Reaching for the Stars
Like many businesses in this Covid-era, indie dyer Pirate Purl Yarns is no exception and has faced critical product supply issues. Given the yarn bases are all purchased directly from Australian farms, it came as quite a shock when delivery slated for late 2021 didn’t arrive. Things got trickier when by February 2022 it still hadn’t arrived, leaving me wondering if I would need to suspend internet sales and withdraw from fibre events and bookings for the rest of the year. Things were looking dire. For a business built around supporting Australian primary producers, the alternative of buying yarn from a bulk distributor with unknown provenance was simply not an option.
During a frank conversation with good friend Clare Thornley of Fibre Arts Shed on NSW’s Central Coast the idea bubbled to the surface to have another attempt at producing a new yarn from scratch. In theory it was possible, after all Clare and husband Paul had successfully crowd-funded the extension of their shed in 2021 to house a new-to-them mini-mill. Next up, we would need to quickly source high quality fibre in volume.
Through the process of crowd-funding for the mini-mill, Clare had met and worked with Lynda Jennings and Paul Lindfield who have a property at Taralga NSW and a small flock of coloured Corriedale sheep. Clare had found their fibre easy to work with and thought it would be worth reaching out to ask if Lynda had some suitable fibre available and after a brief chat with Lynda about what I was hoping to achieve, we agreed to meet the following day when I would be travelling along the east coast in a rental van full of treasured mid-century furniture I was delivering to a new residence in the bush capital of Australia.
Now this was early March. You may recall Australia’s east coast was suffering another of its devastating low pressure weather systems which bought with it intense rainfall, flash flooding, damaging winds and general devastation for farming families who had already faced similar conditions in 2021. We were juggling renovation and work pressures as we travelled through this weather system and wondering if it really was worth all the additional stress.
Upon arrival at Linda and Paul’s property my husband and I were swiftly ushered inside the homestead out of the alpine winds and driving rain. We were promptly revived with a strong brew and a biscuit before heading back out to the sheds to assess the fleeces. As the roller door rattled upwards, I wondered briefly if I knew enough to be making a good assessment of what I was looking at and decided my hands would be the best judge of things.
As Linda unfurled each fleece, my fingers twitched to dive into each frothy mound and make assessment of the handle, the staple length, and crimp. Meanwhile my eyes were treated to many colours. Fleeces ranged from caramel right through to dark brown and I was looking for a good mix of all of them. In a short space of time, I had settled on fleeces from Boris, Corey, Jason, Noelene, Garage and Spidey. In the interests of expediency, we hit the road leaving Lynda and Paul time to weigh up the fleeces I had selected and prepare them for transport.
Two days later I returned, the rental van now empty. When I arrived back at the farm rain was lashing and excessive rainfall had created minor flooding issues for Lynda and Paul around their property. Together we swiftly packed the fleeces in the van and thirty minutes later I was back out on the highway fully mindful of the flood warnings in place for the Hawkesbury River and hoping to get safely north of Sydney where the storm cell was the worst.
After a somewhat treacherous three-and-a-half-hour drive, it was with significant relief that I pulled off the highway and into the driveway at Fibre Arts Shed in Jilliby on NSW’s Central Coast. Here I was helped by Clare and Paul to unload the van and quickly sort the fibre into the separate colour batches we planned to spin.
Yarn production happened across several weeks, and I was delighted when Mill Manager, Paul invited me to participate in each step of the process, starting with washing the fibre. Australia no longer has a wool scour for black or coloured fleeces, which means each of these fleeces had to be washed by hand. Handwashing at scale means you can’t remove as much of the lanolin as when fibre is commercially scoured and goes through the carbonisation process. Carbonising is a chemical process which removes the grease and vegetable matter from wool. The remaining amount of grease in the fibre can also create headaches for the mill machinery.
Blending, opening, picking, carding, spinning followed and in each step, there was scope for operator error, meaning I was kept well on my toes, being consistent in my actions and making sure I worked at the same speed as the equipment. Any tiny errors or adjustments during these steps had a direct impact on the quality of yarn that would be created. During the processing Clare and Paul’s youngest son Desmond, even popped in after school to offer an encouraging word or lend a hand.
This new yarn base, Starward, is a 3-strand 8 ply woollen-spun yarn with 200m to 100gms. It is light and lofty and blooms nicely after washing. I am currently knitting some into a colourwork jumper. Besides the obvious differences in construction this yarn performs quite nicely alongside worsted-spun 8 plys and comes highly recommended for those looking for a home-grown and processed chemical free option.
The process of developing a new yarn base hasn’t been without its difficulties and frustrations. It has required resolve, determination, and negotiation for each of the parties involved. Onshore production costs of a small batch product like Starward are double what you might expect to pay for a wholesale imported blank yarn. Australian production costs are higher because we pay workers a minimum wage and it is important to consider this fact when as informed consumers, we consider how we spend our yarn budget.
I hope when you work with this yarn it brings a smile to your face to remember the relationships that were formed in its creation. The collaboration required between farmer, mill and dyer. Lynda, Clare, the two Pauls and I hope that you remember us and the passion we poured into creating this yarn for you.