There is always a clamour and whir of machinery emanating from our Mill. The rhythmic movements of the vintage machines are hypnotic: driving mechanisms on the spinners and gill boxes move up and down, as though they are breathing… every day the Mill is alive with the buzz of creativity. Our family-run Mill is one of only a handful of small-scale worsted spinning mills still operating in the UK. John likes to use fibre from sheep on our doorstep whenever possible and, with the help of his trusty team, transforms it into unique and sumptuous blends in the form of yarn and tops.
John started the Mill nineteen years ago, along with his wife Juliet. John Arbon Textiles is based on a very simple concept: a return to old-style textile manufacture by sustainably sourcing raw fibre locally, wherever possible, and converting it in the UK into high quality tops and yarns, rather than racking up air miles by chasing the cheapest available labour.
John has painstakingly collected and lovingly restored every one of his machines – rescuing many from old, traditional mills as they closed down. During the week, he can often be found rummaging about inside one of his much-loved machines (each named, to reflect their quirks, as they become part of the family) – tinkering with gears, belts, oil levels or adjusting cogs. Keeping them going is a time-consuming business, but we reckon that the resulting woolly treats are well worth it.
The process of transforming raw fibre into finished yarn begins with John’s 1950s Tathum carder, Chapman – a fearsome machine bristling with pin-covered rollers. Scoured fibre travels through these rollers, known as strippers and workers, which open up and detangle the fibre. Once it has been carded, the fibre goes to one of the three gill boxes (Cuthbert, Ralph and A2D2) which begin the intricate process of straightening and aligning the fibre using a set of pins (similar to a hairbrush). The fibre then journeys onto Clint (the comb) which removes any kemp and short fibres, before returning back to the gill boxes again. Each batch produced travels through the gill boxes a minimum of three times, and with every pass the fibre (at this point known as tops) becomes more even, drapey and lustrous.
Next these beautifully aligned fibre tops move onto the spinning machines: Butler, an old and steadfast sample spinner, and Kevin, a newer and bigger model (he is a 1980s French double drafting ring spinner and the largest machine at the Mill). Once spun, the singles rest for a week while the fibres relax into their new configuration – spinning yarn is not a process to be rushed! When resting is complete, the singles are coned on either Rupert Lee or Gino (the Italian cone winder) and then plied on Mr. Boyd (the stately folding machine). Finally, the yarn is skeined on the oldest and most vulnerable machine, Gillian – a graceful lady, going strong since the early 1900s. She makes a comforting humming sound as she produces skein after glorious skein.
This process is a labour of love, and for that reason John and Juliet will only work with fibre that excites them.
The Mill is situated in the heart of North Devon, where John and Juliet have made their home. The surrounding Exmoor landscape is an ever-changing vista of rolling moors, mossy wooded valleys and dramatic cliffs – all populated with a rich variety of local sheep breeds. As much as possible, John uses the fibre which is reared and sheared on this land. Whilst experimenting with different local breeds, he has found a few firm favourites, including Exmoor Blueface, a crossbreed of the Exmoor Horn and Blueface Leicester. This wonderfully bouncy fibre, with a hint of drape and lustre, is the staple ingredient in John’s signature Devonia yarn & tops range, and also Exmoor Sock 4ply. Zwartbles fibre is another favourite because of its long staple length and naturally dark brown colour. John makes a gradient Exmoor Zwartbles natural shade yarn, whilst also adding a dash to his Harvest Hues yarn & tops and Exmoor Sock ranges for a wonderful depth of tone.
As not all sheep are suited to Exmoor’s damp climate, John also sources organically farmed Merino, Corriedale and Polwarth from the Falklands, taking care to ensure that the animals are farmed with the utmost respect and are mulesing free. John’s innovative Merino yarn range, Knit By Numbers, is available in over 100 different shades – each colour available in a gradient of six shades, carefully calibrated by blending dyed tops with varying percentages of white.
All these wonderful blends, textures and more can be found on the pages of our website. But if you would like to see our woolly wares in person, then we wholeheartedly recommend visiting our Mill Open Weekend, or finding us at an upcoming show.
Each day at the Mill is different, but the one constant is the satisfaction. The hours of work and skill that go into producing one of our yarn and tops ranges is reflected in the dedication of a knitter, spinner or crocheter during the intricate journey from beginning to finished garment – both are a harmony of tradition and creativity. Every hand-crafted item has its story, and so too does every skein of yarn and bump of tops made here at John Arbon Textiles.
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