Wool and chocolate: treasures to start a new year

Now here's a splendid way to start a new year.

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On the right, treats from Theo Chocolate in Seattle. My daughter and I like to walk to the factory store and pick out a few delights to enjoy after we get home: one per day, split and shared. (The other members of our household don't appreciate chocolate, so we don't give them any.)

The ganache-filled confections have fairly short shelf-lives and you may have to get them on site; there was an "eat by" date on the case that was less than two weeks from when we were standing there choosing (January 9). The chocolate with the white square and stripes is a lemon ganache.

The caramels go a bit longer and can be ordered online. The one with the single swooping line is a gingersnap caramel. That one with the diagonal dusting of reddish sprinkles is a ghost chile caramel. Yum.

Theo is one of very few chocolate producers in North America that roasts its own beans (Hershey's is another; Blommer is a third—the differences in scale between these organizations and Theo is significant). Theo is also the only roaster that is organic and the first to be Fair Trade. Most chocolate manufacturers get their chocolate already processed from the beans–in bulk, ready to melt and form into finished items. (There's a lengthy and fascinating PDF here about the cocoa-to-chocolate process.)

So we came home with our small stash of chocolates—eight, to be savored, one at a time.

And I found waiting for me there a package with a skein of Blacker Yarns' St Kilda laceweight yarn. It made me think immediately of the Theo chocolates: smooth, elegant, tasty, exquisitely prepared.

Let me tell you a little about this yarn, which is a tour-de-force accomplishment that I look forward to savoring as deliberately and carefully as I will the chocolates. Unfortunately, I have no idea how you can get a skein, because I can't locate it on the Blacker Yarns site, but simply knowing it exists shows what can happen when determination, energy, skill, experience, and vision combine.

Okay, I am waxing rhapsodic. There's a reason.

St Kilda is a cluster of islands in the North Atlantic Ocean west of the Scottish Outer Hebrides. No one lives there any more, although evidence of human (and sheep) habitation goes back thousands of years. Two rare breeds of sheep have their home bases on these tiny outcroppings of land, otherwise best known for geology and populations of birds: Soay (from the island of Soay and now also on the larger island of Hirta) and Boreray (from the island of the same name). Their histories are quite different, and I can't go into that much detail or this post will never get done. The association of the breeds with the place is the reason for the yarn's name.

Neither Soay nor Boreray sheep have been bred for consistent wool. Both grow a range of fibers from very fine to remarkably coarse, both within individual fleeces and throughout the flocks.

A couple of years ago, Jane Cooper and Sue Blacker began a project to gather Boreray fleeces from throughout the U.K. and make a commercially spun yarn available, as a very limited run. The goal was to show the shepherds that their wool has value and to show fiber artisans that this breed-specific fiber can be rewarding to work with. Boreray wool doesn't fare well in mixed-wool large-scale commercial operations because of its variability in color and texture. Jane drove all over to get the fleeces—a feat in itself. Then Sue's expertise and the capacities of her mill in Cornwall took over. They produced a wonderful, robust aran-weight yarn.

My concern about the project was that the fine wools that some Boreray sheep produce would be obscured by the blending process. Fortunately, there were a number of identifiable fine-wool Boreray fleeces, and Jane and Sue were aware of this potential issue. They kept aside a selection of the finest Borerays for separate processing.

The result is brilliant. Blacker Yarns blended fine Soay (also a wool that requires sorting at a level that often isn't feasible) with the fine Boreray and spun a delicate yet sturdy yarn that is like a fine ganache: the right flavors in the right proportions, so that each enhances the other, in this case spun to the correct weight and with appropriate amounts of both singles and plying twist.

Handspinners, you can do this—if you have the patience to pull it off. Most fiber mills wouldn't even dream of making a small, specialized run like this. Vision + experience = delicious.

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Note 1: Apparently one yarn shop in Edinburgh bought the entire small batch of the St Kilda laceweight. There will be a follow-up run, using Shetland along with Soay and Boreray because there currently isn't enough of the latter wools in the right qualities to do a repeat of the first blend. I'm looking forward to seeing that, too—and grateful for the opportunity to enjoy special, short-run yarns now and then, even with the occasional disappointment of not being able to get more. Because who knows what we'll see in a future year?

Note 2: During the holidays, in fact, while I was traveling, someone wrote me through one electronic channel or other to ask if I could teach a workshop at a festival this year. With all the electronic forums out there, I can't remember which one and a lot of digging hasn't revealed the message. The weekend in question isn't an option, because I'm already booked (in fact, it looks like I'm fully booked for 2013 with a couple of commitments in 2014 already), but it would be nice if I could say so directly to the person who asked! If it was you, please get in touch again. Maybe we can consider 2014.

Note 3: I only teach at between four and six events a year. Getting the details squared away for 2013 has been an extended process because of family emergencies (and now I've come down with a post-holiday bug), but we'll soon have details up on the website at www.drobson.info. As a heads-up for this year, however, I will be teaching at the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival; the Kentucky Sheep & Fiber Festival; and the Wisconsin Sheep & Wool Festival. I'm doing the Explore 4 workshop in Friday Harbor, Washington, in March (full, with a waiting list) and it looks very likely that I'll be doing a similar event on the east coast in the fall.

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2 Responses

  1. Hi Deb,

    Thanks for the link to that chocolate place. I need to check them out. Yes, need!

    Wishing I could buy a skein of that yarn you raved about,
    dina

  2. Pencils to Theo Chocolate to St Kilda yarn–the thread being attentiveness to living thoughtfully and lightly, and making beauty as we go–lovely post! Thanks for the view of the world through your always interesting and informative perspective.

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