It seemed so far-fetched, flying all the way to Scotland for just four days. But something was happening in Edinburgh, something that had all the hallmarks of greatness—and I wanted to be there and witness it.
The Edinburgh Yarn Festival began last year as a one-day event in a small venue close to the center of town. It was such a success, the market so crowded, Ysolda Teague told me she never even saw who was vending across the room from her.
Emboldened by that success, the event organizers Jo and Mica took the leap and made this a two-day event in 2015. They relocated it to the historic Edinburgh Corn Exchange, located about 20 minutes west of the city center.
They brought in 19 teachers and programmed two full days of morning and afternoon workshops, and they expanded the marketplace to just over 100 vendors—each hand-picked. They added a whole other hall just for gathering, and they made sure everyone would have constant access to tea, coffee, and cakes. Classes sold out, word spread, and by the time I got to the Corn Exchange on Saturday morning, you could barely move in the marketplace.
Not only had they cherry-picked the vendors, but they organized the marketplace so that, at any given moment, your eye fell on something new rather than row upon row of sameness. What follows are some highlights that drew my attention, but make no mistake: This was a huge marketplace, and I missed many great things.
Eden Cottage Yarns caught my eye, partly because of the crowd and partly because of the warm and fruity colors everywhere. Walking into the booth (or shall I say squeezing my way in), I had the feeling of slipping inside a candy jar.
Once inside, I started fondling the skeins and noticed another difference. I saw your standard superwash Merino, but I also spotted more unexpected bases like Bluefaced Leicester, baby alpaca and silk, baby yak and silk, Polwarth, and a surprisingly smooth and cohesive cashmere/silk blend.
I was pleased to see Old Maiden Aunt yarns, which I’d first encountered at the 2010 Knit Nation in London. This exquisite sportweight Corriedale is everything the breed aspires to be, soft and strong with just the right degree of liveliness to carry Old Maiden Aunt’s masterful hand-dyed colorways.
Dyeing the Old-Fashioned Way
Natural dye was also well represented. First was The Border Tart, whose rich indigo-dyed yarns had been quickly picked over by the time I arrived. There were also ethereal batts of indigo-dyed Grey Masham and Shetland wool.
Right next to The Border Tart was another personal favorite, not only for natural dyeing but also for yarn itself, The Skye Shilasdair Shop. They brought a limited selection of their naturally dyed yarns down from their wee shop on the Isle of Skye. The bins of seconds and “oddments” were a particular source of excitement.
Farm to Frock
This is Alice. She raises angora goats on her Northumberland farm. For the last year or so, she’s been transforming their silky locks into an equally silky, lustrous yarn under the Whistlebare label. Adding to the shimmer is the presence of Wensleydale wool, which she buys (“at highly inflated prices” she joked) from her sheep-farmer sons who live nearby. The fibers are then sent to Yorkshire to be worsted-spun before returning to the farm where she hand-dyes them in bright, saturated pastels that reminded me of Brooks Farm Yarn.
Speaking of British wool, Baa Ram Ewe was on hand showcasing their Yorkshire-spun Titus yarn and projects that make the best use of it—including Ella Austin’s adorable Little Fella Kit. While I was in the booth, Verity handed me a most intriguing skein of new yarn that I’ll tell you about when it gets closer to its launch.
But Titus was just the tip of the British wool iceberg. I was in the Knitting Gift Shop booth when I heard the owner begin to tell another woman about the skein she was holding. It was Shetland from the Wadley flock in County Durham, he explained. He’d sent it to Paul at the Halifax Spinning Mill in Yorkshire.
When I picked up a perfect (I do not use that word lightly) skein of fingering-weight Romney, he told me this was a last-minute addition. He’d gone to the mill to pick up yarn for the show, and Paul told him about 200 fleeces he’d just bought from a local farmer and spun on a whim. In case you’re wondering, yes. They do ship internationally.
In the midst of all the color, my eyes found solace in the Yarn Undyed booth. Normally their focus is on providing base yarns for hand-dyers, but at this show they were testing the waters with a new line of kits (called “Knits”) featuring their yarns in a selection of small, approachable, yet interesting projects that were mostly accessories. I was impressed by the quality of the fibers and ingenuity of their spinning, including his choice of the trademarked New Merino fiber from Australia, which pledges to be mulesing-free.
Once I met John (shown here), I understood. A second-generation wool merchant, he grew up accompanying his father on wool and mohair-buying expeditions, including the once-vast warehouses in San Angelo, Texas. Today, he takes great pride in knowing exactly where to go for the best of any particular kind of fiber, as well as which mills (primarily in Italy) are best equipped to spin each different blend properly. Note to hand-dyers: He ships internationally and has no minimum order.
Delving deeper into the realm of British breeds you only hear about in trivia contests (or if your name is Deb Robson), I reached the Black Bat Rare Breed Wool booth. Here were skeins sporting names like Torwen Badgerface, Torddu Badgerface, Whitefaced Woodland, Charollaise and Hebridean Cross, and—gasp—one that boasted a blend of Bluefaced Leicester cross and guanaco. Swatches were carefully labeled and set out on tables to help knitters understand what these breeds could do.
I was happy to see John Arbon Textiles, another of my favorite Knit Nation introductions. John operates a mill in Devon and loves to experiment with different fibers and blends and colors. His Exmoor Sock Yarn (made of 85% Exmoor Blueface and 15% nylon) was getting lots of attention, as was the heavenly organic Merino.
Speaking of mills, the Knockando Woolmill has been in continuous operation in northeast Scotland since 1784—and they brought their woven goods and spun yarns to the show. If you want to know more about this very special place, I urge you to watch the video (and read the story) here. You’ll be booking your ticket for Scotland in no time.
More beautiful handwovens were found in the Laura’s Loom booth. I paused to admire some brightly dyed skeins of Bluefaced Leicester / alpaca and asked Laura where the alpaca came from, suspecting some anonymous broker in Peru.
She pointed to the woman standing next to her, “She raises them.”
Meanwhile, she sources her Bluefaced Leicester fibers from farms in Sedbergh, Dent, Deepdale, Garsdale, Cautley, Hawes, Kirkby Stephen, Malham, Windermere, and Tarbet. (Don’t all those names look nice together?) Tom of Holland and Felicity Ford did a fabulous series of interviews with Laura for Wovember if you’d like to learn more about her work.
Machine-knitted goods were also well-represented. Woollen Flower (above) is the creation of Julia Billings, who has just recently moved to Glasgow from Australia. By the time I reached her booth on Sunday, most of her exquisite colorwork bags and cowls were gone. That and their lack of a credit card machine spared me from spending even more than I already had at the show.
While most vendors were UK-based, some came from farther afield. For example, Swiss hand-dyed company Siidegarte brought baskets of yarn that verified the company motto, “Silky Swiss Gorgeousness.”
These shimmering skeins of masterfully spun silk blends (spun at the same water-powered mill that makes Swiss Mountain Cashmere Silk) are dyed by hand in an array of mouth-watering shades.
In addition to various silk/baby alpaca/SeaCell blends, they also had a surprisingly tactile silk/linen blend that knitters in warmer climates will appreciate.
Not to be outdone by all those handknitters, the Scottish Machine Knitters kept several of us spellbound in this on-the-fly demonstration of how to manipulate stockinette fabric to create the illusion of cables.
You can’t have a knitting event in Ysolda Teague’s hometown and not expect her to join in the party, can you? She shared a grand and gorgeously decorated booth with Stephen West. Not only did she meet me for breakfast when I arrived and share a tasty dinner on my last night, but she even offered up the space for Yarn Whisperer book signings on both days.
I sat beside a beautiful tan sweater for an hour before realizing it was the one she’d knit out of my Clara Yarn CVM. She graciously changed sweaters right there on the show floor so I could take this photograph. Isn’t that a lovely design?
And speaking of designs, Pom Pom Quarterly was at the show with tempting stacks of back issues and racks of garments that have been featured over the magazine’s brief but promising history.
Pom Pom also produces a podcast, fittingly called the Pomcast. So many podcasters were at the show, the organizers had set up a quiet “podcast lounge” complete with a booth where people could record their podcasts.
The booth was busy, so I stepped off the show floor with Lydia (shown here, microphone at the ready) for a brief interview, which may occasionally be interrupted by sounds of milk being foamed by the coffee stand nearby.
[Note: Since this story was published, the podcast has gone live. If you’d like to escape to the sounds of the festival – including that foaming milk at the coffee stand – give it a listen!]
Refreshments were a balm for the standard American convention center-weary soul. A business called Bert’s Coffee Bar operates in one corner of the Corn Exchange. For this event, they set up an extra station inside the marketplace and another one in the festival lounge. In the afternoon, the bar and lounges were both overflowing with really, really good cakes and scones.
On Saturday night, some 200 people gathered in the lounge to hear Felicity Ford (author of Knitsonik Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook) serenade us with her apple-red accordion and tell us the story of how her book came to be.
Next, each table formed its own team and competed in the evening’s pub quiz, overseen by emcees Felicity and Ysolda Teague. But this was no ordinary quiz, all the questions were textiles related and they were hard.
Here we see Stephen West and Malia Mather, the two sides of Amsterdam’s Stephen + Penelope yarn and craft boutique, trying to match yarn snippets with a list of possible names. I was stumped.
Another challenge was to make a sheep using a small bag of supplied materials. Here I excused myself from the table because I’d been asked to judge the competition.
Picture, if you will, a room of 200 knitters, each giddy from a day of yarn fondling, and most having also consumed at least one alcoholic beverage. When the timer buzzed and the sheep were brought to the stage, the results were hilarious. In the end, I had to choose the sincerest of them all, because it said what I’d been feeling all day.
There was a warmth and inclusiveness to the show, a gentle and organic vibe devoid of any hint of clique or melodrama. Take all the warmth in this picture (L to R: Felicity Ford, Tom van Deijnen aka TomOfHolland, Karie Westermann, and Melanie) and multiply it several hundred times.
Many of the large American shows have taken to encouraging people to buy packages of classes, offering greater discounts the more you take.
I’m sure this helps them fill the classes, but it often leads to an empty marketplace for large portions of the day—which hurts vendors.
Here, it turned out that most people registered for just one workshop, leaving them loads of time to peruse the marketplace and hang out in the lounge. Vendors were happy, students relaxed.
I’d like you to meet Jo (left) and Mica (right). All year, they’ve been working to prepare this event. (Jo is wearing a button that says “It’ll Be Fine,” Mica is wearing the greatest necklace of all time.) While there was never a moment when they didn’t seem in total control, this was not “their” event, which is to say it was not, even for a moment, about them. They weren’t promoting a book or magazine or yarn store or company, they were simply intent on producing an outstanding event. Which they have, in spades.
See you there next year?