The Outer Hebrides may be better known as the home of legends Harris Tweed and Alice Starmore. But now you can add the island of Grimsay to that list. Connected by causeway to North Uist, Grimsay is home to the new Uist Mill and Wool Centre, opened in 2016 with the intention of boosting the industry and economic viability of the Outer Hebrides.
Uist’s last spinning mill had closed in 1965. While plenty of sheep were still being raised on the island, their fleeces were being buried or burned for lack of a fair market. In 2008, a wool development group was formed to determine the feasibility of a mill on the island. A visit from one of the founders of Vermont’s Green Mountain Spinnery was so encouraging that plans were set in motion.
Four years later, a mill building was finally built and restored equipment brought in from Scotland and Yorkshire. As a nice community touch (or perhaps recognizing that it was in their best interest to have a mill that knew how to spin good yarn), local sheep farmers donated “learner” fleeces for the mill crew. Finally, in 2016, Uist Wool began spinning yarn commercially.
You know how they say you shouldn’t go to a restaurant on opening night? I’ve waited to explore Uist Wool for the same reason. Mills take time to get up and running properly. With a year of solid production experience behind them, I was excited finally to see what they’re up to. I ordered four skeins from the Uist Wool website. They very kindly sent me two more so I could get a better sense of how they’re progressing as a mill. (Quick verdict? Remarkably well.)
Show Me the Yarn
Part of the beauty of this mill is that, while it isn’t technically a mini-mill, it is set up to spin smaller quantities. This allows them greater agility in their experimentation as well as in being able to take commissions from others in the region.
They currently offer seven “core collection” yarns as well as a good number of what they call “special knit ranges” (i.e. all those fun experiments).
Although the nature of the blends is unique, I should note that you can find similar styles of yarn elsewhere. (Garthenor has superb Shetland, Ryeland, and Hebridean yarns, for example.) What really makes Uist Wool special is the fact that each skein is helping bring sustainable industry to the Outer Hebrides. And I’m not just talking about the jobs at the mill, but all the sheep farmers who now have a viable market for their fleece. When sheep farmers get paid fairly for their wool, they tend to grow more of it, which benefits us all.
They say wine has terroir, and so do these yarns. Just as you won’t find mangoes growing wild in Maine, you won’t find any pure Merino here. The breeds on offer are a direct reflection on the geography and history of the island itself. These yarns are from spunky breeds like Cheviot, Hebridean, Jacob, Texel, Zwartbles, Ryeland, and Shetland, all of which thrive on the island. The yarn is so local, they can even tell you the name of the person who raised and sheared the sheep.
Wool geeks take note, the website and yarn labels don’t yet list the different breeds in each skein by percentage. Only the breed names are given. Likewise, the labels don’t list gauge or recommended needle size, just a general weight range (DK or Aran, for example).
I started with my personal favorite: Sìth. It’s the perfect balance of substance and airiness, heft and halo. This DK-weight two-ply is a blend of Cheviot and Hebridean.
A wild card among the lighter wool blends, this rather dense super-chunky three-ply is a blend of Cheviot and Shetland with, surprise surprise, a dusting of mohair.
A true marled yarn, this bulky creation combines a thick strand of dark brown Zwartbles and a fine white strand of Cheviot for a distinctly salt-and-pepper look that’s accented by the difference in thickness of each ply.
A sturdy and supremely well-balanced three-ply, this aran-weight base is a solid blend of Cheviot and Zwartbles.
I know I said you wouldn’t find any Merino here, but that’s only half true. This tightly twisted tweedy two-ply is made from natural colors of Scottish Merino—a breed developed by crossing Saxon Merino with Shetland sheep.
On the softer end of the spectrum, this balanced three-ply combines Shetland and Texel fibers in a yarn that feels sturdy yet airy.
Color is an interesting quality of all the Uist Wool yarns. Everything is as it grew on the sheep. Many of the breeds farmed locally retain the genetics for color, letting the mill produce yarns in a wide range of colors from cream and silver to tan, dark grey, and a rich, chocolate brown.
The mill’s sweet spot seems to be the DK to Aran range, though there are a few lace and bulky yarns too. Construction is two- and three-ply. Skeins are mostly 100g and tend to retail in the £18 to £20 range.
A Pricey Trip?
I’m not going to lie: Shipping to the U.S. is pricey. On a £72.00 order, I was charged £25, or about US$32. Then again, Expedia tells me that a flight from Portland, Maine, to Benbecula, Scotland, would run me about $2,000 and take 24 hours out, 36 hours back.
But with a quick click and a much smaller chunk of change, I can bring the very wooly essence of the Outer Hebrides to my doorstep and help revitalize an island economy in the process. Which is my kind of yarn.