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I’ve got ewe under my skein

As Orkney International Science Festival approaches next week I’ve had to kick my butt into gear. I’m involved with 2 events: Sheep on the Shore and Resources on the Shore. For the latter I wanted to explore North Ronaldsay wool as a sustainable island resource through the medium of film. So this week I spent an afternoon in the wool mill with Helen getting some footage and learning how it all works.

Dennis the sheep wondering when his jumper will be ready

There are, quite literally, a lot of moving parts when it comes from getting the wool, which is stuffed into bags during shearing, processed into beautiful soft yarn. It’s certainly not the case that you turn everything on, plop the wool in and out comes the yarn. Conditions, such as temperature and humidity, within the mill are very important.

There are 8 machines in total which take the wool from its raw state to yarn

  1. washing - to remove the lanolin, sand and vegetable matter in the fleeces

  2. coarser fibres are removed in the dehairer - they are denser and heavier so they fall out as the other softer and light fibres are carries through the machine

  3. carding - this turns the wool into rovings or batts - at this stage they can then be used by felters and handspinner

  4. combining 2 rovings in the drawframe where they are stretched and aligned

  5. spinner - turning roving to single ply yarn

  6. another spinner - turning the single ply to 3 ply

  7. steaming to set the twist and winding onto a cone

  8. winding the yarn into skeins (hanks)

Phew! It’s an awful lot to keep an eye on and very noisy, but so satisfying to see eveything going concurrently, taking a raw resource and turning it into a finished product.

The mill here is described as a “mini mill”. In 1999 a sheep conference was held on the island as part of the science festival. At the conference one of the delegates first sowed the seeds of spinning their own yarn on the island with a mini mill supplied by a Canadian Company. In 2001 Jane went out to Prince Edward Island to visit Belfast Mini Mills, who produce scaled down spinning equipment for cottage industry. It took 2 years to secure funding before the equipment finally arrived in spring of 2003 occupying the newly refurbished building at the New Lighthouse owned by the North Ronaldsay Trust.

North Ronaldsay’s wool mill not only processes the wool from the island, it also takes wool from elsewhere, with no minimum order it’s an unusual and important service for those with small fibre flocks.

The mill is powered by wind turbines, provides jobs to islanders, and reduces transportation costs and fossil fuel consumption of sending it elsewhere to be spun. In my opinion it needs to be celebrated and utilised far more than it is! How many other islands in the world have their own wool mill to spin the fleeces from their sheep?!

Sneak peak of the film:


On Friday I took a second trip into town since lockdown. It was such a clear day I got some beautiful views and photos while flying over the islands. Aren’t the colours of the sea here amazing?

I also got good view of our house as we flew back in to North Ronaldsay - which has never happened before - the island looks so green!

You can see the polytunnel and our house to the right, which backs onto the School

I really like this map that was hanging on a wall on my way to pick up the Trust’s newsletter from the print shop in Kirkwall. The map is orientated toward the west and the cartouche in the top right reminds us that the islands belonged to the Kingdom of Denmark until 1472. It was probably published in 1792. North Ronaldsay is in the bottom left hand corner, labelled ’North Ronaldsha’. Seal skerry and Atlers of Linnay are included.

On the map mainland Orkney is labelled at ‘Pomona’. A name never actually used by Orcadians, it is Latin and stems from a sixteenth-century mis-translation by George Buchanan, who was a Scottish scholar of the language. Pomona was the Roman goddess of Fruit and Plenty, and the term was being used to refer to Thule (the farthest north location mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman literature and cartography) as a rich and fertile land.

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I only just now read this entry. Gorgeous pictures. You haven't blogged for a while - anything going on?

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