Thursday, September 20, 2012

Scotland: The Yarn

As soon as it was decided (back in February) that we'd be going to Scotland, the first thing I researched was how long it would take us to get to the Shetland Isles.  I wanted to pet sheep.  I wanted to visit a spinning and/or weaving mill.  I was going to come home with SO. MUCH. YARN. Sure, I knew that Shetland was on a separate island, but I've done the whole international travel thing before.  We'd have rental cars!  Surely there'd be a ferry or somesuch.

Turns out that Shetland was a little farther away than I was envisioning.  I'd imagined a two- or three-hour boat ride that would whisk me from Aberdeen or Inverness to Lerwick.  There'd a cabin below where I could order tea and sandwiches, and a deck above where I could gaze out to the horizon, the cold winds off the North Sea romantically blowing through my hair.  I'd pass the time knitting, of course.  It's funny now how easily my imagination plucked up the San Francisco-to-Sausalito ferry route from my memory and filled the surroundings with a colder ocean and less landmass.

In doing my research on the web, I found that while the British Isles might be small in comparison to the USA, they weren't quite as small as I'd thought.  The city of Aberdeen is located about a four hours' drive from our resort.  The actual ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick departs at either 5PM or 7PM (depending on the day of the week), and arrives at 7:30AM the next morning.  The see-all-the-sights travel planner in me couldn't bear to give up so much time to sitting in transit when there was the entire rest of Scotland to see. Oh well. I'd still find me some yarn.
In Aberdeenshire
This store does not sell yarn.  Sad face.
Once we got to Scotland, I realized quickly how deeply the culture is rooted in the manufacture of textiles.  I also quickly learned to distinguish what is typically meant by a "woolen mill".  We passed several during our initial forays, and after demanding that the caravan pull over once or twice I determined that most of the time a shop advertising itself as a woolen mill would NOT be selling yarn or spinning fiber, but finished sweaters, scarves, hats, mittens, and blankets made of wool.   In one particularly frustrating experience, we had all just gotten into our cars and been driving for maybe two minutes when we passed a shop with a spinning wheel painted on its side. You use spinning wheels to make yarn!  I was SO CERTAIN that I would find some yarn this time!  Sadly, this was not the case. Once back in the car, I realized that the abundance of items produced from wool along with the (apparent) lack of raw materials probably means that the raw materials are all being used in the local industry.  It's not that there isn't a lot of yarn or wool in Scotland, it's that it's all being used, and there isn't a huge market for hobbyists.  This was the turning point in my understanding of the connection between Scottish textiles and the residents of Scotland.  If I really, seriously, wanted spinning fiber, I would've needed to seek out a farmer and see where they get their wool processed.  At that point, I'd need to be prepared to pay a much higher rate than the folks running spinning mills, and even then all the wool they have in hand would probably already be spoken for.  I wasn't going to be able to find yarn unless I found a yarn shop.  So, find a yarn shop I did. 
k1 Yarns, Edinburgh
This place DOES sell yarn!
 While walking through Edinburgh, I was on a mission.  After we located the shop, two of my traveling companions graciously agreed to entertain themselves in a nearby cheese shop.  The fourth companion came with me, to purchase souvenir yarn for his girlfriend.  The person working at the shop was wonderfully helpful, assisting him in choosing yarn that she wouldn't be able to find in the US, which left me free to browse around myself.  I, too, was on the lookout for yarn that I wouldn't just find on the shelf of my LYS.  I was also nearly finished with my Neep Heid hat, and had my eye open for yarn that would work in either of the other two patterns in Kate Davies' fantastic e-booklet The Hats of Midlothian. I found yarn of roughly the right weight from The Isle of Harris Knitwear Co., and settled down to choose colors. 
Tweed Yarn

All four of these are heathery yarns, and my photography doesn't do justice to the deep marine-blue-green of the ball in the lower left.  After I'd picked out these shades, I spied something really special in a little basket next to the Jamieson's yarns:   
The labels look as though they were printed at home and snipped into strips, which I love.  I'm not exactly sure, but I'm betting that these colors are undyed, the natural colors of the sheep raised on the Isle of Mull.  They had to come home with me as well.   I can't wait to spend a day with all my crunchy, wooly, Shetland-y yarn playing around with color combinations! 

In the midst of my yarn adventures, there also turned out to be some fabric adventures in Scotland.  I've decided that they need their own (shorter) post, so that'll come up soon after I share a few finished projects with you guys.  

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Scotland: The Countryside

The freedom provided by having rental cars allowed us to explore the countryside of Scotland, and boy does it have some spectacular sights. On two different days we drove through the Cairgorms National Park.  Although "national park" doesn't mean exactly the same thing in Scotland as it does in the USA in terms of usage and infrastructure, the views and beauty of nature rival anything else I've ever seen. 

Burn o' Vat in the Cairngorms

Everywhere you turn, the land is there, just sitting around being gorgeous.  This place, called Burn O' Vat, had a lovely little waterfall and two shallow caves. 

This spectacular view of the Falls of Docharty was taken literally from the side of the road.  Later in the week, we put a special "photos" rule in place while driving.  It was getting pretty stressful keeping a caravan of two or three cars together, so we opted to be a bit more explicitly relaxed about it, and agreed that if one car stopped and there was no phone call or text message, then they were just taking a few photos and would catch up.  It's the sort of thing that would go unspoken between the husbeast and me, and it wasn't until we figured out this rule that we realized how much we just wanted to be able to pull over on the side of the road ALL THE TIME!  The new photos rule was especially welcome on the part of the husbeast, as he's a big one for stopping at random places to get a really good photograph. 
Here's one of my favorite memories of the trip, in the Cairngorms. Scotland has an old tradition of its residents being able to walk pretty much everywhere, as long as they're not leaving a mess or disturbing other people.  There are trails and footpaths everywhere, and we saw people using them, walking in places I would assume were off-limits if we were in the US. We did a little bit of hiking, but if we'd planned for it we could've done much more.  I think Americans have this sense that Britain is a very small place, but it certainly didn't feel that way to me while we were there.  Edinburgh during festival season felt just as bustling and alive as San Francisco during fleet week, and the Cairngorms felt just as open and majestic as the High Sierras. 

Glen Coe
And then there's this aspect of the history of the land in Scotland.  We were originally going to drive to the Isle of Skye, but unfortunately it proved to be just a bit too far of a drive for a day trip.  Instead, we opted to go to Glen Coe, which several guidebooks mentioned as one of the most beautiful glens in the highlands.  We did get a chance to do a bit of real hiking here, and the sense of the place is strong and old in a way that is no less wild, but very different, to what I've seen in American national parks.  There's certainly a lot of history behind Glen Coe, and it's eye-opening to visit national landmarks that belong to someone else.  I can feel some deeper personal connection to Mt. Tamalpais or Hume Lake, and knowing that there's another set of people who feel just as strong a connection (if not stronger) to these places helps me feel connected to those people through a shared experience.  Seeing the world's natural wonders makes environmentalists of us all. 

As a small footnote, it's hard to look at the countryside of Scotland and not notice the sheep everywhere, which live off the land, and are an integral part of life for many people in the highlands. 

Next time: From the Land comes the Cloth