to get that particular wool to spin well. They must be obtaining clips with a bit more length and consistency.

  2. Glad to be able to help, Caroline–especially with that list of pattern sources to supplement the text!

    Two batches of handspun North Ron. . . . What a nice thing to contemplate. I’ve been looking for some time to sit down and spin the North Ron I have here that’s all clean and carded and ready to go. Hat? Mitts? Striped scarf? If you haven’t already decided by the time the book arrives, it will likely give you even more ideas.

  3. I bought this book last week, and thank you for this review, Deb! It really is a unique and exciting book for me as a spinner. The Hebridean section jumped out at me in the bookstore (I have some) but most of the patterns are helping me to get project ideas for hand-spun. Many thanks for finding the vest links – I was stumped by the phantom pics! L

  4. You’re very welcome! Hebridean is a lot of fun, and yes, these patterns give a lot of appropriate ideas for handspun projects.

    I have had problems in the past with most-intriguing items not having instructions in the publication where I found them. I’ll do the treasure hunt to save others the difficulty!

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