JOHN ARBON TEXTILES
John Arbon Textiles uses traditional machinery and methods to create beautiful modern yarns, as Juliet Bernard discovers
We go behind the scenes at the traditional Devon mill
IN THE past few years, the British spinning industry has experienced something of a renaissance, especially among those companies manufacturing yarn for knitters. Juliet and John Arbon epitomise this resurgence, which is characterised by innovation and resilience. John Arbon Textiles was set up around 16 years ago, but John’s experience goes back to the 1980s, when the UK still had quite a substantial yarn industry. Originally he studied textile printing at the London College of Printing, but his sense of curiosity meant he wanted to know more about the textiles he was printing on. He pursued a BSc in Textiles at De Montfort University, majoring in machine knitting and spinning, and soon after graduating, found himself working in the midlands as a design technician for a jersey knitter. But, sadly, the UK textile industry was in a pretty poor state, so the job didn’t last.
A desire to move down to the South West was soon realised in 2000, and John’s spinning skills and knowledge were put to very good use when he was asked to be the fibre consultant for the British Alpaca Fibre Cooperative. “I helped alpaca farmers turn their fibre into yarn and then in to socks and garments, using my industry contacts,” John explains. If you visit the John Arbon website today you will see that alpaca socks are still an important part of the business.
When John came across Coldharbour Mill in Devon back in 2001, he decided he wanted to set up his own spinning business. At the start, he used some of the machinery that was already in the mill, as well as machines he had started to buy. The business grew, and about five years ago it had to relocate to accommodate its success, and is now based in South Molton, on the edge of Exmoor in Devon. Despite this growth, the company has remained true to its ethos
to embrace the old style of textile manufacture, where craftsmanship is key and can’t be rushed.
“My machines mainly date from 1900 to 1984, because older machines are easier to maintain,” says John. “We’re not about the mass spinning you might see in China, which relies on the latest computerised technology. For us, it’s more about the craft; I want to put life in to my yarns – and older machines let me do this.” It is very important to John that he can hand down the skills that he has learned, and he has built up an excellent team in the mill, passing on his knowledge as well as his belief that to make a yarn you can be proud of takes time and care.
John Arbon’s mill is a fully worsted-spun concern, so each yarn is made from fleeces with a longer staple length such as alpaca, Wensleydale and Bluefaced Leicester. He currently spins for a select group of independent brands such as Daughter of a Shepherd, The Little Grey Sheep, Skein Queen, Susan Crawford, The Knitting Goddess and Easyknits, often creating bespoke yarns to meet their specifications.
But it is in his own yarns that you will find true innovation and spinning prowess. From the Knit By Numbers range to Alpaca Supreme and Exmoor Sock, John’s vision is brought to life. So how does he go about creating a new yarn? “Whenever I come across or sample a new fibre, I can imagine how it will spin and begin to plan what it could be blended with to bring out its beauty,” says John. It can take a couple of years to bring a new yarn to the market, as John explains: “In the first year, I have an idea of what I want and will try different blends and twists until I am happy. Then I have to wait a year for sheep to be shorn again and the fleece to be ready for production.”
The brand’s latest yarn is called Devonia, and is a wonderful blend of Exmoor Blueface, Wensleydale and Bluefaced Leicester wools, all sourced in Devon. When
developing the Devonia yarn, which is available in DK and 4ply weights, John knew he wanted a product that could work close to the skin, yet was also flexible enough for outerwear. The three fibres in the blend have been carefully chosen so that they enhance each other’s properties. Exmoor Blueface is the backbone of Devonia - it is hard-wearing and tenacious, with a springy nature and a good bite for spinning. Wensleydale wool tends to be shorn twice a year, which gives it a fine halo and a lovely golden sheen. Bluefaced Leicester wool builds on this lustre and adds an outstanding softness. Devonia captures John’s skill, and is a real treat to knit with.
Once John had developed the Devonia blend, it was time to think about the colour palette. “I was really inspired by the French artist Jean Lurçat, who became famous for the part he played in the revival of contemporary tapestry. The yarn he used was spun and dyed to his own palette – he had an amazing eye for colour.”
John and his wife Juliet visited the Lurçat home in a partially derelict castle, but it was the collection of tapestries called ‘Le Chant Du Monde’, on display in the Hôpital Saint Jean in Angers, which really inspired him. The tapestry is a riot of colour and complex imagery on a grand scale, and the Devonia colour palette has evolved from this – a wonderful collection of deep, mottled hues.
You can be sure that John is already planning more new yarns for the future which support local sheep breeds as well as adding variety to his existing range. “I want to bring out a new member of the Knit By Numbers family - a merino silk blend which will be a three-fold yarn with two ends in pure merino and one end in merino silk, to give a beautiful two-tone effect.” We can’t wait for this and all the other yarns that John is cooking up for the future.
1 The Fibre Harvest mill processes and spins fleece to create yarns and tops 2 Raw materials are sourced locally where possible 3 Glorious colours of Devonia tops 4 Juliet and John Arbon head up the small but dedicated mill team
A wide range of British breed tops is produced 5 The mill is one of just a handful of worsted-spun operations left in the UK 6 The Devonia blend of Exmoor Blueface, Devon Bluefaced Leicester and Devon Wensleydale fibres on the spinner 7 John operates and maintains the vintage equipment himself
1+2 John’s collection of vintage mill equipment has been reassembled at a new home in South Molton, Devon 3 The colour palette for Devonia was inspired by a French tapestry artist, Jean Lurçat The yarn range is sold online and in the John Arbon shop in Lynton