This week our theme is centred on wool empowerment. Earlier in Wovember we heard from Dana MacPhee, director of Uist Wool, on the project’s inception and setting up their mill. Today we are pleased to welcome mill manager Hazel Smith to give her personal account of her involvement with the project.
Uist Wool. Our name, I believe, says it all. We make yarn born, raised managed, clipped, bought, washed and spun here in Uist. Our business is designed to support and promote a better economic future for our unique and beloved islands. It does this through a number of ways, but one of the most important for me is by supporting the crofter – offering a competitive price for fleeces, and demonstrating the value in keeping the native North Atlantic breeds such as Hebridean and Shetland.
I have been in the Western Isles (indeed in Scotland) for over four years and during my first week I was taken along to an open day in Grimsay where there was a workshop on grading fleece in a crofter’s shed. This was the start of things to come: the beginning stages of Uist Wool, and of my obsessive stalker-like relationship with them. A month later I went back for more. This was two days of woolly enjoyment, including fleece grading, hand-washing and spinning (I was terrible), plus a fascinating conversation about recycling and the potential uses for industrial waste from the spinning process: the first time I remember of hearing the plans for Uist Wool unfolding. I particularly remember this because for the first time in my life I was suffering from chilblains, despite coming from high snowy Sheffield, and I was desperate for woolly insoles.
A few months later CALANAS training programme announced a 10-week training programme to develop skilled employees for the soon-to-be constructed yarn spinning mill. Where do I sign? Unfortunately, the small matter of returning to Sheffield to finish my masters degree and pack away my life, ready to move to Uist, clashed unavoidably. “Not this time” Dana generously offers when I ask if it would be possible to do it by distance. Instead I lived the experience through my excellent friend and colleague Maggie, who had taken a place on the programme part-time and was absolutely loving it, despite often coming in to work exhausted. I was so envious. I read the press clippings and followed on Facebook as the mill went up and the ancient neglected machinery arrived. I watched the trainees scrub away at every speck of rust to reveal the amazing workhorses we now rely on to produce our remarkable product, and I rooted for them to succeed.
As the mill grew and the trainees began testing the machines, the project launched the most beautiful creative projects with talented makers from the Outer Hebrides (and beyond), showcasing how the humble croft can produce the finest quality fashion pieces, cloth, knitwear, fine art, and furnishings. My desire to be involved was peaked again. To my joy the courses started again, and I lapped up everything I could get, sharing woolly experiences, trying new things and learning learning learning.
At last Uist Wool repeated the full training course, and of course I jumped at the chance, working longer hours so that I could squeeze a second day off each week to do the 6-week course. I loved every minute: on the croft, tweedy visits in Lewis, weaving, getting to grips with the mill at Grimsay (getting to have a go on the spinning machines!), and – my favourite bit – business advice from some of the most inspirational people in the industry. It was a bit of an emotional process and many of us found that the experience was developing the sparks of a new career path. An amazing creative environment.
A year later and I find myself employed by Uist Wool as Mill Manager, entering at a crucial and incredibly exciting time when the training and development phases end, and the serious business of trade, production and marketing our woolly wares begins. But what a product to sell. Uist Wool is beautifully crafted yarn, from machair to machines, we can tell the entire life of a garment made from our yarns. We know who raised the sheep, what breed they are, who clipped them and when. This information is the corner stone of each yarn that we make, and dictates what our brilliant team create. The result is a unique high-quality yarn that can tell the story of Uist through its gorgeous natural colours, its nuanced textures, and its evocative Gaelic elemental names. I have only worked with Uist Wool for two months now, but I feel like I’ve lived our products with the rest of the team, and I can’t wait to see what we can do in another four years!