A brief history of the mill

So why do we run a mill?

Lavender-BeeWell, it actually started with a garden. Or more accurately, not really a garden at all, more a couple of acres of weeds and stones. But it was all enclosed by five metre high Victorian garden walls and trees beyond, creating the most wonderful microclimate (one of John’s favourite words) – so weeds and stones with potential!

Going back a bit, John had decided after 15 years teaching that it was time for a change, and was setting up a small gardening and landscaping business. We needed some extra garden space for him to use as a plant nursery and equipment store, and quite by chance we happened on the walled garden at Duns Castle. It had been unused for years, and the owners were happy to rent it to us to turn those weeds and stones into something beautiful.

We started planning what we could do with the space – fruit trees, currant bushes, strawberry plants, lots of lavender, and bee hives. But we realised pretty early on that planting up the whole 2½ acres was going to be too much even for us. Which is when something that had been lurking at the back of Juliet’s mind for years suddenly leapt to the fore: alpacas!

Why not use half the walled garden for alpacas?

mformanureNeither of us could find a good answer to that, so we set off to learn about alpacas, visited breeders, fenced and seeded the paddocks, and finally settled on a group of three young male alpacas from Greenside Alpacas in Cumbria. Amadeus, Lancelot and Rumples arrived in Spring 2009.

And that was it! Once you’ve fallen under the spell of these beautiful, graceful, gentle, characterful animals, there’s no escape. So another four boys soon arrived from Barnacre Alpacas (the first three just looked a bit lonely in that big paddock), and then two pregnant females (well, a couple of the boys had stud potential) … and once you’ve seen a newborn alpaca cria (think a fluffy Bambi), the battle is well and truly lost. That’s how it was for us, anyway.

We called our herd “Lavender Bee”, after the walled garden. And the alpacas and the garden were a great combination: bees + alpaca poo = oodles of strawberries!

Note the past tense there…

Alpacas_bluesheepA couple of years ago – once the mill had taken over our lives – we realised that there just weren’t enough hours in the day to keep up the garden or the landscaping business. So the alpacas (and some angora goats that we accidentally managed to acquire along the way) now live happily on a nearby farm where they have plenty of interesting neighbours to keep them amused, including rare breed sheep, horses, donkeys, highland cows, chickens, geese, and some spectacular peacocks.

Alpacas don’t much enjoy being shorn…

ShearingBut with a specialist shearer and plenty of extra pairs of hands, it’s over pretty quickly and they’re off back to the herd. There’s often then a very funny encounter where the other alpacas clearly don’t recognise the skinny little sylph who’s replaced their big fluffy friend.

What you’re left with is a huge pile wonderfully fine, warm, lustrous, soft fleece – 3 kilos or so per alpaca, of which about half will be the best quality ‘blanket’ from the back and sides. Alpaca fibre has a much lower ‘prickle factor’ than sheep wool because of the flatter scales on the fibre shaft, and most alpaca fleece has a diameter of less than 30 microns (thousandths of a millimetre), which is generally too fine to be felt by human skin. The best quality alpaca fleeces are less than 20 microns – as fine as cashmere – but much more robust and hard-wearing.

So what to do with all that lovely fleece?

scalesWell, Juliet had always been a keen (although admittedly not always successful) knitter, and learned to use a traditional spinning wheel. Although hand spinning was great fun (and really quite addictive!) it soon became clear that she wasn’t going to make much of an inroad into even the small stash of fleece that our first shearing produced.

So we started looking into getting some of our fleece spun commercially. But rather sadly, given the long tradition of the textile industry in the Scottish Borders, we couldn’t find anywhere in the Borders or elsewhere in Scotland that could process alpaca fleece – the nearest mills were 250 miles south of the border. And unless you had at least 20 kg, there was waiting list of over a year.

Clearly something had to be done! So after much plotting and planning, and more than a few sleepless nights, we took a very deep breath and placed our order for a lot of eye-wateringly expensive machinery from Belfast Mini Mills in Canada. And so The Border Mill came to be!

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