A different kettle of fish

Knitting meets Linda Lencovic – indie dyer, retailer, designer and the one-woman-band that is Kettle Yarn Co

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Kettle of Fish - Kettle Yarn co

Knitting meets Linda Lencovic – indie dyer, retailer, designer and the one-woman-band that is Kettle Yarn Co

Where do you come from?

I grew up in a small northern town in Canada surrounded by hectares of wilderness. When I was a child we regularly had deer and bears meandering through our back yard. One of my first memories is of watching a bear sow and its cub through a back window and wanting to go out and play with them. In my thirties I moved from Vancouver to London to complete an MAFA in Painting at Chelsea College of Art & Design, and I have now been in the UK for nearly 11 years.

How did you get where you are today?

I started working when I was 16 years old with no idea of what I wanted to do with my life. My only certainty was a need to make things. My twenties were spent working and in college, trying different careers. I worked as a silversmith, graphic designer, administrative assistant and university lecturer, but none of these roles seemed quite right for me.

It wasn’t until my late thirties that I tried knitting again during an illness and got obsessed with wool and yarn. Serendipitously, much of my seemly unrelated past training seems to have come together with Kettle Yarn Co, as I wear many hats running the business by myself.

Tell us about Kettle Yarn Co – how long has it been going, what does it do and where is it heading?

I started Kettle Yarn Co in 2013, a love child born of my obsession with knitting, chronic love of colour and a driving quest for pill-free yarn. The company evolved out of a personal search for ruggedly tough, long-wearing blends that feel delicious against the skin.

It is vital to me that my company support the ethics and values I believe in. Yarns I dye are ethically produced, and as I become more educated in yarn production I’ve stopped using fibres like cashmere, as have discovered how our desire for soft and softer has stripped the land bare where Asian cashmere is farmed, creating huge sandstorms. These storms are so large that they are changing the climate worldwide, leaving the poor animals starved and the resulting fleece coarse and very unlike the idea of luxury we once associated with this fibre.

I’ve replaced this fibre with Beyul, my baby yak, silk and ethical Merino blend. It has a similar luxurious handle to cashmere but none of the nasty consequences. Hand-combed or plucked, yak down sits between the most luxurious fine cashmere and softest baby camel in micron thickness, and has a comparable butter-soft handle and gloriously gentle halo – plus the added benefit of pilling less. Yak is durable, breathable, lightweight and its incredible thermal properties keep you cool in summer and warm in winter. In contrast to cashmere goats, yaks have a minimal impact on sparse grassland and every single facet of the animal is used for survival by the people farming them. The Merino used in this blend is Peruvian, from ethically treated herds that are not mulesed.

I’d like to continue to raise awareness of these kinds of issues and get people thinking more about what their money is supporting and encouraging. Do you want to support gentle sheep getting their hindquarters sliced to avoid infection (mulesing) when they can be treated in less horrific ways? No? Then stop buying Merino that is farmed this way! Ask questions about how your yarn is created. More and more hand dyers are able to answer these kinds of questions now and we should be asking them.

How do you source your yarns and what do you look for when choosing them?

It is hugely important to me that Kettle Yarn Co have strong ethical and environmental principles and that I support values I feel strongly about through the brand. We’ve all heard the horror stories of British sheep farmers having to burn or bury their fleeces as it costs more to shear the sheep for fibre than the money the British Wool Board will pay them for the wool.

In my eyes it is vital to support small-scale wool producers in the UK who are developing new breeds, keeping old breeds alive and thriving and caring for their small flocks of animals in a loving and ethical way – unlike the mass farming of Merino in certain parts of the world. Starting with Baskerville, my exclusive blends aim to contain unique breeds, like the new Exmoor Blueface, blended in interesting new combinations.

My goal is to veer away from the mass-produced and ethically questionable fibres of the yarn world and introduce people to other stunning fibres that are not as readily available and have their own amazing properties, like Gotland and Exmoor Blueface. If we don’t make an effort to support these amazing sheep breeds they will be lost to us forever.

It is also important to me that my yarn production has an acceptably low carbon footprint. Most people don’t know that yarn can be shipped across the breadth of the world several times in the course of its production – for example, Merino from Australia can be shipped to China for processing or superwashing and then on to a mill somewhere else in the world to spin before arriving at your door. The environmental cost of “cheap” yarn is pretty shocking.

I am trying to cut down on this extra waste by “shopping local” when sourcing my yarns. Baskerville fibres go directly from local British sheep farmers to John Arbon’s mill in Devon to be spun, then are trucked over to me in Hastings, East Sussex, where I dye the yarns in my kitchen. No harsh chemicals are used to treat the yarn and I use citric acid to set the dyes in my home kitchen.

For some people, £18-£24 will seem like a lot of money for a 100g skein of yarn. What goes into your yarns and why are your customers happy to pay for them?

I’m glad you asked this as it is a many-layered question.

First there is the question of raw materials. “Cheap” yarn, like many mass-produced commodities today, has a much larger cost environmentally than most people care to know. I would seriously question anyone charging less than £15 for a skein of yarn – why are they able to do this? How much are they paying for their raw products if they can afford to do this, and what conditions was it produced in? How are the animals treated, what chemicals are used on the fibre and what is the environmental cost of the various processes that have been undertaken?

Wool as a raw product is not cheap, and ethically produced fibre should not be cheap. Not if you are paying fair prices to all the people who worked hard to create the end product. I source my spun yarn from companies that have ethical standards similar to my own. Beyul, Islington, Waltham and Westminster are spun in Peru by the mill that supports the Mirasol project charity and un-mulesed Peruvian sheep herds. My exclusive British spun yarns are sourced from small-scale British sheep farmers.

Then there is the question of wear – it is one thing to spend £24 for a skein of yarn in something that will look rubbish in a month, and another to spend the same to have a garment that will continue to look brand new for countless years, even decades. I feel that over the past three years my customers have come to trust the quality of my yarns. They know that all of my blends are thoroughly researched, wear-tested and that I have high ethical standards. I am determined that my yarns be heirloom quality and last for decades to come, and this extra effort and quality is something they are willing to support.

Third is the issue of hand production. The reality of dyeing yarn is very different from the romanticised image sometimes imagined by non-dyers. I work alone, which means long, hard days changing hats from admin to web design to customer service rep to labourer as the day progresses. Dyeing happens in my home kitchen – long, tiring days lifting kilos of heavy wet yarn from pot to pot. This is gruelling, physical work, historically undervalued as “women’s work” as it relates to knitting. All yarn is then wound into skeins by hand and labels printed, cut and taped to the skeins. All of this takes time and a lot of hard work.

There is a reason so many yarn dyeing companies fold within a few years, as burnout in our industry is high. There is no way a hand dyer can compete with commercially dyed yarns made in China – and we shouldn’t try. Our product is an artisanal one and should be priced accordingly. I feel it is only right to pay myself a fair wage, even if this doesn’t really reflect the real hours I work in a week. Dyeing yarn is hard graft, and dyers themselves – primarily women – need to stop undervaluing our work.

Lastly and definitely not least are the physical qualities of Kettle Yarn Co yarn itself. I sell my yarn in large skeins. 100g of fingering weight will generally get you 400m in my skeins – at least double the yardage of most commercially dyed yarn balls and usually four times the amount.

The blends I’ve chosen for Kettle Yarn Co feel unbelievably gorgeous in your hands and are a real pleasure to work with as well as wear. If you are going to spend countless hours working with a yarn, don’t you want it to be enjoyable, and your hard work to continue to look good year after year? My dyes are glazed and layered by hand to create glowing, jewel-like hues which make your precious projects stand out, ready to be treasured.

Linda Lencovic - Kettle Yarn co

What’s new?

Last year I realised a milestone for Kettle Yarn Co and began working with master spinners to create exclusive small-batch British yarns. This is an area I’d like to expand in the future, as this method of production means I can be even more sure of the ethical provenance of my yarns.

My first exclusive blend of British small-batch yarn, Baskerville, is an unusual British-breed yarn that melds the lustrous, velvety crimp of fine British Gotland and the frothy loft of new-breed sheep Exmoor Blueface. With a hint of luminous silk adding a gentle shimmer, this is a subtly modern take on traditional rustic yarns.

In late autumn a darker grey Gotland-rich version of Baskerville was released – Baskerville Dark – that plays up the British-farmed Gotland’s unique qualities and is darker and crunchier than Baskerville. To support Baskerville I’ve worked with some amazing designers to create two collections showcasing this yarn, Baskerville Dawn to Dusk and Dawn to Dusk 2. People can sign up to the mailing list on my website and be the first to get their hands on my next small batch yarn.

What is your favourite thing to knit?

Tops and cardigans. There is nothing like knitting your own clothing and I don’t think I will ever get tired of being able to do this in any colour I want.

What are you knitting at the moment?

I have a lace and garter stitch design in new, thicker Beyul DK on the needles at the moment, which will be released this spring.

  • Photography: Kettle Yarn Co.
  • This article is an extract from issue 164 of Knitting Magazine. Buy the digital edition here.
  • Find out more and purchase from Kettle Yarn Co. here

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