A life less woolly
Earlier this year, Rachel Atkinson launched the Daughter of a Shepherd yarn brand. Six months on and after rave reviews for the yarn, she’s looking forward to some new and exciting next steps.
For issue 5 of the magazine we knit up a swatch of Rachel’s second release of Daughter of a Shepherd yarn, which is made of 75% Hebridean and 25% Zwartbles wool. However, on reflection, because we loved Rachel’s story so much we wanted to chat with her and find out more about the Daughter of a Shepherd journey so we decided to dedicate a blog post to Rachel and her story.
But first things first, we loved the yarn. When we opened the envelope containing the sample Rachel sent us we were hit by the beautiful smell. It’s difficult to put it into words but it smelled of sheep, fields and sunlight. It’s a wonderfully dark chocolately shade with a fabulous bounce to it. And it’s so soft with a luxurious feel. The wonderful thing about wool like this is the story of its origins. We know exactly where it came from and that’s becoming increasingly important for fibre crafters.
As we said, we loved Rachel’s story so much that we wanted to know more. So we were delighted to catch up with her and ask her some questions.
Has your dad been a shepherd all his life?
Dad started dabbling in shepherding about 38 years ago and came to shepherding by way of his hobby, which was training Border Collies. He needed a few sheep to run the dogs on and it grew from there; gradually his hobby became his full-time occupation and he has now been shepherding for around 15 years.
Is your dad’s flock overwhelmingly Hebridean or does he have other breeds of sheep?
The flock is Hebridean with a handful of Black Welsh Mountain ewes who are very similar in colour to the Hebridean’s but tend to have a round frame.
You posted a photo of you as a young girl walking a lamb on a lead, an iteration of which became your logo. Were you immersed in the world of sheep from a young age, and if so, what influences did it have on your life?
For as long as I can remember there have been sheep in my life. Weekends were spent in the fields with the flock or travelling around going to sheepdog trials, and lambing season would bring sheep to the back garden as we looked after orphans. All of this made me very aware of the changes in seasons and I love spotting flora and fauna when out and about. I spent a long time living in London and love city life but I always feel very at home out in the fields and as my Daughter of a Shepherd yarn journey has developed I realise just how much I took in and learnt in childhood and how important that knowledge now is.
Were you always aware of wool and the process of where it comes from? Did you learn to knit as a child?
My Mum knits and crochets so I have always connected the sheep to wool and yarn but I was never fully aware of the spinning process, which is something I had to learn a lot about in a very short space of time when I decided to spin the Hebridean fleece. Like so many knitters and crocheters, it was Mum and Grandma who taught me how to knit, which I did obsessively into my early teens. I then rested the needles and hooks, headed off to Central Saint Martins where I studied ladies fashion, favouring woven fabric over knitwear, before picking up the needle again about 8 years ago during a long illness and now can’t imagine life without yarn in it.
Where did your own yarn journey begin?
Dad received a cheque from the British Wool Board for 94 pence, which represented 10% of the total he would eventually receive for the 2014 clip. The flock was 300 strong at that point so it set a value of 3 pence on each fleece. He was so disheartened that he decided not to send the 2015 clip and it was sat in a barn with the odd fleece being pulled out to wrap around a tree for protection. As a knitter I got to thinking that this beautiful raw material must be worth more and so the journey began.
The brand happened by accident really – what I thought would be a one-off experiment to see if we could produce a viable yarn soon became Daughter of a Shepherd as the project gathered so much support from around the international yarn-loving community.
Do you favour knitting with pure wool?
I do and always have. I don’t think you can beat a good woollen yarn – always such a pleasure to knit and wear. I do have a soft spot for mohair though and regularly use cotton and linen for crochet.
Do you think the knitting world has changed and become more conscious of the origins of the yarn we knit with?
Very much so. Just like food and fashion, I think people want to know where the yarn they are using has come from. I know ‘traceability’ is a bit of a buzz-word at the moment but there’s nothing wrong with questioning where something comes from. With Daughter of a Shepherd yarn, I know each step the yarn has taken from field to final product and I list all these details on the labels. It has also been really important to me that the knitting community feel involved in the project, not only as a thank you for all the support but also by way of education and spreading the woolly word!
You launched your brand to great success at this year’s Edinburgh Yarn Festival. In your blog post you say how overwhelming the experience was, have you come down from cloud nine since then or is your experience continuing to excite?
I don’t think I have and it has been a non-stop, amazing rollercoaster ride since then. I’ve loved every single minute – even the terrifying sleepless nights having invested all my savings in a project I wasn’t even sure would work. Thankfully it did!
Have you had any one highlight this past year?
There have been so many but seeing the finished yarn for the first time just 10 days before launch at Edinburgh was incredible. There were tears of joy and dancing around the front room followed by a glass of bubbly! It really was a life-changing moment.
You released a second yarn (Hebridean and Zwartbles blend) in May – what’s been the reaction?
The Hebridean & Zwartbles blend came about due to the shorter than expected staple length of the Hebridean fleeces which caused the mill some grief when spinning. The Zwartbles has a longer staple and gives the Heb something to cling onto in the spinning. It has brought a lovely bounce to the Hebridean but hasn’t affected the beautiful dark colour or the infamous sheepy smell of my yarn. I can only just tell the 100% Hebridean and the blend apart, and while the first pure batch will always be very special to me, the blend is a wool of my dreams and I adore working with it.
If you would like to find out more about Rachel and the Daughter of a Shepherd yarn you can visit her website.
Images © Rachel Atkinson and used here with permission with the exception of the image of Rachel Atkinson which is © Jeni Reid
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