By Elly Welch
On a quiet croft on the island of Grimsay, North Uist, there’s a purr of machinery spinning through the spring breeze. But this is no unwanted 21st century intrusion. This is the quiet song of century old pistons, brought out of retirement to hum new hope for a place that the wool industry forgot – but whose people never did.
As you travel the single track circling Grimsay you can’t miss the cheerful green roof of Uist Wool, a community-managed spinning mill and brand new visitor facility including a shop, viewing area, and workshop and training space.
And travel to it you must this summer, for this place, now open to the public for the first time, is exciting. It’s not just immensely creative, it’s practical too - like a good friend, which it looks set to be for the crofting, artistic and visitor communities of the Outer Hebrides.
The idea for a new woolen mill based in Uist emerged in 2008 when it became clear that native wool had little or no value. Fleeces were being burnt, or thrown away – no longer worth the cost of transport to mainland markets. Concerned locals began to investigate ways to bring the industry back and, soon, the idea for a new mill was formed. Among its hard working volunteers was Uist Wool’s current director, Dana MacPhee.
“There was a collective will to find new purpose for local fleece and to reconnect islanders with their wool-working heritage,” said Dana, an islander with a background in both textiles and museum work. “Our vision was to build a new focus for wool, a spinning mill using heritage machinery to create authentic, all-island yarn, made in the traditional way with co-operative values.’
Success came at last in 2012 when funding was approved, and construction began soon after. It was to be a labour of love, not only building the premises but also to source and restore the historic equipment, some of which dates back to late Victorian mills.
“Our machinery has huge character,” said mill manager Hazel Smith, one of seven full and part time staff now employed by the enterprise. “Every day it has to be oiled in over 100 places – it has its quirks, for sure! But with good care our team has found that it all runs beautifully.”
Now, in 2017, Uist Wool is moving forwards again with the opening of the completed Wool Centre and public trading arm. Through the recently launched website (www.uistwool.com) they have already received orders from customers throughout the UK and worldwide, including the US, Japan and Australia.
It’s no surprise, really, for Uist Wool is truly unique. Fleece is sourced from many breeds common to the Outer Hebrides and Highlands of Scotland, where sheep are bred with a hardy nature to cope with the vagaries of the North Atlantic environment. It is also undyed, celebrating the rich browns, creams and greys of the wool in its natural state, or blended to give a different texture or animation to the finished yarn. So individual is each batch of wool that it is possible to trace which flock, or croft, a particular yarn came from.
Hazel continues, “I think that real wool had fallen out of fashion but there are now campaigns nationally helping to change that, and Uist Wool is actively playing a part in them. We buy good quality fleece and try to find a use for everything we buy. The yarns we are producing are beautiful, full of character, and full of story.”
Uist Wool primarily produces knitting yarns but has spun for bespoke Uist Wool Harris Tweeds as well as commissioned knitwear and artwork from local designer/makers, examples of which can be seen and purchased at the Wool Centre.
The company hopes to build up its own bespoke designs, helped by talented weavers and knitwear artists in the community and among the staff. It also plans to offer training courses to promote local wool-skills more widely.
“These are exciting times,” said Hazel. “We have been thrilled by the reception so far and are really looking forward to welcoming people here to help celebrate the past and the future that Uist Wool is stitching together.’
The Wool Centre is open throughout the year Monday to Friday 10am -5pm and from June to August on Saturdays between 10am – 1pm.