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Friday, 24 February 2012

How many British Alpacas does it take to make a jumper?

As posted as a Guest post on iMake earlier this month:

Some readers will have enjoyed the pleasure of casting on in alpaca yarn. Hopefully some readers will have also had the chance to meet some of the 35,000 alpacas now living in the UK. To answer this question ‘how many alpacas does it take to make a jumper’ we’re not talking about a sweat-shop barn full of frantically knitting alpacas (just imagine the knots they’d get themselves in!) but an insight into the journey undertaken here to get the fleece from the animal’s back to the yarn on your needles.

The fineness of the fleece depends on its breeding, the age of the animal and even how good their grazing is and sometimes how much the wind blew that year. An alpaca can first be sheared at around 10-12 months old which is where the yummiest and scrummiest yarns come from. As with a lot of things in life it can be all down hill from there – from the ripe of age of seven to eight years of age the fibre may well end up used as soft furnishings and stuffing. While we are talking about the age of the animal it is time to bust a myth – yarn labelled as ‘baby alpaca’ may have nothing to do with the age of the animal it came from – it is a quality label guaranteeing the softest fleece has been used. A few of the best alpacas here at Toft make the ‘baby alpaca’ grade at 4 years old, other less pedigree alpacas may never have a ‘baby alpaca’ grade fleece, even with their first fleece at under 12 months.

Alpacas are shorn in the balmy (!) months of May and June at which point they will have grown approximately 10cm, or 2 to 3 kg of fleece so are glad to be rid of it. You might have seen a sheep being shorn before with a burly man and sheers manoeuvring the animal into various positions to get at all the woolly bits. Believe me there is no man burly enough for the neck of an alpaca, so instead they use a gentle trussing table and a not-so-glamorous assistant to ensure that both alpaca and handlers are safe and secure.

Once the animal has been sent back naked into the field we get our hands straight into the fibre. Quality is everything - we process our yarn in 50kg batches and one handful of overlooked low quality fibre in with a premium batch would immediately contaminate and ruin the entire batch. This small quantity of lower grade fibre would spread and pollute the whole batch in a similar way to the impact 3 drops of green food colouring would have to your Victoria sponge cake mix. We use trained fingers and eyes to pick out all the good stuff which mostly comes from the saddle of the animal. Leg and neck fibre can make the grade on the good animals but mostly will never make it through to a yarn and end up used as stuffing inside pillows and duvets. Once we have finished sorting and we resemble Victorian street urchins, we will have an average yield of 1 kg per animal (so that’s around 2 kilos of fleece lost from the initial shearing in the legs and neck and belly that aren’t good enough to use).

One of the biggest appeals of alpaca in the natural colour range the fleeces come in. This variant of black, browns, fawns and creams allows us to create ten distinct colours without ever touching dye. Some colours are totally pure- such as ‘fudge’ can only be from deep rich fawn alpaca fleeces. Other simple colours such as ‘silver’ are blended from a percentage of white fleeces combined with some black- and the really arty bit comes in when making colours like ‘stone’ by mixing white, light fawn, chestnut and black in a delicate equation. This is also the stage where any additional blend fibres are added such as nylon for sock yarn.

At Toft all our hand knitting yarns are spun at a local Mill using a traditional fully woollen process- this is a method of spinning that gives our yarns loft and elasticity. Following many years of development we now manufacture lace, fine, dk, aran and chunky weights of 100% natural British alpaca yarn. It is a very difficult balancing process between adding twist for strength and durability, and keeping the fibres relaxed for ease and consistency when knitting and with finished handle of the fabric. We lose around 15% of the fleece weight whilst spinning. Following this the yarn goes off to the scourers to be washed for the first time during this entire process. Here we can lose up to a further 10% of weight in dust and dirt.

So how many alpacas does it take to make a jumper? Did you get all those sums? Approximately one double knitting weight jumper in a medium size (approximately 600-800g yarn) is the entire result of a year’s worth of eating, growing and rolling around for one alpaca. 1 jumper = 1 alpaca. So when you’re toasty warm in the snow spare a thought for ‘Basil’ or ‘Beatrice’ out in the field busy growing another soft coat for next year’s lucky customer.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

On the road with Toft Part 1: Knitting and Craft Events 2012- the insiders guide to the best and worst places to stock up on yarn

Now by all accounts the Toft travelling circus got a bit too big for its boots in 2011. In total we clocked in at over 30 events in the UK and Europe including Scotland, Paris and Dublin. Now don't get us wrong- all these events were good for business- meeting new customers, making sales and converting people to the Toft way of knitting! some of you may well have noticed it was often the same face hawking the wares across the country- and come Christmas 2011 that face was done smiling!

So, a new year and a new game plan to strategically pick out the very best of the events, and begin a one year on one off approach to some of the smaller ones. Here is our guide to where we'll be this year and a few words on some of gaps in our calendar that have opened up...

We have had a leisurely start to 2012 (by this point last year we already had three under the belt) with our first event coming in the hand spun yarny shape of Unravel in Farnham, Surrey this weekend.

Carrie will be taking the show on tour this time as she heads down to Farnham Maltings- a former resident of this town she's looking forward to catching up with some old friends in between customers. This is a really nice fibre and yarn event with all the independents there. Split across many rooms and floors it can be a bit disorientating, but you won't be disappointed by the quality and range of traders. It is probably more for the hardened knitter than the Newbie dipping their toes into crafty water.

Then March brings flashbacks of the 2011 schedule!

We will be down in Olympia 15th- 18th for Stitch and Craft. Now we know that some people have been disappointed by this show in previous years (the glitter/bead count out waging yarn by three to one) but this is now our forth year at the event and it promises to be better for knitters than ever before. The growth in the popularity of knitting has caused a total reshuffle at the event and there is now an entire knitting floor (and not in the dungeon as last year). It really does look promising on the yarn front so fingers crossed this could become a much better knitting event. Bring your own lunch in with you though as catering is hit and miss- and the coffee is pretty awful!

Meanwhile...we will also be exhibiting our SS collection 2012 on the catwalk at The British Alpaca Futurity at the NEC.

A new one for us this year is Sewing for Pleasure at the NEC 22nd- 25th March. We will do a review of the event afterwards to let you know. Feeling is there will be very little yarn there so perhaps one for the multi-crafter's calendar!

Then off to Wales 28th & 29th April and this time with alpacas in tow!! We tested Wonderwool Wales for the first time in 2011 and found the atmosphere lovely, met plenty of new customers and had a lovely weekend away with the dog. This year we will have two dogs and two alpacas (cozy in the tent). There is an emphasis on remembering where your yarn comes from and this is highlighted by all the livestock. Here you will again find plenty of independent suppliers and makers that you can't get at the bigger city events. Well worth a visit if you fancy an excuse to stay overnight in a picturesque part of Wales.
May- tumble weed. Unless I am mistaken May seems to be lovely and clear at the moment!

In June we're heading North up to Woolfest again in Cumbria. Again last year was our first experience of this event and it left us crumpled in a heap. A casual day's trading this ain't! Despite awful weather in 2011 this place was rammed with every manner of fibre and yarn product. This is a very busy show and with that comes queues for catering and loos. We had a great show and are very pleased to be going back this year. It was great to meet so many Scottish customers who had come down to the event. Again a great excuse for a weekend in the lakes.

And that takes through half of 2012. A further review of the end of the year, including all the Knitting and Stitching events, coming up in a couple of weeks.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Guest Blog Post by Martine from iMake: Toft Alpaca Yarn & Book Review

Today we're pleased to bring you a guest blog post by Martine from iMake. She was very keen to cast on in our yarn having already fallen for some of our more 'fluffy' products. Fans of her blog we were quick to send her off a Toft Pattern Book and 100g of our finest baby alpaca yarn. Barely a week later and she was done! Here's her review of knitting the Beginner Beret.

Ever since I discovered the Toft Alpaca Shop at Knit Nation last year, I have been a bit of a fan. They had a fantastic stall at the event and I loved everything about it… their beautiful alpaca yarns, the under-stated, natural colourways, their over-sized buttons, their pompoms and, well, their sheer Britishness!

So when the lovely ladies from Toft asked me to review some of their yarn, as well as their first ever pattern book (Toft Pattern Book 1) I was absolutely thrilled.

I decided to knit their Beginner Beret, featured on page 26 of the book, and for this I used 2 50g balls of Toft’s Baby Alpaca Double Knit yarn in a lovely warm shade of brown. The yarn did not disappoint. It was an absolute pleasure to knit with; it was beautifully soft, yet it had a reassuring strength to it. I used the yarn held double to create an aran weight yarn. Despite being a fairly experienced knitter, this is not something I’d ever done before, but it was remarkably easy and created a lovely texture and stitch definition. The yarn comes in a variety of natural colourways and I can honestly say that I’d wear every single one of them!

The beret is knitted flat in a simple rib, followed by double moss stitch and then stocking stitch with carefully placed decreases. I knitted the beret over just 2 evenings and I was delighted with the finished item. It’s the perfect size, it’s lovely and warm and it has a nice slouch to it. Normally I’d knit a hat in the round, but because the pattern is aimed at beginners, it’s knitted flat and seamed. This worried me a little as my seaming isn’t brilliant, however the pattern is very cleverly written and you really don’t notice the seam at all.

This is a hat that I am going to get a great deal of wear out of over the coming months, particularly if this chilly weather continues.

The pattern book is perfectly sized for slipping into your work-in-progress project bag. There is plenty of fascinating information about alpacas in the UK, shearing and spinning. I loved this element of the book, along with the cute alpaca photos. There are a few pages about knitting techniques, but this is not overdone (as it can be in some pattern books).

The pattern designs are simple but stylish and the finished items have been photographed
elegantly. There is a good mix of patterns in the book, I’d say more accessories than garments, which suits me very well as I am a knitter with a short attention span. The next pattern in my Ravelry queue will probably be the Bulb Bag; a lovely felted bag complete with over-sized, wooden Toft button or toggle. I am also rather keen on the Trinity Legwarmers and Moss Stitch Snood. Actually, I rather like the Bead Necklace too… I think I am going to be busy!

When I write a review, I am always completely honest (hmmmm… that is probably why I don’t get asked to write reviews very often!) I always try to find an ‘area for improvement’ (it’s the teacher in me) but I am struggling a little bit here. If I was being super-critical, I’d say that there were a few rows in the Beginner Beret pattern that could have benefited from the insertion of brackets, just to make the instructions perfectly clear to a beginner.
But this really is a minor point.

I loved the pattern book and I adored the yarn and I will definitely be back for more. It looks like my yarn diet is officially over!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Are you following the Toft Alpaca Blog?

We use lots of ways to keep in touch with you all, Facebook, Twitter, Posterous, Ravelry, but the Toft Alpaca Shop Blog is the place to read all about the latest Tofty goings on. 

We feature regular blog posts about all things knitting and alpaca, not to mention guest blogs and interviews with our knitters, knitting techniques and news.  If you’d also like to receive regular free patterns and exclusive Toft offers click here to sign up to receive our newsletter.


Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Unravel 2012 - we'll be there, will you?


* click here for more information, advance tickets & to preview the marketplace…

Friday, 10 February 2012

Ponderings of a Toft Knitter

This time on the Toft blog we bring you the first in our series of Toft knitter interviews. Kerry and I would have no chance to run the shop and office, send out your orders and go to shows if we had to hand knit all the lovely alpaca goodies we sell by ourselves. So of course we have a team of amazing ladies who do this job for us. They range from knitters who love skinny pins, to chunky yarn and big needle knitters, pattern designer knitters and all those in between. We're very lucky that they seem to love knitting for us and as such throughout the year we'll run a little series of these interviews to get their side of the story.

Cheryl is first up. She's been knitting for Toft for about 2 years or so. She will try her hand to anything and is often first in line to help us out of emergency knitting situations.

Firstly Cheryl, what are your top five things to knit?

C: Aran Sweaters are my very favourite, I love all the detail, I'm just finishing one for my husband actually. Closely followed by any kind of sweater or cardigan with patterns and shaping, as I get bored knitting just stocking stitch. I'm currently knitting baby clothes for my first grandchild (due anytime). Of the Toft staples that I knit, probably wristwarmers and leg warmers with their interesting but easy to memorise cable pattern are my favourites, although anything knitted in Toft Alpaca yarn is fine with me - it handles so well and is superb to knit with.

Where can you usually be found knitting?
C: I knit at home, usually in a comfy chair looking out at the garden during winter and then I like to get outside, in a sheltered spot, as soon as there is a bit of sunshine.

When do you usually knit?
C: I knit most evenings, and always when watching TV. I don't like to sit idle. If the pattern is simple I have also been known to read at the same time!

What is your favourite Toft yarn?
C: All the Toft yarns are fabulous - I love the soft Suri lace yarn for fine knitting but I think the Aran is the most versatile and gives such a good definition to cable patterns.

What is your favourite Toft yarn colour?
C: It is difficult to pick a favourite, though I do love Silver or Steel, they both have a lovely depth to them.

What is your favourite knitting or crochet stitch and why?

C: Tongue in cheek I'd have to say Hyacinth Stitch!! [Cheryl is responsible for two beautiful hyacinth snood samples which took her many hours to complete, we did only need one but Rob accidentally sold that one in the shop so we had to have another made quickly - she's a star!]. No seriously, I really enjoy cable patterns because they can be very simple or varied to give very complex designs.

Thank you Cheryl!

[N.B. We didn't pay Cheryl for any of her generous answers!]

Dissecting a cable stitch.

Cables are a great way to add texture and interest to your knitting, they might seem scary at first but they are the perfect 'next step' for beginnners.

Cable are often written C2F or C2B, for example.

Broken down C2F means, using a Cable needle slip 2 stitches and hold them to the Front, knit two stitches from your left hand needle and then knit the 2 stitches on your Cable needle. Of course the 2 stitches could be 3, 4 etc etc. In C2B, B means hold the stitches on the cable needle to the back of the work. Your cable stitches are the 2 (or more) stitches you slip, plus the 2 (or more) you knit before going back to you the slipped stitches on your cable needle, i.e a total of 4 stitches wide in this example.

Subscribers to the Toft newsletter will today receive a free cable wristwarmers pattern since they are one of Cheryl's favourite Toft knits. If you would like to receive our exclusive free patterns and news about Toft click here and sign up.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Dreaming of a change? We're Recruiting!

With the success of our extended range of products in 2011 and the coming expansion into The Toft Studio in 2012 we are on the hunt for someone to come and join us here at Team Toft.

We are seeking a motivated and enthusiastic individual to join a small growing team in a rural Warwickshire based office working part-time (with a view to extend following introduction period).

This is an unusual and fantastic opportunity for anyone wishing to work and build up experience in the textile design and manufacture field. Working days will be varied as we manage the entire process from the farming of the fibre through to retail of the product. Working within a friendly expanding UK family business, the right candidate will develop with the company and become influential in retail and possible design aspects of the business.

Working hours may vary to include weekday and some weekends.

Key Experience Knowledge and Skills:

· Solid administrator and good IT skills to include knowledge of social media
· No textile experience required but interest in craft and fashion useful

· Ability to demonstrate good customer service skills
· Able to work as part of a team and provide support to others
. Flexibility to adapt to a busy varied working day
. The candidate must hold a full UK driving licence

If you have the skills and enthusiasm we are seeking please apply with your CV by email to Kerry Lord . Closing date 1st March 2012.

If you have any questions don't hesitate to get in touch.

Friday, 3 February 2012

First Workshop of 2012

We're big on workshops here at Toft. It gives us such pleasure to know that we are passing on skills like knitting, felting, crochet and also sharing our knowledge about our furry alpaca friends.
The first workshop of 2012 was Intro to Knitting, a workshop we've become famous for here and we've never had someone leave unable to knit - we won't always pass judgement on finished items, but they all leave having knitted something!

January's intro course however was a corker, attended by 10 lovely people, ready to knit and fresh with 2012 enthusiam. As is customery on a Toft workshop we had plenty of tea before heading out into the slightly wild weather for a tour of the farm. At the furthest point away on the walk the heavens opened and we were treated to some horizontal rain that almost succeeded in getting up under our coats, but everyone powered on laughing and enjoying the endearing sight of bedragled alpacas.

Once back at the farm there was more tea with biscuits to re-fuel us before we started with the knitting. Some of the group, including Anne, Norah, Sarah and Kate soon remembered knitting with their Mums and Grans and it all came flooding back to them.

Anne even decided to tackle something slightly more challenging than the necklace or easy wristwarmers. Here is the beginning of her rib beanie.

Henny, Carol, Hannah and Tim needed just a bit more tutition particularly as several of them had never so much as picked up knitting needles.

Tim thought that his sewing up of people skills (he's a nurse) might come in handy and he was right. He soon got to tackling knitting and purling for the rib of his first hat, not to mention his first ever knitting project! Everyone did really well and a few have already been back in touch wanting to start on a beginner beret and fur pom pom hat to name but a few projects.

If you would like to join us on a Toft workshop we have an exciting new schedule for 2012 including
crochet, knitting the mini bulb bag, felting making during shearing week and also a quilting workshop in the autumn (details online soon). Check our workshop pages for more details. We even provide gift vouchers if you want to treat someone to a crafty present. The next workshop is Intro to Knitting being held on Friday 17th February, perhaps we'll see you there.