english girl at home

A Sewing & Knitting Blog, Made in Birmingham, England


Leave a comment

Cornish Tin II & St. Kilda

British yarn maestros Blacker Yarns have two new yarns going on sale today at 10am!

Blacker Yarns Cornish Tin II & St. Kilda Yarns

The first is a range of new colours for Blacker’s St. Kilda lace-weight yarn, hand dyed by Joy of The Knitting Goddess.

Blacker’s St. Kilda yarn contains wool from St Kilda’s (an archipelago which is the remotest part of the British Isles) native Boreray and Soay sheep – two of the oldest and rarest of all British breeds – blended together with Shetland wool.

The St. Kilda yarns aren’t a one-off, but there will be a limited supply annually due to the fact that there’s only a limited amount of Boreray and Soay fleece available. That, coupled with the fact that this range is dyed by hand in small batches, makes this a really unique yarn (and likely to sell out fast).

Blacker kindly sent me a small skein of St. Kilda in the Conachair colourway, and I can report that the dyeing process means the colour has loads of depth – in the photos you can see that there is variation in the colour of my swatch, as opposed to a solid colour. I found the yarn bouncy, easy to work with, and great for showcasing texture and detail.

The range includes ten dyed colours, plus two natural undyed shades, and can be purchased from Blacker Yarns and The Knitting Goddess.

If you’d like to hear more about the yarn, there’s a great interview on episode 66 of the KnitBritish Podcast.

Blacker Yarns Cornish Tin II & St. Kilda Yarns

The second new release is the final batch of Cornish Tin II. This is a one-off, limited edition yarn to celebrate Blacker’s 11th birthday (following the very popular Cornish Tin last year).

The yarn is blended from 100% British fibres from small producers, and contains Alpaca, Portland, Saxon Merino, Gotland, Jacob, Shetland, Black Welsh Mountain, Mohair, and English Merino. The yarn is available in a silver grey, plus seven dyed shades (shown on the left in the photos below) all named after Cornish Tin Mines, and in 4-ply and DK weights.

To accompany the yarn, Blacker have released a gorgeous (free) sock pattern (going straight in my Ravelry queue!), and hat pattern.

Blacker Yarns Cornish Tin II & St. Kilda Yarns

I got my hands on some of the original Cornish Tin yarn last year, which was lovely to knit with, and from what I’ve heard Tin II is even more popular.

Blacker Yarns Cornish Tin II & St. Kilda Yarns

Advertisements


3 Comments

Supporting Independent Businesses / Ernest Wright & Son Kickstarter Campaign

Ernest Wright & Son, Sheffield

Given the referendum results, I think those of us in Britain currently feel awkward posting anything which sounds like it celebrates Britain. In the wake of an isolationist result, we don’t want to look insular or nationalistic.

However, regardless of UK and international politics, it’s important that we celebrate and support our independent businesses, our manufacturing industry (and the jobs it creates), & our artisans and craftspeople.

In fact, the referendum results make it even more vital that we support independent businesses, who are themselves facing a lot of uncertainty and new risks.

I keep in mind how much pressure independent businesses are under, and that it is often a real struggle for small businesses to keep operating, let alone profitably. If we don’t support the independent businesses we care about (with our time & support as well as our money) then they won’t be here.

That’s part of the reason why I’m supporting Ernest Wright & Son’s Kickstarter campaign. The other part is because I fell head over heels for the company when I visited them on behalf of Love Sewing magazine. I’m totally biased, not because I’m sponsored by them in any form, but because I think they’re a lovely bunch who made beautiful products.

P.S. If you’re outside of the UK, maybe take advantage of the current drop in the pound to support their campaign, or purchase a pair of scissors direct.

P.P.S. Have you seen the glorious gold plated scissors Ernest Wright & Son make on behalf of the New Craftsmen.


9 Comments

British Textile History: Birmingham – Leather, Buttons & Thimbles

brit-textiles2
This is the first in a blog series I’m planning exploring the history of textile and related industries in British cities. It’s something I enjoy researching, and I hope you’ll enjoy the blog series. For this first post, I’m writing about my home city, Birmingham. If you can add anything to the info below, do get in touch.

Introduction

Birmingham has been a market town since 1166, when the local Lord, Peter de Birmingham, was granted a royal charter by Henry II to hold a weekly market. By the 14th century, Birmingham appears to have had an establish trade in wool, textiles, and leather working.

Key industries explored in more detail below are leather, button-making, and thimbles. However, Birmingham has had a wider impact on textile industries not explored in detail, such as the 1732 invention, by Lewis Paul and John Wyatt of Birmingham, of roller spinning (a process of spinning cotton into yarn or thread using machinery), and their opening in 1741 of the world’s first cotton mill in Birmingham’s Upper Priory.

Tanning & Leather                

Tanning was one of Birmingham’s first industries in the 14th century. By the 16th century there were at least a dozen tanners operating in Birmingham, and a dedicated leather hall where business was transacted. Evidence of the tanning industry has been found during excavations, with clay and timber lined pits discovered in the city centre at Edgbaston Street, Park Street and Floodgate Street. The pits would have stored lime used to remove hair and fat from hide, or water and tannin for preservation. The Birmingham tanning industry was in decline by the early 19th century, with the leather hall removed and trade restricted to the making of bellows and harnesses.

NOWP&Co have a selection of Leather Goods currently produced in Birmingham. The following video shows these being made:

Buckles and Buttons

Birmingham specialised in the production of small items (hinges, buttons, buckles, hooks, etc.) in a range of materials including metal and glass, which were collectively known in the 18th century as “toys”.

Matthew Boulton, an entrepreneur in the toy industry, described the Birmingham buckle trade to a House of Commons select committee in 1760, estimating that it employed at least 8,000, and generated £300,000 worth of business, with the majority of stock destined for export to Europe.

The buckle trade collapsed in the 18th century as a result of people starting to wear slippers or shoes fastened with strings. In 1791, bucklemakers petitioned the Prince of Wales on behalf of the 20,000 bucklemakers in distress, and the Prince of Wales and Duke of York responded by ordering their own entourage to wear buckles. Further petitions were submitted in 1792 and 1800, and bucklemakers are rumoured to have paraded a donkey, its hooves adorned with laces, to insult wearers of the new fashion.

Although the market for buckles didn’t revive, the button trade flourished in Birmingham in its place. “It would be no easy task”, William Hutton wrote in 1780, “to enumerate the infinite diversity of buttons manufactured here”. In the 1800s there were over one hundred button makers based in the Midlands.

Originally, the button was a by-product of the slaughter-house, with buttons produced from animal hoof and horn. The raw hoof and horn had to be heated and moulded, and then turned and polished by hand. However, the Birmingham button trade was diverse including pearl, shell, metal, cloth-covered, and later plastic, buttons. Shell and pearl were imported for the production of buttons, with so much waste shell produced by the process that pits were dug in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter to bury it. Many buildings today are said to have their foundations built on mother of pearl.

The button trade is one in which the development of assembly line processes and division of labour developed. In the 18th century, it was calculated that each button would pass through fifty pairs of hands, with each individual worker handling up to 1,000 buttons per day. By 1865 machines began to be introduced into the button trade, with the number of workers employed reducing to around 6,000 compared with about 17,000 in 1830, with a large number of women employed. Even after mechanisation was introduced, it took around 14 workers to put together a single button.

Buttons were attached to a piece of card, fourteen buttons on each card, with one worker capable of sewing 3,600 buttons onto cards in one day. Pearl buttons, because of their frailty, continued to be made entirely by hand.

Birmingham led innovation in the button trade; between 1770 – 1800, 21 patents were granted for improvements in the fastening of clothes, with 19 originating in Birmingham, including flexible shanks, and fancy silk, and porcelain buttons.

IMG_4593
James Grove & Sons Horn Buttons

Perhaps the most famous button company in Birmingham, and the longest running, James Grove & Sons was established in 1857 by James Grove, previously apprentice to another leading button maker Thomas Harris. James Grove specialised in uniform buttons, supplying the Ministry of Defence, Post Office, police, railways and both the Confederates and Yankees during the American Civil War (although neither side ever paid). At its height, when every button was made by hand, the firm employed around 600 people, but sadly went into receivership in 2012.

A new Birmingham-based company, Grove Pattern Buttons, was founded in the Jewellery Quarter by an entrepreneur who spotted James Grove & Sons pattern books and dies being sold online following their closure. Unfortunately Grove Pattern Buttons also appears to have closed down.

A number of writers wrote contemporary accounts of the Birmingham button industry, including Charles Dickens, and The Penny Magazine (including illustrations). The Coat Route by Meg Luken Noonan includes a chapter profiling James Grove and Sons. A large number of children were employed in the buttons trade; this website contains records of inspection of their working conditions carried out in the 1800s.

NOW: I don’t believe there are currently any Birmingham-based buttons manufacturers, although vintage buttons are widely available on ebay. A Jewellery Quarter building, dating from  1824, which originally housed William Elliott’s button factory (which specialised in a silk-covered button William Elliott patented) has just reopened as a restaurant and bar called The Button Factory.

UPDATED: Rachel updated me that George Hook, based in Smethwick, whose family have been involved in the trade since 1824, produces pearl buttons and gives talks about pearl button making.

IMG_5530

Thimbles

Another item produced by Birmingham’s “toy” and jewellery industries were thimbles. Initially produced in brass, silver thimbles began to be widely produced in Birmingham following the founding of the Birmingham Assay Office in 1773; founded with the support of industrialist Matthew Boulton, to prevent silver items having to be sent to London for taxing.

In 1769 Richard Ford of Birmingham patented a process known as ‘deep drawing’, which was taken up by thimble manufacturers. Instead of casting in a mould, the process forms the thimble shape from a sheet-metal disc. The process needed less skilled labour, was faster and used less metal.

NOW: I believe thimbles are still being produced in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, and vintage thimbles are widely available on ebay.

P.S. I maintain a list of current British fabric and haberdashery manufacturers, here.


4 Comments

Sheepy Events

Harcourt Rare Breeds

In the last few weeks, I’ve had the chance to take part in a few sheep/wool related events due to being a member of the Birmingham Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers.

Harcourt Rare Breeds

Harcourt Rare Breeds

A couple of weeks ago, I spent Bank Holiday Monday visiting Harcourt Rare Breeds. The Harcourt flock is split over two sites, with one of those sites relatively local to me in Market Bosworth, and the other in Harrogate. The Midlands flock is housed in the ‘back garden’ (fields behind the house) of owner Shaun, so it was very kind of Shaun to welcome some members of our Guild into his home for lunch, and into his garden to meet the sheep.

Harcourt Rare Breeds

Harcourt Rare Breeds

Harcourt Rare Breeds

Suitably enough, to reach Harcourt Rare Breeds we traveled through the parish of Sheepy, which contains the villages of Sheepy Magna and Sheepy Parva. As you can guess from their name, Harcourt specialise in rare breed British sheep, including Border Leicester, which look like overgrown rabbits due to their  upright ears, and Leicester Longwool, which have a beautiful long silky fleece.

Harcourt Rare Breeds

Harcourt Rare Breeds

Harcourt Rare Breeds sell both fleeces and prepared yarn. Since I still haven’t (nearly) finished preparing the last fleece I bought, I instead came away with three skeins of Leicester Longwool yarn. Shaun also gave each of us a goodie bag of fleece! I selected Leicester Longwool fleece, and you can see the before and after shot of the fleece and prepared yarn from the flock below.

Harcourt Rare Breeds

There are quite a few lambs in the flock currently, and one came into the house to visit us to our delight.

Harcourt Rare Breeds

The next outing we had as a Guild was to visit Wooly Week at Sandwell Park Farm. I wasn’t aware of the Farm before but will definitely visit again, it’s located in a restored Victorian farm, with lovely walled kitchen gardens, a tea room, and a number of rare breed animals.

Sandwell Park Farm Woolly Week

Sandwell Park Farm Woolly Week

Shearing demonstrations were taking place throughout the day, and my Guild were attending to demonstrate the process of preparing the fleece to produce yarn. The rare breed animals on the farm include a couple of sheep from a traditional breed (pictured below, the name of which I’ve forgotten) which malts its fleece, rather than requiring shearing.

Sandwell Park Farm Woolly Week

Sandwell Park Farm Woolly Week

Finally, last weekend my Guild ran a Back-to-Back Challenge at Lickey Hills Visitor Centre. My understanding of the history of the Back to Back Challenge, is that the initial inspiration for the challenge is the Newbury Coat. In 1811, in the village of Newbury, a Baronet allegedly made a large bet that a local mill owner could produce a tailored coat in one day. In thirteen hours and ten minutes, those involved sheared a sheep, washed, spun and wove the wool into cloth, the cloth was then scoured and dyed, and finally tailors cut and sewed the cloth into a formal hunting coat. The Baronet sat down to dinner wearing the coat at the end of the day.

Back to Back Challenge Birmingham Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers at Lickey Hills Visitors Centre

The original Newbury Coat challenge celebrated contemporary developments in mill machinery, but in 1992 the Back to Back Challenge was created to raise funds for charity by producing a hand-knit sweater from a fleece in a day (I believe the World Record is less than 5 hours). Official Back to Back Challenge entries need to follow set rules, so our Guild Back to Back challenge was more informal. Rather than starting by shearing a sheep, we started with a local Romney fleece, unwashed but pre-sheared. Participation was open to all interested members of the Guild, with everyone contributing depending on their skills/preference, including carding, spinning, plying, and lots of knitting. My spinning skills are still very basic, so I carded until yarn was available and then mostly knitted.

Back to Back Challenge Birmingham Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers at Lickey Hills Visitors Centre

Back to Back Challenge Birmingham Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers at Lickey Hills Visitors Centre

We didn’t quite complete a full garment during the day (our event took place from roughly 09:30-05:15), but we got very close, with just a little knitting and seaming left to do to complete an adult’s oversized cardigan, from a pattern designed by a member of the Guild.

Back to Back Challenge Birmingham Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers at Lickey Hills Visitors Centre

Back to Back Challenge Birmingham Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers at Lickey Hills Visitors Centre


13 Comments

Pink Wool Clare Coat

Clare Coat, Karusellen Hat, & Cecelia Cowl in Reykjavic, Iceland

Three weeks or so before me and Phil left for a holiday in Reykjavik, New York and Boston, I decided to make myself a warm coat to wear.

I loved the Closet Case Files Clare Coat when it was released and had already bought the pattern, so this was the perfect chance to make it. By the time my fabrics arrived, I was actually down to two weeks before our holiday – with plans to be out of the house for both weekends – so made the coat in short evening sessions over those two weeks. Luckily, the Clare Coat comes together really quickly, but I was still finishing the edge stitching the night before we left. I also attached the press-studs that same night, but obviously wasn’t operating at full capacity since I sewed them all on the wrong way around (meaning they wouldn’t close…) and had to remove and reattach them once in Reykjavik!

Clare Coat

My outer and lining fabrics were both purchased from Herts Specialist Fabrics, who specialise in reproduction fabrics for historical re-enactors. Both fabrics are described as being made in the UK, although I wasn’t able to obtain specifics.

Herts fabrics are very reasonably priced. The pink blanket pure wool cost £19.00 for two metres, and the gold satin I used for the lining cost £15.90 for two metres. Both are 60″ width, and I have enough of each left over for one more project.

As the store focuses on reenactment fabrics you don’t get the same service (in my opinion) as I would expect from a shop specialising in garment sewing. For example, the satin arrived in two cut lengths (without this being made clear in advance), and the wool arrived with some deep creases which I wasn’t able to remove. You can see some of the creases in the wool in my finished coat below – but some were no doubt added by me later! Given their prices and range of UK fabrics I’ll definitely be ordering from them again, but it’s worth knowing in advance.

Clare Coat

Based on a recommendation by Heather Lou in the Clare Coat sewalong, I decided to add a layer of thinsulate as an interlining to ensure my coat kept me suitably warm in Iceland.

I ordered my thinsulate from Point North Profabrics. Two metres plus postage cost just under £30 which I was loath to spend on something that looked like quilt batting, but I still have a reasonable amount left over and it certainly made a difference to the finished coat. We were out and about in some pretty cold weather in Iceland and I never felt cold.

The addition of the thinsulate – along with the thick blanket wool – wasn’t popular with my sewing machine. I think I broke seven needles trying to stitch around the edges of the coat (through all layers). It didn’t help that I was doing this on the night before our holiday and didn’t have time to go slowly.

Clare Coat, Karusellen Hat, & Cecelia Cowl in Reykjavic, Iceland

To me, the cutting-out part of coat and jacket making always feels like it takes longer than the sewing. I also had a lot of pattern pages to stick together, since I couldn’t find a reasonably priced copyshop print option in Birmingham or Coventry (If anyone knows a cheap local option for printing individual patterns do let me know). I was spending a weekend in Cornwall just after my fabrics arrived, and thought it would be the perfect time to get all of my pieces cut out so that I could start sewing once I was back home.

We were travelling to Cornwall on the train and I couldn’t find a bag large enough to fit all of the fabric in, so popped it in a bin bag. It seemed very logical to me, but Phil was NOT impressed at the thought of having to lug an overflowing bin bag of fabric all the way to Cornwall on the train. Obviously the fabric did come with us, and was cut out between strolls on the beach.

Clare Coat, Karusellen Hat, & Cecelia Cowl in Reykjavic, Iceland

Clare Coat, Karusellen Hat, & Cecelia Cowl in Reykjavic, Iceland

Based on the recommended size for my measurements, I graded between a size 2 at the bust, and 6 at the waist and hips. I noticed that other blogged Clare Coats looked quite fitted in the upper body, and was a bit worried about not being able to fit a suitably woolly jumper underneath. As a result (see if you spot the stupid error here), I decided to use a narrower seam allowance to add extra ease; when I got to the point of attaching the collar it didn’t fit, as I’d increased the length of the neckline… Sooo, I unpicked all of the neckline seams and sewed with the recommended seam allowance.

Clare Coat, Karusellen Hat, & Cecelia Cowl in Reykjavic, Iceland

Clare Coat, Karusellen Hat, & Cecelia Cowl in Reykjavic, Iceland

I’m really happy with the fit, and fancy making the pattern again in a less bulky fabric for a smarter look. But given that we’re finally getting some sunny weather, a second Clare will probably need to wait until the Autumn.

These photos were taken in Reykjavik, where my coat was put to good use.

In these photos I’m also wearing a Karusellen hat and Cecelia Cowl.

Clare Coat, Karusellen Hat, & Cecelia Cowl in Reykjavic, Iceland

Clare Coat, Karusellen Hat, & Cecelia Cowl in Reykjavic, Iceland

Clare Coat, Karusellen Hat, & Cecelia Cowl in Reykjavic, Iceland

Clare Coat, Karusellen Hat, & Cecelia Cowl in Reykjavic, Iceland

Clare Coat, Karusellen Hat, & Cecelia Cowl in Reykjavic, Iceland


28 Comments

A Love Story about Scissors

Ernest Wright & Son, Sheffield

The current issue of Love Sewing Magazine (issue 25, on sale now until late April) features my profile of Ernest Wright & Son. The article discusses the company and the steps involved in making their scissors (plus there’s an opportunity to win a pair of dressmaking shears), but I also wanted to talk about my visit here.

Ernest Wright & Son, Sheffield

Ernest Wright & Son, Sheffield

I proposed the article to Love Sewing and – having received a positive response – took a day off work and visited Ernest Wright & Son during January at their Sheffield factory.

If you’re unfamiliar with the company, they have been making scissors in Sheffield since 1902. Sewing/craft is one of the company’s specialisms (the other major one being kitchen scissors).

Ernest Wright & Son, Sheffield

Ernest Wright & Son, Sheffield

The factory has a small shop which is open to the public and is well worth a visit. Not only can you select a pair of their scissors in person, the shop also contains a display about the company’s history, and a window onto the factory floor where you can see the scissors being made.

Due to visiting on behalf of Love Sewing, I had the opportunity to go ‘behind the scenes’ to see the full process of making a pair of their scissors, and meet the team.

Ernest Wright & Son, Sheffield

Ernest Wright & Son, Sheffield

I’ve had the opportunity to visit and interview a few companies recently (mainly on behalf of Seamwork), and absolutely love getting the chance to mooch around factories and see things being made. But very few companies are as welcoming and as generous with their time as Ernest Wright & Son. I knew I was on to a winner when they made me a tea moments after I walked through the door;)

Ernest Wright & Son, Sheffield

Ernest Wright & Son, Sheffield

Despite the fact that I am not a journalist or photographer (my full-time job is as a project manager at a University), the team at Ernest Wright demonstrated the full process of making a pair of scissors for me – including turning on the very noisy ‘rumbler’ and dryer machines which are used to clean and dry scissors, and painting the handles of their dressmaking shears so I could photograph them hanging to dry. (P.S. if you’ve assumed from the images online that the Colours range have coloured plastic handles, they don’t, they are metal handles which are painted by hand).

I left the factory totally in love with this company and their products. Partly, of course, because of the heritage they represent, as a fifth-generation family-owned company  which is one of the last remaining examples of a historically thriving industry. But most of all because of the great people who work there and their enthusiasm for the products they produce.

Ernest Wright & Son, Sheffield

Ernest Wright & Son, Sheffield

As a small independent business, the company face issues around cash-flow and seasonality of demand, as well as wider issues caused by the decline of the local steel industry and competition from cheaper machine-made imports. Given that their products are guaranteed for life, limited repeat business is also an issue for the firm.

If you are able to support the company (from buying their scissors, to following their social media accounts), they are a company who truly appreciate the support. And if you get a chance to visit them in Sheffield or at a craft show (they typically attend the Knitting & Stitching Show, & the Handmade Fair), do, and I suspect you’ll fall for the company too.

For more information see:

Love Sewing Magazine, issue 25

Two short films about the company: The Putter by Shaun Bloodworth, and Disappearing Art for the BBC

Ernest Wright & Son Website

Ernest Wright & Son on Instagram

The factory:

Ernest Wright & Son, Sheffield

Scissor painting in progress:

Ernest Wright & Son, Sheffield

Ernest Wright & Son, Sheffield


3 Comments

Tamar

Blacker Yarns Tamar Yarn

As a British yarn addict, I’m always really excited by the prospect of a new yarn from Blacker Yarns. Not only do they produce lovely yarns, they do so using unusual wools, create unique blends, and support small producers in the UK.

The newest yarn from Blacker, Tamar, is released tomorrow, 03rd February.

Blacker Yarns Tamar Yarn

Tamar contains wool from four British sheep breeds listed as either ‘at risk’ or ‘vulnerable’ by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust: Wensleydale, Teeswater, Cotswold and Black Leicester Longwool. These are all historic breeds, with Cotswold and Leicester Longwool dating back to the 13th and 17th centuries. They are also lustre longwool breeds, meaning the sheep’s fleece has a distinctive appearance and characteristics. If you google any of sheep breeds included in the yarn you’ll get a sense of their fleece – it has a long silky appearance, as opposed to the shorter ‘bouncier’ fleece of a cartoon sheep.

Lustre yarns have the characteristics of being smooth and silky, but can be lean and lack ‘give’. To address this, Tamar also contains 30% Cornish Mule, giving the yarn the ‘bounce’ that we expect from wool.

If you’d like to hear more about the yarn and it’s development, Chapter 112 of the Curious Handmade podcast features a great interview with Sonja at Blacker Yarns.

Blacker Yarns Tamar Yarn

I was sent a sample of Tamar in advance of release in the Lerryn colourway and DK weight. I already had my eye on the Right Angle pattern by Georgia Farrell from the Spring issue of Pom Pom Quarterly, so decided to test knit a swatch of the pattern using Tamar to see if they were a good match.

Blacker Yarns Tamar Yarn

I’m really happy with the result. Tamar has great structure and stitch definition, which showcase the Right Angle design, and it also has a lot of drape, perfect for a short top.

The yarn – and resulting fabric – are silky and shiny, but also feel strong and hard wearing. It has a slight halo, which is just visible in the photos.

Blacker Yarns Tamar Yarn

Tamar comes in DK and 4-ply weights; 15 dyed shades plus two natural shades. Each colourway is named after a tributary of the river Tamar, which gives the yarn its name. The yarn is available direct from Blacker Yarns, and BritYarn will be stocking the 4-ply weight. Blacker have released a selection of free patterns to coincide with the launch of Tamar.

Blacker Yarns Tamar Yarn

I’m definitely going to knit Right Angle using Tamar, I just need to make a decision on which colourway – I’m thinking maybe the turquoise shade, Tresillian.