Wool Exploration 1 :: North Ronaldsay

Hi friends!  Hope you’ve been enjoying a peaceful and restful holiday.  A few weeks ago, I mentioned I was hoping to take part in Knit British Wool Exploration, and today, I’m ready to talk about my first swatch (not a moment too soon as the deadline for reviews is tomorrow!)

So the breed for January is North Ronaldsay, a primitive sheep that historically came from the island of the same name in the Orkneys.  Due to enclosure on the island, from the 1830s the sheep primarily lived on the coast of the island and evolved to subsist largely on seaweed.  They’re a rare breed, and you can read more about them at the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

First Impressions

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I decided to go for a skein of DK wool from A Yarn from North Ronaldsay a small company that uses wool from the flocks that are on the island, and processes and spins the wool on island as well. I’d never encountered North Ronaldsay yarn before, so when my skein arrived from BritYarn for this month’s exploring, I didn’t know what to expect.  As soon as I opened the package, I could actually smell the gentle, sheepy fragrance of the wool, even though the skein was wrapped in paper. I love a good, sheepy smelling wool, and this skein had a strong but delicate eau de sheep.  The “hand-squish-grab” of the wool surprised me.  Having no experience of the wool, I expected something crisp, maybe similar to Shetland wool.  Instead, I found a yarn that was quite smooth to the touch — it felt simultaneously rustic (in a positive way) and almost silky.  North Ronaldsay, like Shetland sheep, have outer, guard hairs which are coarser than their inner coat. I could see a few of the silver-y guard hairs poking out from the woollen-spun yarn, but they didn’t feel irritating on my skin at all in hand — longer guard hairs, I also found, could be easily freed from the yarn with a gentle tug, as could the small bits of vegetable matter I found in the yarn while winding it into a ball.  My first impression of the yarn in skein was that it would drape beautifully in simple lace.

For my swatch, I cast on 64 stitches and decided to begin with a bit of garter and stockinette on a US size 4/3.5 mm needle.  It knit up into remarkably even stitches, and I loved the creamy feel of the yarn in hand as I knit with it.  After working a bit in stockinette, I decided to start bringing in some lace — the yarn, to me, seemed to be calling out for a bit of Old Shell.  I worked an initial repeat of Old Shell pattern (after reading Northern Lace’s helpful post on the subject) on US 4s, and then carried on with a bit more stockinette, before switching to US 6s/4 mm to work a larger section of Old Shell — you can see how much more open the lace is with the slightly larger needle!

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The finished swatch measured 10.5 inches over 60 stitches of stockinette.  I was really impressed with the swatch’s elasticity — an individual strand of the yarn, I had found, did not have tons of sproing, but knit up into a swatch there was tons of horizontal elasticity, and a decent, but smaller amount, of vertical elasticity.  (I made a little video of this, but sadly realized that WordPress won’t let me upload it — hopefully I can put it on Instagram later today or tomorrow!)

Wash, Block, Wear Test 1

I blocked the finished swatch in tepid water with a small amount of Soak wool wash.  Because I was doing all of this in the hubbub leading up to Christmas, I forgot that I’d put the swatch in its little basin, so it probably soaked for at least an hour, possibly two. After its soak, I gently squeezed out what water I could, and rolled the swatch up in a towel to absorb excess moisture.  Again, I forgot about the swatch in the midst of cooking and wrapping, but returned to it maybe after half an hour and put it out to dry on a Knitter’s Block.  I decided against pinning the swatch out and instead simply smoothed the fabric out, making sure the lace looked relatively open.  The swatch dried quickly and, on measuring, I found that my 60 stitches of stockinette still measured 10.5 inches. The lace had opened up nicely (and might do more with pinning).  The swatch still felt soft and drapey to the touch, but maybe slightly less creamy than the unblocked swatch.  And I noticed that it seemed that, during its soak and dry, more of the guard hairs had come out to the surface. I’m not sure if that makes sense, and it might be the fault of my pre-blocking observations, but I noticed more of a halo of small, silver and light brown hairs poking through.

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I wore the swatch as I continued Christmas preparations on and off for two days, tucking it in the front of my shirt under my bra strap, in my waste band, and, my favorite, tucked into the back of my shirt, like a little wool cape (I’m a wool explorer and I’m here to help!).  I found the swatch virtually unnoticeable at the waist band.  Tucked into the front of my shirt, I did initially noticed the wool against my skin, but as I went about cooking or tidying, I forgot it was there.  On my back, I did notice some slight prickling that borderline bothered me, but even there, I eventually noticed it much less the longer I wore it.

Watch, Block, Wear Test 2

I blocked the swatch in the same way for my second swatch road test — in an ideal world, maybe I would have pinned it out, but alas, lots has been going on and I didn’t think I’d even squeeze a second blocking in.  The swatch measured the same on second blocking and I found any slight prickle even less noticeable as I wore the swatch around for a second time.

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This time, I also tried to distress the fabric.  Vigorous rubbing failed to produce any pilling.  A few longer guard hairs seem to have worked their way out of the fabric, but they are easily removed.  I noticed that, even after being worn in various places and crumpled in various ways, the swatch has held it’s shape very well and doesn’t seem to wrinkle, which I think bodes well for it being made into a shawl or even a cardi. And the elasticity I observed in the unblocked swatch is definitely still there — even with a long hard horizontal stretch, the swatch springs back into it’s original shape.

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Final Assessment

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I think this yarn would produce beautiful, durable knitted items that would stand the test of time.  I like it very much for simple lace, though I might avoid overly complex lace as the slight halo might obscure the pattern, and I think lace patterns could be worked on even larger needles than I used for a more dramatic effect.  It’s delightfully squishy in garter stitch, and produces nice, even stockinette stitches.  The drape of the yarn and its suitability for simple lace make a lovely hap an obvious candidate for this wool, or it’s 4-ply counterpart. I would want to do more swatching to see what it looked like in cables or texture before I committed to a project that involved those — my sense is texture might not pop in this yarn, but I might be mistaken.

I personally wouldn’t shy away from using this yarn for garments.  While I noticed a slight prickle on my back during the first wear test, that reduced considerably as I wore the wool and on a second wash. While I might not make a next to the skin camisole out of this, the whole time I was knitting it I kept imagining it as a cardigan with a bit of lace. I think it would hold it’s shape beautifully and be a garment that would last for years and age beautifully. I can imaging remaking my much loved, but immediately pilled, Newsom Cardigan, by Bristol Ivy, in this or think it could shine in the lace yoke and stockinette body of a Scollay Cardigan. I enjoyed the swatch so much that I kept thinking how nice it’d be to convert the feel of it into a cardi with an Old Shell yoke.  This is definitely a yarn I’d like to return to for a larger project when I’ve crossed some already-planned projects off the list.

I got my lovely skein from Isla at BritYarn, who’s currently sold out of the yarn but has more on order. I was also lucky enough to see a range of the natural shades and weights that A Yarn From North Ronaldsay offers at Be Inspired during my Edinburgh yarn crawl.  All of the natural shades are really beautiful — I love the warm chocolate of my swatch, and would be tempted to get more of that, but the lighter oatmeal shades were delightful as well.



12 thoughts on “Wool Exploration 1 :: North Ronaldsay”

  1. What a wonderfully informative post, Katherine! Thank you!! I loved all hearing about all the different tests you performed and seeing the close-up pics. Can’t wait for the next one like this. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved reading about this yarn and your perspective on it. It sounds like you put a lot of thought into how it wears, as well as what stitches look best with the yarn. I can’t wait to see what you eventually make with it and look forward to your next yarn.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a super post! I’m really intrigued by this yarn. I’ve heard of these sheep before but never imagined they could produce such a soft fleece. I’ll definitely be stalking Isla to check when she gets dome more of this in stock. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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