Serv­ing the Small­hold­ers

Country Smallholding - - Inside This - For more in­for­ma­tion, visit: www. then­at­u­ral­fi­;­er­

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

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