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A skein of Stansborough
Stansborough knit up
click each image to enlarge
Yarn Profile:
Stansborough Grey

First Impressions
Once upon a time there lived a hearty flock of sheep on the Island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. Over the years the flock evolved into a breed of sheep fittingly called Gotland (also sometimes called Gotland Pelt, Swedish Pelt, or Swedish Fur).

These medium-sized animals have black fleeces at birth, but, as they age, their coat will often turn grey. Gotland fiber is nowhere near as soft and springy as Merino or other fine wools, instead enjoying a smooth lustrous appearance and open wavy ringlet curls that many spinners, weavers, and textile workers find appealing.

In the 1980s, Gotland sheep were brought to New Zealand and officially released from quarantine in 1990. Soon afterwards, Barry and Cheryl Eldridge purchased the Stansborough Farm and began breeding their own flock of Gotlands.

But that wasn't the end. After more than a decade of extremely selective and patient breeding (which means many families may have feasted on the unfortunate Gotland lamb rejects), the Eldridges have developed a 1,000-sheep flock of their own that is sufficiently distinct from Gotlands to merit its own breed name: Stansborough Grey.

The real turning point came when costume designers for the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy noticed a display of Stansborough Grey fiber in New York City. They knew they had found the special material for their Magic Elven Cloaks and costumes for several other characters.

For a while, avid film buffs could purchase "official" Lord of the Rings cloaks of their own through the Stansborough online store. Much more recently, however, the farm has begun to offer Stansborough Grey yarn—which opens up entirely new realms of creative possibilities for knitters who happen to be avid Tolkien fans.

This yarn will eventually be available in three colors. (I am eternally grateful to Vicki for parting with one of her cherished skeins for this review.)

Knitting Up
On the skein, this yarn wasn't all that inspiring to me. It felt rough and lifeless, without any spring or vitality. Sometimes this is a sign of poor processing or poor fibers, but in this case my hands suspected that it was simply residual oil in the fibers, and that once I washed my swatches all would be well. I was eager to test my theory, because it would make or break the yarn for me.

Stansborough Grey yarn is composed of four fine plies that are stranded together at a medium twist angle—not too tight, not too loose. Because the wool and angora fibers have no significant elasticity or "give," I sometimes could see minor discrepancies in my tension within the finished swatch. Hoping the yarn would bloom in the wash and conceal these flubs, I kept going.

Several times, my sharp-tipped needles snagged only three of the four plies, leaving one fine single ply hanging sadly in its wake. Switching to duller-tipped needles definitely helped. Otherwise, the yarn behaved well, holding onto my hands so that I could maintain (mostly) even tension and a decent knitting pace.

Blocking / Washing
And now the good news: It was oil! And perhaps a little lanolin, if the sheepy scent of my wet swatches was any indication. The swatches washed easily and beautifully, leaving a faint yellowy/milky hue to the wash water. Because the yarn itself is undyed, I knew for sure that this was the offending substance and, best of all, it was gone from my swatches.

The swatches dried quickly and revealed themselves as slightly lighter, fuller, happier pieces of fabric. It's still a fairly hearty wool, but nothing like what you feel in the skein. (Here's a close-up of the yarn before washing [top] and after washing [bottom].)

Wearing
Despite the presence of 20% angora, Stansborough Grey is still a tad too hearty for scarf yarn, at least where my own neck is concerned. Likewise, I'd be cautious about socks or mittens, mostly from a comfort perspective. Also, we tend to want more elastic fibers for socks and other form-fitting items, whereas these fibers are more relaxed with a better drape.

This yarn would, however, make a lovely hat or any type of accessory, especially felted ones. Gotland felts readily, which leads me to suspect that Stansborough Grey would as well—aided by a lovely halo that felted angora would add.

But really, the yarn would be perfect for...you guessed it...a knitted cloak. Or any rugged, warm, well-wearing outer layer—a sweater, a jacket, a cape or capelet, you name it. You could either work with the natural, heathered hues or you could overdye the yarn to create different colors. The effect of overdyeing grey and naturally heathered yarns can be stunning.

Conclusion

I do have one small peeve. This yarn is being clearly marketed as, and I quote, "One of the rarest fibres in the world!" Stansborough Grey is rare only because this farm has created the breed and controls the flock.

It's not an issue of the fiber having the exceptional heart-stopping rarity of, say, guanaco or vicuņa. Fortunately the exuberant marketing claims are compensated by the reasonable price of NZ $11 (approximately US $8) per 110-yard skein. Shipping costs to North America are staggered based on weight, and overall they are very reasonable considering the distance your package has to travel.

Having said that, I really can't imagine a more marvelous gift for any knitting fan of The Lord of The Rings trilogy—or fans of the Disney film version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, for whom they also provided several woven and overdyed costume pieces using these same fibers.

But most of all, I can imagine the pickiest and poutiest teens suddenly taking unprecedented interest in handknits when they discover the heritage of what they're wearing. Perhaps it'll even inspire them to take up the needles themselves.

 

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