The 4 Rs: Rest and Recuperation, Research and Reorientation


Jonathan: Tomorrow, Denise will be on the morning flight from Benbecula to Stornoway. She’ll be back a week later. She’ll be having a very quiet time. Breakfast in bed. Reading in bed. Knitting in bed. Everything in bed. But it’ll not be a holiday!

Stornoway, on the east coast of the northern-most island of Lewis, is the largest town of the Outer Hebrides. Indeed it is the islands’ only proper town: and as such it is the principal settlement, seat of local government, and the centre of administration and operations for many other public institutions.

Accustomed as we are to a simple quiet country life, Stornoway – and indeed much of Lewis – seems almost a foreign land. There, in Gaelic, the weather is gendered masculine – not feminine as it is here: that seems to sum up the differences very neatly!  We have very little reason or inclination to go to Stornoway, and in fifteen years Denise has been there on just three occasions. Rest Recuperation and Reading! Denise at An Garradh Mor, Isle of South UistOnce was with me in 2005 to see Runrig at the Hebridean Celtic Festival, the other two were both last year, and for the same reason as this impending visit. Hospital. Surgery.

Hopefully this trip will sort the problem out for good.  She’ll be home, hopefully, late next week, but she’ll require a long period of rest and recuperation. It could be some weeks before she’s out of bed, and perhaps even a year before it’s safe for her to do the kind of physical work she’s used to – especially in the garden.  She’ll be very frustrated at times – but she’s just going to have to make the best of it.

Between the autumn and spring equinoxes, the weather in the islands is frequently severe to brutal, and indoor occupations are an essential to surviving the winters. For us, winter’s a time for planning and preparing for the following summer: designing garments, spinning and dyeing yarns, weaving, knitting, packaging … along with ordering seeds and supplies for the garden, cooking marmalades, painting and decorating the holiday cottages, refreshing or even rebuilding of websites …  It’s a busy time of year for us – possibly even busier than summer – but mostly spent indoors.

This year, we’ll be as busy as ever – but with a twist. Much of what Denise normally does – her daily routines and more physical tasks – will fall to me. A quiet winter's evening by candle light and power cut. Denise. An Garradh Mor, Isle of South UistNo doubt that’ll be subject to her tuition and supervision!  Without a doubt, it will! Denise will have more time for quiet thought and gentle hand-work. Together, we see this winter as an opportunity for research and reorientation – discovering new ideas, learning new skills, and steering ourselves in new directions.

New directions … or perhaps better put, new expressions. New ways to express our core values, which are at once both very simple and very complex. Keywords: Natural ; Local ; Self-made ; Hand-made ; Indigenous ; Traditional ; Skilled ; Useful ; Unique ; Simple ; Tangible ; Personal ; Intrinsic, Connected, Universal  …

Over this winter, and continuing over the coming years, we’ll be steering ourselves clear of the gravitational pull of mass consumerism, finding and following those values we always have and always will hold dearest. Some of what we have been doing in recent times will fall away.

The first of our Uist Landscapes range of hand-spun merino wools was a one-off. We think it may have been in 2006 and in the colours we now call Atlantic. It was instantly popular – and still is the most in demand. Denise tried other colours. They were very popular too. We started to buy the pre-coloured merino tops in bulk, to reduce cost.

Denise blending and carding dyed merino tops into rolags for Uist Landscapes - Atlantic

Denise blending and carding dyed merino tops into rolags for Uist Landscapes – Atlantic

To maximize on the investment, we devised the Uist Landscapes range, and gave each colour a name. Denise perfected the spinning to produce the yarns extremely consistently, so that customers could buy a number of skeins – for a large project – with confidence ; and so that if they later found they needed more, they could order another skein or two – and it would match up with what they bought before.  As a result, sales of Uist Landscapes, and everything made with them, continued to grow.

Most of the stock for each summer is built up during the preceding winter. Each year Denise has spun more than the previous winter, but each year it’s earlier and earlier in the summer that Denise finds she needs to spin more to maintain stock in the garden shop or at Kildonan. And this pressure to produce – to re-produce old ideas, is at the expense of time to think, to create the new.  Isn’t this what it means to be a victim of your own success?   It isn’t really what we set out to do!

Denise’s will not be able to do much spinning this winter. Plying of singles into 2-ply yarns will be out of the question for quite a few months. I don’t have the high level of skill required for this particular work.  We have therefore taken the decision, in principle, to discontinue Uist Landscapes. However, as we have a lot of material in stock, it will be a few years until the last skein is sold, so for those in need of an additional skein or two, rest assured we’ll not let your project remain unfinished! Otherwise we will be using the remaining stock of merino ‘tops’ more spontaneously, with ad-hoc designs in very limited quantities – never to be repeated.

More importantly, we’ll working with a multitude of fresh ideas and new materials and techniques. What these will result in … ? Well, we may give some glimpses of work-in-progress, over the winter; but as we ourselves, right now, have absolutely no idea, you’ll have to wait until next Easter (when we re-open the Hebridean Woolshed’s garden shop for the summer) to find out!

Denise is taking with her, to hospital, a few skeins of black Shetland with silk …