Serving the Smallholders
By Debbie Kingsley
The Natural Fibre Company looks after its suppliers of sheep, goat and alpaca wool, 75% of whom are smallholders. In this new series on professional processors, Debbie Kingsley goes behind the scenes at the Cornwall firm and meets its proprietor Sue Blacker and her metal menagerie of machines
You expect a woollen mill to have a distinctive odour, but the first sniff at The Natural Fibre Company at 10am is unexpected — there is a strong hint of toast in the air. “That’s the mill workers’ breakfast,” says Sue Blacker, owner of the company. “They start work at 7am, or sometimes as early as 6am.”
We are in an office on a modern industrial estate in Launceston, Cornwall, and a group of young women are working intently, busy at their computers. There is a brief interruption as someone who has been working in the mill comes in, concerned about how a batch of yarn is faring in its final stage of being wound into balls. Sue rubs the strands of yarn between her fingers and the two experts quickly agree a way forward. Focussed back on the task in hand, Sue shares how she came to own and run The Natural Fibre Company.
Born and brought up in St Austell, Sue headed off to Cambridge University to read history, where she says she “tested the truth of things”. On graduating, she took a job at Rothschilds, starting on a £1,800 annual salary, before spending 17 years as a stockbroker in investment analysis, where she analysed businesses and predicted their future value. By the end of the 1980s the sector became ever more aggressive and less amenable to women and, deciding that a change was required, Sue and her journalist husband, Douglas Bence (also a director of the company), moved to Cornwall where they already had a holiday cottage.
Sue’s next professional challenge was running a series of organisations in the public and charitable sectors, including a stint with the Cornwall Development company that supported farmers and others to better market their goods, and
with a woodland charity that brought a realisation to how similar wood is to wool.
“Both are versatile, sustainable materials from which you can make many things and they both need some pretty hefty machinery and mechanical processes to get there,” she says.
By now living in the county on the toe of England and with land to manage, Sue bought some Gotland sheep in 1995, but she pondered long and hard about what to do with their wool.
“If I asked anyone they always said ‘send it to The Natural Fibre Company’, so I made contact with them and was a customer for six years until, in one of their newsletters, they said that they were looking at what the next steps should be for the company.”
As an experienced businesswoman, Sue knew what that meant. Myra and Philip Mortlock, the owners, were looking to retire. With their support, Sue wrote a business plan and after approaching eight banks secured finance, plus European Objective One funding.
The handover during 2004-05 meant moving the company from Wales to Cornwall (although a Welsh presence continued for a short while) to a 10,000ft2 production space, since extended with a 4,500ft2 mezzanine. Some of the machinery was transported, too, although a new automated scouring machine, carding machine and the “mind your fingers” Fearnaught blending and teasing machine were just some of the additional beasts added to the metal menagerie.
And that’s what it feels like, this large room of metal cogs, wheels, spindles and bobbins with a beating heart of sound and rhythm. A dozen and more machines, each attended by a solicitous human, who feeds in the fibre of sheep, goats and alpacas. The staff all wear ear plugs or more chunky ear defenders, but it is not unduly noisy for a brief visit, although the carding machines are not in use today.
Moving from the office to the mill, the smell of toast is gone and instead there is a subdued scent of hot wool, far less pungent than a shearing shed now the animals are taken out of the equation. To the untutored eye, the machines are a mix of modern and traditional. From the heavy-duty carders, all iron and grease, to the finesse of the spinning machines, all shiny stainless steel and myriad working parts.
Twenty-five percent of the business is producing its own Blacker Yarns label wool and the rest is spinning yarns for other people, of which 75% is for smallholders.
For spinning yarn, a minimum quantity of 20kg of raw fleece is required, although if the smallholder is only after having their fleece carded, 10kg is acceptable.
For the smaller flock keeper, the wool clip can be saved from one shearing to the next, and it will be preserved better and will produce higher quality results if it is washed before storing (the company’s
We are experts in all aspects of the process of turning raw fleece into high quality yarn, some of it rare and highly specialised. Most of our customers with rare and specialist breeds are in the UK, but we also process fibre for people in Germany, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden and even the United States
website gives guidance on this and many other helpful bits of advice).
Each batch received is labelled and recorded, so that the producer can be sure of getting their own wool back. The mezzanine floor is stuffed with sacks, all carefully marked and labelled. Here it is in black and white. The producer’s name and the fleece type.
In addition to having producers’ own fleeces turned into yarn, the company is always looking to buy high quality fibre from rare and specialist breeds, so smallholders are suppliers too. From 20kg of fleece, once properly sorted, graded, scoured and dried, there will be about 15kg available for spinning, while a further 2-3kg is lost through the processing, no matter how much you start with. The resulting 10-12kg of yarn will cost the smallholder between £700-£1,000, equating to a cost of £ 3.50-£4 per 50g ball. (And a potential sale price of up to £ 6.)
The company is unusual and possibly unique in scouring, carding, dyeing and woollen and worsted spinning under one roof.
“We are experts in all aspects of the process of turning raw fleece into high quality yarn, some of it rare and highly specialised,” notes Sue. “Most of our customers with rare and specialist breeds are in the UK, but we also process fibre for people in Germany, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden and even the United States.”
Sue, not unsurprisingly a passionate knitter, developed own brand Blacker Yarns in 2008, producing beautiful wool, dyed and undyed, from single breeds and carefully developed blends, from laceweight to chunky and colourful woollen garden twine.
The Natural Fibre Company produces limited edition runs from “rare, regional, special or unusual breeds, such as the Soay, Boreray, North Ronaldsay, Llanwenog and Castlemilk Moorit. Due to scarcity, these yarns come and go, much like a guest ale”.
Sue admits that when she started “we probably weren’t any good at anything”, but that her customers were very patient.
“Unlike large-scale milling factories, who work with the same product every day, our skill is to get whatever we are sent to work.”
The company has grown eight fold in turnover since the move to Cornwall. Sue sees the growth in terms of “build it and they will come”, with her expertise, a confident business head and a product and service she believes in based on detailed market research and understanding her customers. However, the main thing she seems concerned about is moths, for which she is on a constant hunt.
Twenty-five percent of the business involves producing its own Blacker Yarns label wool, while the rest entails spinning yarns for other people
The huge spinning machine
Company owner Sue Blacker with carded fibre
Weighing the wool
Sue with the twister machine. Her company has grown eight fold in terms of turnover since its move to Cornwall
The wool arrives in 20kg sacks