There are a few things that matter to me when it comes to how I run the business. I occasionally share bits and pieces on the blog.
One of the big things that matters to me in how I do things, is waste. Everything that I do is designed to minimise the amount of stuff that gets thrown away. To me it makes perfect sense, less waste reduces costs, and is better for the environment.
So what do I mean when I talk about reducing waste?
For starters running a business means lots of deliveries arriving with me. If I can, I re-use that packaging. If I can't reuse it then it will be recycled. I bulk order as much as possible to minimise the amount of packaging that arrives with me, and where possible will buy options that are re-fills.
When I dye I try to reduce the amount of plastic that I use. I've yet to develop a satisfactory no-plastic method, but I keep trying. The only paper kitchen roll I use is to test colours, anything that needs wiping up is done using washable towels and cloths. In terms of dyes, I make sure that the dye ends up on the fibre, and stays there. I use professional quality dyes responsibly, next-to-no dye ends up going in to the waste water system.
Our water come from a spring, so I'm also aware of trying to reduce the amount I use in summer. I try to strike a balance between enough to make sure fibre is rinsed well, and avoiding waste. Water for soaking fibre before dyeing is used to water the garden. I also use a biologically friendly, degradable, scentless, detergent.
When I send out orders I try to minimise the amount of packaging that you get. I don't do fancy tissue paper wrapping or pretty stickers. I know that it's probably more pleasurable to open a parcel that feels like a present, but that tissue paper has taken resources to make, and even if you recycle it I still feel it's an unnecessary "extra". Instead I send out fibre in a grip-seal plastic bag. And yes, plastic is less green than paper, but most wasteful of all is having to replace an order that has got damaged in transit due to water or scent damage. The bags I use are good quality and can be re-used for multiple tasks for years.
The mailer bags themselves are made from recycled plastic, and are bio-degradable.
For those same reasons the only "extra" you get in a parcel is a small sample of fibre. I could create lots of lovely branded "stuff" but in our house most of that "stuff" just ends up going straight to the recycling bin. I don't need a pretty postcard, or a bookmark. Minimising extras also reduces my costs, which means you pay less. Yes I can get things printed for minimal cost, but it's amazing how 10p here, and 5p there starts to add up when you work out prices for things. Fancy packaging also takes more time to do, I'd rather devote my limited hours to dyeing, which again means that I can charge less.
Cambrian, not to be confused with Cumbria (home to Woolfest, Herdwick sheep, and English), is an area in the central of Wales. Put bluntly, it's that bit in the middle. The bit that when you look at a map seems rather unpopulated, and doesn't have much by way of roads...
It's been described as the Green Desert of Wales (because of the lack of people and roads, not due to the rainfall!), and if you want to see the stars there's practically no light pollution. What we do have a lot of is sheep... one visitor from the US commented to me that she had no idea just how many sheep she'd see on an almost continual basis.
I've always found it a real shame that I couldn't get more local wool... We don't have a farm ourselves, and whilst I know of ways I could source fleece, and have it processed I could never manage to do it on a scale where it made economic sense.
However, there is now a CIC (Community Interest Company) who are doing just that. They're buying up the fine wool clip from farms in the Cambrian Mountains, and getting it processed in to yarn and combed top. The sheep they're using are known as Mules, a mule in this context is a crossbreed sheep. The upland sheep around here are Welsh Mountains, they're small, hardy, excellent mothers, and do well on the upland areas. However their fleece isn't very fine, and the lambs aren't quick growing, or large enough for the modern meat market. So many farmers use a BFL Ram, and create a cross-breed. This gives the best of both worlds. For our purposes as spinners that means the fleece is much finer, longer, and far more useful for clothing. If you're careful about the fleeces you select, you can easily find fibre that looks like this. I've been in the Newtown Wool Marketing Board sorting depot a couple of times, and this sort of fleece is not unusual.
And the really good part... I now stock the wool top. And it's beautiful.
I will of course be dyeing it in all my usual dyeing styles, but I also wanted to do something that linked the wool back to the landscape. So I've developed 5 colourway packs, called Colours of Cambria. For me, these are the accent colours of home, there's a Pinterest Board with some inspiration images, and the packs.
I need to get some more dyed up for the online shop, but hope to do that this week, when they're available you'll be able to find them here.
We've had a bit of a chat in the Ravelry group recently about using up 100g chunks of fibre, but the nice thing about this wool is that you can also buy it as commercially spun yarn, in lots of colours and in DK and Fingering weight. If you fancy getting some hand dyed yarn then my neighbours Wrigglefingers and Barber Black Sheep stock the base.
I did some speed spinning and knitting to get a sample ready for Woolfest using one of the Colours of Cambria packs, together with 100g of the undyed fibre.
and then turned it in to a Punctuated cowl. It's soft, but has good structure, it won't end up looking pilled and fluffy where it rubs against your coat. It certainly passed the Mum prickle test.
I hope you're going to enjoy working with something that comes from the place I call home...
Yes, you read that right! There will be a Team Hilltop Cloud in this years Spinzilla.
I was talked in to it by the Handspinning News UK team who were pretty keen to get another team based in the UK.
Spinzilla is a global event, similar in many ways to the Tour de Fleece, but where as the Tour is a chilled out, just try to spin every day challenge, Spinzilla is a little more hardcore! This time you do have to record the yardage you spin, and there is an element of friendly competition. It runs from October 3rd- October 9th.
The team itself is made up of 25 spinners, and the only way to sign up is via the Spinzilla website from September 1st. Registration opens at 10am EDT, which I am assured is 3pm UK time. Once the spaces have been filled then that's it, and it's not a process I have any control over, so please don't send me any messages asking to be on the team. The link to register will be here when registration goes live. It costs $10 and all money raised goes to the Needle Arts Mentoring Programme.
I'm not going to be competing directly myself, but I will be cheering you all along, and am being aided by an assistant who is going to be spinning along with you. The team thread on Ravelry can be found here, you're welcome to come and start chatting with us before registration starts. Officially we're based in the UK, but spinners from anywhere in the world are welcome to join us.
As a special Spinzilla celebration I've created a special Bach Pack colour way that I'm calling Shetland. It's roughly based around the colours of the islands, crystal clear sea, stormy skies, moorland grasses, and the red of agricultural buildings.
It's not available yet as I only dyed the first batch today, but here's a little clip of me working through the colour creation. Many Spinzilla spinners choose to use fleece (though not all), so I wanted to create something that was a bit of a break from miles of natural coloured singles. It will be available on the Superfine Shetland base only. This will be a limited edition colour way, but will be available for anyone to buy, you don't have to be a Team Hilltop Cloud team member to get your hands on one. I'll be announcing when they're available via the shop mailing list.
Back in March I set the members of the Hilltop Cloud Ravelry group a challenge. I called it In5pire.
The group has always been focused on sharing what we make, so I wanted to do something to celebrate the 5th anniversary of Hilltop Cloud that was all about sharing, making, and was something that anyone could join in with.
The challenge was to take one of the images I put together on a special Pinterest Board, and to use one of them as the start of a design process. They could create whatever they wanted, but they had to document their progress!
58 people took part, and an amazing 21 got their projects finished by the June deadline. There were art yarns, gradients, lace weight, cabled yarns. Some designed their own patterns, others ventured in to free form knitting and weaving, other used classic pattern drafts.
The one common thread were the set of inspiration images, na that they were all using Hilltop Cloud fibre.
If you have some spare time then it's worth browsing through the thread, or if you just want the shortened version this link just shows posts containing photos. It's well worth looking through.
After a short delay, while I travelled up and down the country teaching, I finally managed to sit down with Jill Shephered aka. wriggglefingers (who rather handily is also a spinning tutor, and used to teach Design in schools).
There were prizes on offer, not for the most technically difficult project, but for the one we felt showed the most evolution, the most problem solving skills, and the most thorough testing and documentation. It was really tough as so many of the entries had done an amazing job.
In the end our winner was this shawl.
It was designed by Anne-Lise. She had already spun her yarn before the challenge started, but the motifs used in the shawl went through a huge number of changes while she settled on the right combination.
From her project notes-
My inspiration is this one, which inspires me because it is both nature and culture, new and ancient, it is still here and at the same time lost to us. I will try to incorporate those thoughts into the design.
April 20, 2016Have been swatching.
Barbara Abbey tells us in her book “Knitting Lace” that she has collected old, as in 1850’es old, knitted lace patterns for a long time, and in this book presents the ones she likes the best. She says many are very old, but she never once mentions her sources. I have found a very nice edge pattern in the book, which is presumably from a very old source. I have no way of finding out. It might be from Weldon’s Practical knitter, or from Miss Lambert’s “Knitting Book”, or it might not. I found a similar, but also quite different edge in Barbara Walker’s treasuries, where it’s called a Portuguese edging.
I swatched both edgings to see if the yarn liked them. They are both garter stitch, and I tried that, and then I tried st st, and the pattern definitely wants to be garter stitch.
None of the patterns were really completely as I wanted them (odd holes and weird beginnings), so I have been spending the day trying to cook up my own version.
I found a nice way that fit the number of rows I needed, but I want to let it rest over night to see if I really like it…
May 10, 2016Swatching the body stitches, I was thinking about other historical evidence in Wales, going further back.
Romans, certainly. Roads and forts. I swatched the “Roman stripe” pattern from Barbara Walker, the yarn liked that a lot. I also swatched two other patterns that looked promising, a brioche stitch and something I thought might look like stone walls, but they didn’t work at all.
Vikings, certainly. Raids and stories… We could let some cablework symbolise the Vikings, and as they would have been using arrows to defend themselves, it fits well with an arrow-and-cable combination. I swatched and found that it would be nicer with a 3-braid than a 2-braid, and I will probably add some purled sts on either side of it to make it stand out better. But the yarn liked it a lot.
So, there we have all the elements, now I can begin knitting!
Of course, things never go smoothly, and it was lovely to see how the design evolved. The finished shawl just spoke to me of Wales, in a way that I can't really put in to words.
I know Anne-Lise is currently working on writing up the design, and I think I will need a version of my own.
I knew it was going to be hard to pick just one winner, so also said that there would be a runner-up prize.
This Rose Quartz inspired a lot of people, but Carrie's interpretation in to weaving was stunning.
Her pattern draft, the manipulation of the silk & kid mohair skeins she spun to match the colouring, the use of a sparkly fibre at the edges, it all makes for a beautiful project.
A few other projects also caught our eye...
There was also a random prize, and it was won by Kate. Her free-form weaving was a really strong contender in the judging, and has definitely inspired me to actually do something with those old pictures frames I'd been saving for just this purpose!
I can't think of a better way to bring the end of my 5th anniversary celebrations to a close. I love what I get to do on a daily basis because I love seeing how my fibres get transformed. Fibre can be beautiful to look at, but until you turn it in to yarn, and then turn that yarn in to stunning, useful objects it's not reached its full potential.
If you joined in the challenge, thank you so much. Even if you didn't finish, thank you for sharing your knowledge. If you didn't join in, do go and read the thread, click through to the project pages, favourite the ones you like, and leave some comments.
Oh, and watch this space... apparently they'd like to do it again in a little while!
Another June, another Woolfest. Shows seem to act as punctuation points in the year. Coming back from Woolfest means the summer really has started, I've made it through the busy spring, and should now get a bit of breathing space to work on new ideas.
Not to sure it will work that way this year. I looked at my diary this morning and it's a tad scary. However I am going to get to see quite a bit of the UK, and will get to pass on some skills to lots of spinners.
Looking back though, here's a post all about Woolfest.
First the packing...
All of this gets stored in a stock room in the caravan, as I dye I label, box up and bag everything. That way there's no nasty last minute surprises when I discover the printer won't work! The day before show set up, that stock room gets transferred to the back of Otis the van. It's always a bit of a tight fit, it's not the stock that causes issues, but more all the things required to display it!
The next morning is the drive up the M6, and the turn left on to the A66, and you get walloped around the face with the beauty of the Lake District. Don't get me wrong, wales is stunning, beautiful, and I wouldn't change it, but those Lakeland fells.... they sort of knock you round the head and make you look at them in awe!
I try to blank the set up part of the day from my mind...
It's several hours of very hard graft. We're at the far end of the auction mart and have a long walk carrying everything that was in the back of that van. It's usually gone 6pm before we're even close to done, and we finish off the fine details in the morning.
At most shows Mum ad I sleep in the back of the van. We don't need luxury, and it's no different to sleeping in a tent, with the added bonus you don't have to put it up after assembling the stall, or take it down before going home. It also means no extra driving to get to and from the venue, and particularly on the final day of a show, every little helps!
The morning is a bit like the calm before the storm...
All the stands are stuffed full of stock, looking neat and tidy. I have no real good pictures of my whole stand this year. We were at the end of the aisle, so the stall is long and narrow, with a gap in the middle!
The clouds were new, because even though this is my 5th Woolfest, and I've advertised in the programme for the past 3 years there were still people who came to the stand, or who I meet at guild meetings, who have no idea Hilltop Cloud exhibits at Woolfest.
The stand starts out stuffed to the gunnels with goodies, as the show goes on there's usually at least 3 stock rearranges. The people who can't make it to the show until later on will often get to spot all sorts of hidden gems that the early birds wouldn't have been able to find.
Shows are wonderful, exhausting, stimulating, energising, inspiring, infuriating all in 1 giant parcel. As a bit of an introvert who works from home I usually end the day wanting nothing more than a square meal and my own bed!
Shows are a lovely opportunity to see customers in person, and to see what they've ben making. This jumper is part of the In5pire Challenge for the 5th birthday celebrations.
There's never enough time in the day though, and I usually spend most of the day trying to help 3 people at once. It's always a challenge, trying to have conversations with everyone, but at the same time knowing that there is usually at least one more person who wants to ask a question, and if you don't answer that question they probably won't make a purchase.
It's not all work though. As stallholders we get to see the show in ways that others don't. Walking past the sheep pens first thing in the morning is a delight, as every single sheep thinks you're bringing breakfast! The Border Leicester Rams had got big boy appetites, and were most upset to discover we weren't the food suppliers!
At the end of a show it's become something of a tradition for me to head over to John Arbons stall. I very kindly relieve him of the need to take some fibre back to his van, and I like to think of it as a treat for those who can't make the show. You get to try out fibres that I can only get from the stand as they're not fibres he normally sells wholesale... He loves it when I make him do maths after 2 days of hard work!
Then we're done... and it's time to dismantle it all. Load it back in to the van, and drive home. We were back by 11pm last night, and I then spent today unpacking. The 2 days of a show have at least 3 days work tacked on either end just to get the stand to the show, the dyeing of course has been weeks of work. No one in this business is afraid of bit of hard work...
Over the Christmas holidays we were chatting as a family about our move to Wales. We were trying to work out how long we'd been living here, and indulging in the usual family disputes about such basic trivia.
Final piece of evidence, perfect for halting a younger brother in his tracks, was the date I opened my Etsy Shop, 25th April 2011.
I then realised that meant Hilltop Cloud turns 5 this year.
5.... 5 whole years of doing this. I still can't quite wrap my head around it.
I started out with a vague idea, spent a chunk of money from my final pay check as a teacher, evolving ever since.
In some ways I feel very lucky to have got to this point. I get to do a job I love, and I make a decent living doing it. Then my inner feminist snaps in to place and tells me to not be so wishy-washy. I work hard, I've developed a lot of skill at what I do, and I'm good at running a business. This didn't all happen by accident!
I've been pretty privileged to have some awesome role models amongst the wool-world. Natalie Fergie from The Yarn Yard patiently answered so many of my questions, and encouraged me to find my own path. Since then I feel lucky that my virtual office is filled with some of the most talented, clever, inspirational business women around. It feels so very good to know that I can be part of a community that supports each other, and want each other to do well.
Since Christmas I've been planning various ways to celebrate. The biggest thing is the In5pire challenge running over on the Ravelry Group. I've always been a big cheerleader for using up fibre, and not letting it sit in stashes spoiling. Right from the beginning I've ben a fan of using images to help inspiration flow (I even teach classes on it now!), and this challenge combines both those elements.
It's unlikely that I'll ever get to meet all my customers, but in threads like this one it feels like we're getting to meet up. It's like a giant spinning guild meeting, or an online version of a spinning retreat. It's a giant party featuring all of our favourite crafts, and it lasts until June!
I also wanted to create something to commemorate the occasion, things that are useful items in their own right, but also beautiful and unique. So there's a very small number of 5th anniversary goodies available to buy if you'd like something to remind you that you've been part of something that's hopefully been about more than selling things.
You lovely people are part of this. Yes you buy things, but I hope our relationship is about more than that. When we all talk, online or at shows, we pass on knowledge, spark new ideas, and have fun.
I'll finish this post in the way I end the club letters.
With great joy and thankfulness,
Yesterday afternoon I had one of those "oops" moments.
I spent the day dyeing the Gradient Club fibre so I could get it sent out before I stopped work for Christmas. All went swimmingly well, but at 11pm last night I had a sudden realisation...
I'd left one last tray of fibre in the oven for another 15 minutes to finish setting the dye... and I'd not taken it out of the oven. When I dashed over to the caravan thankfully there were no flames, but the place was filled with smoke. I turned the oven off, opened the doors and windows, and went back to bed. Everything usually seems better in the cold light of day!
This morning I've gone through all the fibres I store in the caravan. Thankfully it's an awful lot emptier than it would have been during the summer. The only fibre stored in there at the moment is the undyed stock, and the extra blended top for Nordic, Ceilidh and Hiraeth. All of the fibre that's currently for sale online is stored in my house and is perfectly safe, as is the caravan and everything else stored inside it.
Every bag that was partly open has unfortunately picked up the smell of the smoke. It's not a horribly bad smokey smell (think burned hair rather than burning plastic), but is still a bit pongy. If it was high summer I might try airing things out, but it's not, it's winter, and I have nowhere to spread out this much fibre.
The undyed bases will be fine. Before I dye them they're soaked in water, then they're socked in dye stock. Once they're dyed, they're washed in hot water with detergent, before being rinsed again, plus nearly all of those bags were still sealed.
However, I have got a lot of blended top that is perfectly fine to spin, so long as you can put up with a slight smoky aroma, so I'm going to have a Yule Log Sale!
Purely for the educational value, this is what BFL top looks like when you cook it for 7 hours... the water is from the rain we had overnight, inside those sausages of clingfilm was a beautiful carbonised honeycomb.
All the smoke damaged stock is going to be 50% off, which I hope is enough of a discount to entice some of you to give it a new home.
If you do decide to buy some then there's a few things to do to get rid of the smoky scent. If you hang the fibre in an out of the way, well ventilated spot for a couple of weeks that will help. You can also try popping it in a sealed box with a tub of bicarbonate of soda to absorb the smell.
You can also wash it, which really isn't as scary as it might sound, all the dyed top you buy from me has effectively been washed.
I thought it might be helpful to do some step by step photos. In short, you won't felt it unless you change the temperature of your water, or are too rough with the fibre, but gentle squeezing is fine., you actually have to try very hard to make felt!
Nordic is a pure wool, blended combed top.
Each colour is made of a combination of other colours creating shades that have a wonderfully deep, intense appearance, that work brilliantly together.
Nordic is inspired by the lands across the North Sea and the ancient mythology of the Norse Gods and Goddesses.
In total there are 7 permanent colours in the collection, a mix of warm, cool and neutrals. The pure wool content is perfect for creating warm bouncy accessories and cozy garments. The blend of Merino and Corriedale will be soft enough to wear next to skin, but by using the Corriedale wool the blend has a bit more tooth to it. This fibre has a more open crimp so you can spin a loftier yarn with more life to it than a pure merino blend. As a bonus you'll get less pilling, and items won't wear out as quickly.
I've been developing the colours since the summer, but when I was out taking the photos I couldn't help but spot the similarities in the palette to the ones I was seeing all around me.
The fibres are on order, so will be available to buy very soon, and there will be close-up's of all the colours for you to take a closer look at shortly.
The pattern, is Aranami Shawl. My Ravelry project, together with my notes, and the chart showing how I arranged the colours is here.
I'm really pleased to be able to introduce my brand new fibre base...
I started testing it out back in the summer, and also gave some to a few trusty local testers. They all loved it, so here we are, a brand new fibre for Hilltop Cloud.
50% 23 micron Merino
50% Tussah Silk
Just like with all my other blends it's a combination I've had specially created. I wanted a wool-blend fibre with a high silk percentage. This fibre is ideal for next to skin purposes, so shawls, scarves, hats etc. You can spin it in to lace weight with ease, but it will also work as a thicker yarn.
The high silk content gives you the fantastic sheen you get from silk, and allows me to dye incredibly intense colours, but by adding in some wool it makes it a bit more approachable for people to spin. You also get the bounce and memory that wool offers compared to the pure drape of silk by itself.
I thought long and hard about the wool fibre I wanted to use in this blend, in an ideal world I would love to use British wool for nearly all my blends. In reality however we don't produce of the softer wools that the market requires. In part it's due to our climate, but it's also because for too long the British wool market has been in the doldrums, and as a result wool quality isn't of great importance to many farmers.
I considered using Shetland, but for many that's not soft enough to go next to skin, and the high silk content of the blend dictates that this is what I feel the fibre is best suited to. I also considered using BFL, traditionally the BFL on offer in the UK has been the ideal Merino alternative, but increasingly I'm becoming more and more unhappy with the quality of the BFL tops I can buy. The fibre is no longer as soft and long as it was 2 or 3 years ago, and the increasing demand has pushed up the price dramatically. I'm not convinced it offers good value for money any more and I'm not alone in forming that opinion.
The remaining BFL bases I offer will be sticking around, but in this situation I wanted to use a different fibre.
In the end I've plumped for a 23micron, natural grey Merino. This coloured wool adds a wonderful depth of colour to the dyes, and is lovely and soft. One of my testers can't normally were wool of any kind, but her finished skein of yarn goes around her neck quite happily. I'm not normally a pure merino fan, particularly if you buy the commercially dyed tops, they've had all the life processed out of them and feel like spinning cotton wool. This merino feels very different, it has a lovely crimp, bounce and is a delight to spin.
This is usually the point that I show off a finished sample of the fibre knitted up... my ill health over the past month put the brakes on any knitting, so you'll have to make do with an on the needles shot!
I spun the yarn in to a 2-ply sport weight yarn, and am knitting it in to a lovely cozy garter stitch fabric.
The new Merino & Silk fibre is available to buy in the shop now!
I'm a bit wary about putting this post out in the open, there are too many occasions when a business person uses ill health as a justification for poor customer service. What I'm very clear about is that this isn't going to happen in this case.
For the past month my health has been somewhat rocky. There are various diagnoses being suggested, all of them are inner/middle ear related, and all have similar symptoms. Basically at the moment I'm very dizzy on an almost continual basis, at times the dizziness is so bad I can't stand up and I'm left with horrific motion sickness. The rest of the time I'm utterly exhausted, as a result of having to compensate for the fact that my world is continually rotating around me.
All in all not particularly conducive to my line of work...
For now, everything that I have committed to doing will still be happening, I will be at Bakewell Wool Gathering, I will be honouring the teaching commitments I have made. There are plans in place to make sure those things can still happen.
Fibre Clubs will also happen as normal, the only thing that there might be less of is fresh fibre in the shop. However, everything that is in the shop is already dyed, in stock, and ready to send out. Please don't feel that by not ordering you're helping me out in someway. If anything the opposite is true, the business is my only source of income, so the stocks of fibre that are ready to go out do need to be sold.
After a month of being up in the air about what's actually going on the doctors and I now have a plan, and some treatments to try. I'm crossing my fingers that everything starts getting better soon.
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