‘A Cut Above the Rest, Gala Cut and Yarn Counts’

Over the years I have been asked many times and quite recently at the Dornoch Fibre Fest, to explain the meaning of the term ‘Gala cut’ which was the yarn count measurement used in our yarns spun by Hunters of Brora. At Dornoch I was most fortunate to be in the company of one of Hunters of Brora past employees, who was better qualified as me to answer the question.

First Yarns on Hank
Our Old Yarn Shop

 Nowadays yarn counts are in metric which I have never been comfortable with having been from the pre decimal / metric era. In 2013 when asked by our local museum to help recreate a yarn to match their historic knitwear collection “wirsit” worsted spun hand knitting garments, I had to guess the thickness of the yarn used all those decades ago. I was unable to have a garment or even a thread to pass on to the spinner I took a chance and said in my opinion the yarn used in the garments reminded me of Hunters of Brora 2/22.5 cut. Perhaps someone working at the worsted spinner in Yorkshire would know about the Gala count used by Hunters of Brora. When I delivered the first batch of Heritage worsted yarns to the museum several weeks later, I was delighted to see the reaction of the textile curator to the finished article, and it was almost an exact match to the yarns used in the garments in their collection.

Heritage Museum Fair Isle Collection
Heritage Dyed Yarns
Heritage Undyed Natural Yarns

Gala Cut is a woollen spun count system still used by some weavers in Scotland and Ireland. The count is the number of hanks of 200 yards in one pound of yarn. Gala is the local abbreviation for the town of Galashiels in the Scottish borders Woollen Counts. In my early days learning the trade from T.M.Hunter I thought Hunter’s mill were the only people to use the Gala Cut. However as time went by I discovered that others used the same method with some variations, Hunters used their own special measurement in 24 ounces and in Hawick it was 300 yard hanks in 26 ounces. The other count was Yorkshire Skeins, however the situation is beclouded because some if not most woollen spinners describe their yarn in worsted or metric counts and more are adding the TEX value for good measure it can be very confusing.

How to describe the yarn: The answer was to say that a particular yarn had so many hanks to the pound. It follows that the more hanks to the pound the finer the yarn. So in this count system the count is the number of hanks (or yards) in a fixed weight of yarn.

Different areas made their reputation for their particular textile product and yarn or cloth from one area might be heavier or lighter, be softer or finer than that from another part of the country. Also in certain areas that the raw material might be of a particular quality, for instance the local sheep might be of a certain breed producing finer or coarser wools than those in another region. So yarn from a particular area would have its own characteristics, this would lead in time to separate count systems for different part of the country. When looking at the yarn fringes depicting a particular yarn say 2 ply jumper weights, all the fringes should have the same appearance, and all should be uniform to look at. If you see and unevenness in the uniformity of thickness of the shade fringes, it either means the spinner has got their count wrong, or it could mean the yarn was that of another spinner.

For instance there are quite a few comments about the difference between our yarns, counts, handle, and make up, from that of other companies selling so called Shetland yarns. I answer this by saying we at J&S hand sort our graded Shetland greasy wool to the same standard set by my old boss John ‘Sheepie’ Smith who supplied sorted wool, since the 1930s to T.M.Hunter. If the Shetland wool is not sorted; that is separating the short and longer staple you will get an uneven yarn that is thick and thin. Also if the coarser guard hair is not separated out from the fine wool you will get an itchy yarn. Imitators of Shetland yarn use Australasian wool that is even in both length and fineness, this saves a lot of work in producing a finished yarn and consequently costs less. Although this yarn can be of uniform length and fineness, its handle is flat and lacks the bounce and softness of yarn found from the wool of genuine Shetland sheep.

Fine Shetland Fleece
Sorted Fine Wool Staple

 It was interesting to see that when Hunters closed down and we switched to a small woollen spun mill in Yorkshire the yarn quality was much the same, although the yarn count was in metric. The reason being was because the sorted Shetland wool we were supplying them with to spin was the same quality as we had always used. The only difference being the shades did not totally match up to that of Brora as we did not have the original Hunters shade melange recipes.

2 Ply Jumper Weight

I found it very difficult to follow yarn counts and technical terms and still do, most of the above information was given to me by one of the most experienced Scottish textile people I ever encountered Alistair McDonald from the Scottish borders. Alistair was T.M.Hunter of Brora yarn marketing executive in the 1970s and 80s. Alistair created a ‘alphabetical’ textile directory which has been invaluable to me in my lifetime working with wool, yarn and textiles in general I will post further blogs related to his directory at a later date.

Thanks to Ella Gordon for the use of her photos and her very apt title for my blog.

Also Alistair McDonald for all his help and technical advice which has served me well over the years.

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