Congratulations to you and Helena on becoming proud owners of John Arbon Textiles. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with us today.
What inspired you and Helena to take on the challenge of owning a textile mill, and what has been the most rewarding aspect so far?
Both Hels and I had been working at JAT for rather a while before taking the helm, so really it's just been a natural progression. When Juliet and John told us they were looking to retire, it was very much only if we fancied taking over and continuing on – I always joke that we were the only two Mill Folks foolish enough to take on all the responsibility!
In terms of what's been most rewarding, I reckon it's exactly the same as it was when we were both employees: being able to dream up desert island yarn in our favourite shades and then a few months later, we're getting that first swatch on the needles and dreaming of projects… Pure magic every time!
Please tell us a bit about the history of John Arbon Textiles and how you plan to build upon its legacy with your new ownership.
JAT was started by Mr John Arbon himself, along with his wife, Juliet. They owned the business for 21 years and gradually built it from the bones up. When it started, I think they were selling mostly Alpaca and finished items like socks and scarves along side yarn and tops. Initially, they were working out of a historical water-powered mill, Coldharbour, but over time John was able to re-home enough machines to be able to move to our current unit in South Molton. By this time, they were making more and more yarn for crafters – as woolly folks make the best customers – and decided a few years later to let go of the sock business entirely. It was around this time that Helena and I started, and the yarn and tops ranges began to expand a little and reflect our current offerings.
Helena and I are both millennials, and our intention and focus with JAT is to ensure that we run it in a way that best reflects our ethics. We are adding more and more UK-grown fibre, as we strongly believe in buying locally from an environmental and economic perspective. Being employers is new for us, but as we're both socialists at heart, everyone at the mill (including ourselves) is on the same hourly wage. After all – none of this would happen without all of us Mill Folks working together as a team! Hels and I are doing our best to put down solid foundations, and once we feel like we have these in place, who knows what's next?
What are some of the unique challenges of running a textile mill, and how do you navigate them?
Every day is different and one has to be quite good at thinking flexibly, but then I imagine this is true in any micro business. Honestly, I've spent most of my adult life working at mills, so it all seems normal to me!
How do you source the materials used in your fibre tops and knitting yarns, and what factors do you consider when selecting them?
We buy our fibre via two sources. We source the finer stuff like Merino and Corriedale (outside the UK) from our wool agent, the splendid Andrew Bowman. He purchases it directly from farmers in the Falklands and overseas and visits every few years to see the flocks and build those relationships.
The UK grown fibre we purchase through the British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB) via auction. This is a farmer-run organisation which was set up during WWII with the aim of achieving the best possible price for producers. They do this by categorising the fibre into over 120 different grades depending on various qualities like softness, length, colour, lustre and percentage of vegetable matter, etc. Similar fibre is gathered together into a single grade, tested and then sent to auction.
We buy specific grades and then blend these to create each of our unique yarns. From time to time, when planning a new range, we will add in a new grade (or type) of wool. When doing this, we walk the ten mins up the road to our local BWMB grading station and take a look at all the fibre on offer, give it all a squish and see what takes our fancy.
Can you walk us through creating a new yarn or fibre blend from conception to production?
So this is my very favourite part of the entire thing, such a magical process and never gets old! First comes the initial spark of an idea about a specific handle or feel of a yarn – or a particular way of blending shades we think will be interesting. We'll kick the idea about a bit, make a few samples, knit them up, and see what we think. After a few iterations, we'll end up with a blend which everyone is excited about, by which point, a theme and an idea of a colour palette will have emerged. Many of our ranges have specific palettes which are based on the fibre composition or production method. So once you know which qualities are most important, other factors will slot into place around this.
Next up, the hand carders come out and all the Mill Folks have the opportunity to whip up a few shades. Then it's a case of narrowing this incredible rainbow of delights down into a palette which will work with our existing ranges whilst being different. Once this process is complete, we send it to a few pals for feedback, start working on some designs and plan the launch. This final stage of getting the yarn ready for its debut probably takes about six months, minimum, and the conception stage can't be rushed and has been known to take up to a few years. We were down at the BWMB grading station a few months back and found something new as it happens… so watch this space!
Martha coning on Gino
What sets your products apart from other knitting yarns and fibre tops on the market in terms of quality, sustainability, or other factors?
The main thing which sets our yarn and tops apart is that we have our own mill. This means that we have greater flexibility about what we make and, in most cases, a deeper understanding of what fibre we are using and where it is coming from. Like most products out there, the majority of yarn in the world is made in giant factories by an exploited workforce.
That being said, what we do is by no means unique – once you start hunting, there are many independent mills around the world creating beautiful, bespoke yarns. So in terms of this smaller pond, I reckon the thing that sets us apart is how we blend up our heathered shades from tops rather than dyeing the finished yarn. This allows us to make those magic shades which, from further away, appear as a solid colour but up close, have a kaleidoscope of different hues living inside them. There aren't many worsted mills using a dyed-in-the-wool process.
How do you engage with your customers and the broader crafting community, and what role do their feedback and suggestions play in your product development?
It's the opportunity to play with colours and the yarn that got me into the fibre industry, but it is most certainly the people who have kept me here. There are so many kind, generous, hilarious, creative souls about. We love the ideas and creativity that emerge from chatting with our customers, whether they're industry bods like dyers, designers, bloggers and yarn shop owners like yourself or someone wanting to spin and knit up the perfect shawl they've imagined in their heads. The joy of having a mill is being able to make the raw materials which then go on to fuel someone else's creative process.
We make rather a lot of limited editions, and collaborating with other folks is always a treat. We even take to Insta Stories a few times a year and ask all our followers to help us design a limited edition shade. It is always a joy to see what folks come up with.
What are your goals for John Arbon Textiles, and how do you plan to achieve them?
Hels and I look forward to continuing to do what we love. This year we're changing the blend in our Knit by Numbers range from 100% Merino to 50% BFL / 50% Merino. Merino is a beautiful fibre, but there is more than enough of it out there in the world without us needing to add more. The new 50/50 blend is glorious and has a little more drape and sheen than the original version, so we're excited to start sharing it with folks!
We've also got some schemes for adding a few new yarns, down the line. But it's still early days on all of these. Designing a yarn takes time.
Knit by Numbers
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your business, and what adjustments have you made to adapt to changing circumstances?
Before Covid, we used to go to rather a lot of in-person shows, so it was a shock when all of these became an impossibility overnight! I'm rather an introvert, so it was a terrifying prospect to be suddenly hosting Zoom sessions and recording YouTube videos – not to mention a steep learning curve. Happily, all our customers seemed to enjoy our virtual witterings and, especially in the early days of lockdowns, knowing that you've brightened someone's day even a little felt worth the slight terror of waving into a camera – hehehe.
These days we have an active YouTube channel and a number of virtual events each year. It is such a joy to be able to connect with a broader audience than would be able to attend in-person shows. That being said, nothing beats seeing folks in person and having a good ol chin wag. These days we vend at Wonderwool Wales (22nd – 23rd April, 2023) and host our own Mill Open Weekend (16th – 18th June, 2023) every year. This year we're also chuffed to be adding a return to Yarndale (23rd – 24th September, 2023) into the mix.
What advice would you give someone interested in starting their own textile mill or yarn business?
Find your niche, and don't second guess yourself by trying to make things you think other people will like. Instead, make the thing you personally love, and chances are, plenty of other folks out there love it for all the same reasons you do.
And remember to have fun! Running a small business can be a tad stressful at times, so it's only worth doing if you can stop and laugh with pals along the way.