JOHN AR­BON TEX­TILES

John Ar­bon Tex­tiles uses tra­di­tional ma­chin­ery and meth­ods to create beau­ti­ful mod­ern yarns, as Juliet Bernard dis­cov­ers

The Knitter - - Contents -

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.

Crafts­man­ship

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.

Innovative ap­proach

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.

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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

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