Three skeins of Black Water Abbey Yarns
Black Water Abbey Yarns once knitted up
click each image to enlarge

Yarn Profile: Black Water Abbey Yarns

First Impressions
It's time to create a "heritage yarn" classification. The notion of "heritage" anything, whether animal breed or seed variety, is best appreciated through a different, sometimes more forgiving lens. More forgiving in that these items haven't been pureed and homogenized and airbrushed and focus-group-tested into what we expect today. They are a carefully preserved example of something that has served us well for a long, long time.

For years, Black Water Abbey Yarns has been tirelessly bringing authentic Irish yarn to North American knitters. This isn't the generic stuff you can get at any corner big-box store. No, it's a vivid reflection of the unique place and culture from which it comes: strong, warm, spunky, and resilient.

Black Water Abbey Yarns come in worsted, sport, and fingering weights. This review focuses on the worsted-weight yarn, though all weights share fundamental behavioral similarities.

Knitting Up
The yarn feels tightly spun, almost ropelike—which is unusual for a woolen-spun yarn. Once I started knitting, I could feel the lightness and elasticity come through. The yarn held my hand and moved easily with my fingers, letting me work it in knits and purls without problems.

At first, something felt slightly off-kilter, like when you change from one pair of prescription glasses to another. This is my prompt to check the twist, which you do by holding a strand vertically. Do the yarn's plies twist from upper left to bottom right, as if you'd superimposed the letter S across the middle? Or do they twist in the opposite direction, upper right to bottom left, as if the letter Z had been superimposed instead?

While the vast majority of yarns we use have been plied in the S direction, this one was plied in the Z direction. For most knitters, this won't make a bit of difference beyond that initial "huh?" sensation. The plies in this woolen-spun yarn adhere to one another so well that they never came truly unspun. I did snag one strand by mistake—twice, in fact—but I'd like to blame operator error. I was distracted by the yarn's subtle but intoxicating spicy scent of lanolin and spinning oil.

My stitches looked even, although the yarn still felt tight in the swatch. I knew a bath would help.

Blocking / Washing

Unwashed at left, washed at right
Woolen-spun yarns transform in the wash, and I was eager to get to the washing so I could see just what changes occur here.

My swatch relaxed immediately in its warm soapy water, releasing a faint milky poof. Immediately I could feel the firm stitches relax. My swatch rinsed clear and blocked to perfect shape, revealing an equally perfect and cohesive come-hither bloom along the entire surface.

There was no change in stitch or row gauge.

Wearing
Woolen-spun yarns tend to wear thin more quickly than worsted-spun ones, for the simple reason that they have shorter fibers and more loose ends to protrude and engage with others as pills. But the other factor of wearability has to do with the constitution of the fibers themselves.

Here, the greater fiber diameter means greater strength. Strengths means the fibers are less likely to break during carding and spinning, meaning fewer super-short fibers that will want to pill. On the strand, I had to give a hearty tug before the yarn broke. In the garment, my swatch softened and blurred but I finally gave up on producing pills. I still wouldn't trust this for socks, but for general-purpose garments, it produces a cohesive and strong fabric.

From a touch perspective, ah, that's where Black Water Abbey has been paddling upstream. To say it's not soft is to criticize roasted almonds for not being as smooth as almond butter. They're different beasts that should be appreciated for their individual qualities. So it's rough. Wear a turtleneck underneath. Problem solved. I should also note that the fabric does lose some of its edge in that first wash.

Conclusion
For a while, every news article about knitting needed to mention (usually in the first or second paragraph) how today's knitting is nothing like that of our grandmothers. Part of this might be true, the part where many of those grandmothers and great grandmothers had to knit, some just to keep their families warm, others to keep their families fed.

But to renounce our forebears out of hand would be rude. We would be renouncing the very hands that kept our tradition alive and innovated new techniques on which we rely today. And what about all the institutions striving to uphold the very heritage of those grandmothers and grandfathers, the people who raise the sheep and maintain the equipment that still produces yarns like they did "in the good old days?" Are they to be ditched too?

Yarn, just like food, used to be a far more local creation. Someone raised sheep, and the fleece went to a mill in the next village to be processed and spun into yarn. We went to our local shop, picked the number of skeins we needed, and took them home to make garments.

We've made significant advances in the last 100 years, and I'm certainly not suggesting we go backwards. But some things, some small, simple things, like the heirloom tomato, the decades-old balsamic vinegar, or the rich skein of Irish yarn, they represent living museums while providing palpable pleasure today.

This is an honest, gorgeous yarn. It makes sweaters that will last. When push comes to shove, when the wind is howling and the rain has begun to fall, you'll be grateful for the protection of a good, solid Irish yarn.