Farm to needle: Benjamin Hole talks about getting into the yarn biz

Farm to needle: Benjamin Hole talks about getting into the yarn biz

As you know, I’ve been following British farmer Benjamin Hole and his sheep on Instagram for years, danced for joy last April when he announced he was going to mill some of his fleece into yarn, and couldn’t believe my luck when I actually snagged a bag of the beautiful DK-weight Hole & Sons wool ten weeks ago. Unless you raise sheep and spin (and dye) and knit, it’s uncommon (though thankfully no longer unheard of) to know exactly what sheep grew the fleece that became the wool you’re knitting with. To have a treasured sweater vest in my wardrobe knitted from the fleece of sheep I follow on Instagram is pretty wacky and wonderful. And I’ve enjoyed getting to know Ben a tiny bit along the way. This is perhaps the ultimate example of what I mean when I say I want to have more of a connection to the clothes on my back.

The day after I wrote that blog post comparing the yarn release to a unicorn sighting, I got a really lovely email from Ben, who, as you’ll see below, appears to be a thoroughly lovely person. He agreed to answer some questions for the blog and I thought now that I’ve shown you my vest would be a good time. I wish I could say it’s tied in to the release of the next batch, but we’re apparently not too far away from that. Be sure to follow @benjaminhole and @harpstone, Ben’s Aunt Sue, for further news!

And with that, here’s Ben—

Your family have been sheep farmers for years but, like many/most farmers, had been selling the fleece off to the anonymous wool market to be blended into mattress stuffing or who knows what, correct? How did the idea evolve that you should start spinning some of it into yarn?

That’s right, yes. The sad truth is that over the last few decades wool has become something of a forgotten product in the UK. Falling prices have meant that it almost costs more to shear the ewes than the fleeces were worth to sell, so we really saw shearing as something we had to do for the comfort of the ewe during the summer months, rather than as a business venture. But this didn’t really sit well with us, not only because we believe wool is a fantastic, sustainable product, but because we felt that our wool had a story to tell. When you shear a ewe, you notice that each fleece is as individual as the ewe itself. It also varies how it grows throughout the seasons, dependent on weather conditions, the quality of the grass that grew that year and so on. So, really it seemed an incredible shame to pack this wool off into anonymous sacks, to be mixed in with thousands of other fleeces from across the country, and for this story to be lost. So, last year we started looking into other markets for our wool and we decided on yarn. This is where Hole & Sons yarn began.

Not all of your sheep have what I’ll call “yarn-grade fleece,” right? (Is that a term?) Did you know or intuit that some of them did — your Poll Dorsets — or did you just start asking around about your flocks and the possibilities?

Funnily enough the British Wool Marketing Board pay us more for our North Country Mule wool than they do for our Poll Dorsets, though you’re right, we knew it wasn’t yarn-grade fleece. We chose to spin the wool from our Poll Dorset and Poll Dorset cross ewes, for three reasons really: Firstly, the breed itself is iconic to the area, and such a familiar sight on our farm. Secondly, the quality of the wool is great. I’ll be honest: it’s not cashmere and if you’re used to merino, well, this will feel a little different. It has a soft, slightly crisp feel, that will further soften with working and wear. But it’s a dense and durable wool, and whatever is made from it will be hard wearing and stand the test of time. Thirdly, we chose to spin our Poll Dorset wool because of its relative scarcity as a yarn product. Because of its high quality and density, the vast majority of it is swiftly snapped up by bedding manufacturers. We felt we should do our bit to make this lovely wool more widely available as a yarn too.

Farm to needle: Benjamin Hole talks about getting into the yarn biz

How large is the flock?

Ah, well asking an Isle of Purbeck farmer that question is a bit like asking a lady her age, ha! Our Poll Dorset and Poll Dorset Cross flock stands at around 400 breeding ewes and on average each have two lambs at foot throughout the summer months.

So you decide you want to make yarn; did you start by simply approaching mills and opening up conversations? Did you go into it with any ideas about what kind of yarn you wanted to make — the weight, spinning style, etc. — or did that all come through discussion with the mill?

First and foremost it was important for us to find the right mill. The story behind the yarn was so important to us that we wanted our wool to be treated with a delicate hand and the care and respect it deserved, so we avoided the larger mass producing mills. Instead we got in contact with Sue Blacker from the Natural Fibre Company. I’ll be honest, at the time I knew nothing about yarn (and believe me I still have so much to learn!), but I had an idea of how I wanted it to look and how I wanted the colours to reflect the Isle of Purbeck. The team at the mill were great — they offered a completely bespoke service and recommended I start with Double Knit yarn. Using small mills like this isn’t the fastest way to produce yarn, nor is it the cheapest, but we feel that reconnecting people to the land and the work of true craftsmen is far more important than ‘keeping the margins down’.

Had you ever thought about fleece in terms of micron count and staple length before, or was it all just fleece? Have you enjoyed learning about the finer points of sheep hair?

As I said earlier, sadly wool was a little overlooked in the past, but now all that’s changed. When I roll up the fleeces after shearing, I’m constantly testing the ‘spring’ of the staples and admiring the intricacy of each fleece. I am thoroughly enjoying learning more about wool. The silly thing is it’s been right there in front of me all this time, but now I’ve seen it in a new light, I can’t stop!

Farm to needle: Benjamin Hole talks about getting into the yarn biz

I was thrilled when I first heard you were doing yarn and even more thrilled when I saw that it was lovely rustic heathers. What was the dyeing process, and how did you go about settling on colors? I’ll say up front that I saw that ball of charcoal yarn on your IG feed long ago and I would like to order a bag of it, please. Also, any chance of an undyed version?

The dyeing process was a fun one — the beauty with working with a small mill is that they indulge you in your bizarre ideas. Like I said, I knew nothing about yarn when I set out, but I had a strong idea of how I wanted it to look. Firstly, being a very pure coloured wool I wanted to avoid it looking at all synthetic, so I asked the mill if they could introduce some flecks of grey into the wool to give it a textured finish. At first they recommended introducing a small amount of wool at the carding stage from a dark-fleeced ewe from someone else’s farm. But, I was determined to keep it a 100% single-origin product from our farm and our Poll Dorset Ewes, so we played around with a few ideas and eventually came up with a method that worked. After the fleece was washed, dried and carded, we dyed a very small amount (about 2%) of it a dark grey, then re-carded it back in with the undyed wool. This created our ‘Fog’ yarn. The other colours were achieved by overdyeing this yarn, with a ‘Coast’ blue and a ‘Clay’ brown. Our next batch, which will shortly be making its way onto the horizon, will also include that darker ‘Shale’ grey (and yes, I’d love to send some your way!). Undyed is something I will certainly think about in the future, but at the minute we’re really having so much fun experimenting with the dyes!

Right now you’re selling the yarn directly to us rabid yarnaholics at a really lovely price. Do you have any plans to increase production and sell it through shops? Or are you keeping it small and direct?

As far as increasing production goes, to be honest we’re going to let this grow very organically and see how it goes. I guess it’s important to remember that wool is only a small aspect of caring for sheep. There is so much work involved, from lambing, worming and foot trimming, to hay making and fencing, right down to drystone walling and even hedge planting. So, those duties must always come first, but I am very keen for our yarn to grow as time will allow. With regards to selling direct, this has been one of the most enjoyable parts of all of this. Modern-day agriculture has changed so much that direct selling is now almost impossible. Instead large corporations and supermarket chains tell us what we’ll get paid and, well, we just have to go along with it. So, being able to sell direct in this way, and cut out the middleman, has been a breath of fresh air. Not only is it nice to be in control of your own product, but I feel that selling this way really is ‘Farm to needle’ of which we as a family have had a hand at every stage. So, for now, I’m happy to keep it relatively small batch and direct.

Going back to that moment you first imagined making a yarn, how has the reality compared to the dream? Is it an adventure you’re keen to continue or expand on? And what’s been your favorite part?

The reality has far surpassed the dream. I had no idea yarn would be this much fun, and it’s been quite an eye opener to discover just how many yarn addicts there are out there! It’s been a huge learning curve, and I’ll be the first to admit that I completely underestimated the work involved in not only establishing a yarn brand but actually packaging and selling it. And I certainly kept you all waiting a lot longer that I had hoped to. (Sorry!) But its been a wonderful learning curve all the same. Probably my favourite part about it all has been seeing what people have made from it. People have been sharing their creations on Instagram with #holeandsonswool (yourself and that amazing waistcoat included), something which I hope will grow as we sell more yarn. You have to understand that we are just an honest farming family who live in the middle of nowhere. On a busy day I might talk to a handful of people, so seeing our yarn from our sheep scattered from Australia to America is so overwhelming and incredibly humbling. Thank you all for your support.

It sounded from your Woolful interview like maybe there aren’t any knitters in the family at present, but I hope you’ve gotten to hold something made from your wool by now. Any plans to take up knitting? ;)

Well my Auntie Sue knits a little, and has been playing around with some of our yarn, so it’ll be great to see what she makes. The biggest knitter in our family was my Grandmother. Sadly she passed away a few years ago — she would have absolutely loved to see this venture grow. I haven’t had anything made yet, demand was so overwhelming that every ounce of yarn was sold, but I’m determined to hold back some this time and have something made. Are there any knitting volunteers out there?! Ha. As far as me taking up knitting goes, well I’m not quite sure how that would go down with my friends at the pub, but one should never say never …

Farm to needle: Benjamin Hole talks about getting into the yarn biz