John Arbon Textiles – A Day in the Mill

This month of our year-long make-along is sponsored by John Arbon Textiles, a woman-owned mill based in Exmoor, North Devon. We’ve always loved John Arbon’s beautiful blends and gorgeous shades here at Pom Pom! Their yarns are featured in our newest publications Ready Set Socks and Mini Pom… and we even named a pattern after their founders John and Juliet in our learn-to-knit book Knit How

We asked co-owner Sonja to take us on a journey through the mill, and explain how their raw fibre is turned into beautiful skeins. Take it away Sonja!

There is always a clamour and whir of machinery emanating from the John Arbon Textiles’ 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, and every day the mill is alive with the buzz of creativity. Our mill is one of only a handful of small-scale worsted spinning mills still operating in the UK, and we like to use fibre from sheep on our doorstep whenever possible. With the help of our trusty machines, we transform it into unique and sumptuous blends in the form of yarn and fibre tops (for hand spinners).

The team at John Arbon Textiles

The mill was founded by original owners, John and Juliet, in 2001, and since then has been strongly focused on traditional textile manufacturing processes. John Arbon Textiles is now proudly woman-owned by former employees Sonja and Helena, who are continuing to centre gorgeous yarn and an environmental ethos to their production. By sustainably sourcing raw fibre locally, where possible, and converting it into high quality tops and yarns, they can avoid racking up air miles and chasing the cheapest labour and largest, most automated processes. As avid makers themselves, Sonja and Helena recognise the thrill of excitement one gets from holding a beautiful skein of yarn. By using traditional production methods on a small scale, with expertly blended batches, we create products and shades as unique as each individual crafter!

Skeins of Yarnadelic

Our machines have been painstakingly collected and lovingly restored - many rescued from old, traditional mills as they closed down. We’ve named each machine to reflect their quirks, as they become part of the John Arbon family. They take a lot of time and care to look after; tinkering with gears, belts, oil levels or adjusting cogs. Keeping them going is a labour of love, but we think the resulting woolly treats are well worth it! 

The process of transforming raw fibre into finished yarn begins with our 1950s Thatum carder, Chapman, a fearsome machine bristling with pin-covered rollers. Scoured fibre travels through the rollers, known as strippers and workers, which open up and detangle the fibre. Once it has been carded, the fibre then goes to one of our three gill boxes (named Cuthbert, Ralph, and A2D2), beginning the intricate process of straightening and aligning the fibre using a set of pins (similar to a hairbrush). The fibre then journeys on to Clint (our comb machine), which removes any kemp and short fibres, before returning to 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.

Yarnadelic on Kevin (the sample spinner)

Appledore on Kevin (the sample spinner)

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, and now called ‘singles’, they rest for a week while the fibres relax into their new configuration – spinning yarn is not a process to be rushed!

Once resting is complete, the singles are coned on Gino (our Italian cone winding machine) and then plied on Mr. Boyd (the stately folding machine). Finally, the yarn is skeined on the oldest and most venerable of our machines, Gillian, a graceful lady, going strong since the early 1900s! She makes a comforting humming sound as she produces skein after glorious skein. Last year we added a second skein winder, Piglet, who (as the name may imply) is in charge of skeining up our 25g minis. A trusty creature, Piglet only lets out the occasional squeak as their cogs turn!

Mr. Boyd (folding machine)

Gino (cone winding machine) and Gillian (skein winder)

As you can see, this process is a labour of love for us. For that reason, we will only work with fibre that excites us. Our mill is situated in the heart of North Devon, with the surrounding Exmoor landscape 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, we use the fibre which is reared and sheared on this land. Our favourites are the Exmoor Blueface, a crossbreed of the Exmoor Horn and Blueface Leicester, which creates a wonderfully bouncy fibre with a hint of drape and lustre, and the staple ingredient of many of our bases. Zwartbles fibre is another favourite because of its long staple length and naturally dark brown colour. Any time we want to add depth of tone, just a dash of Zwartbles will do the trick!

Exmoor Blueface sheep

As not all sheep are suited to Exmoor’s damp climate, we also source organically farmed Merino and Corriedale from the Falkland Islands, taking care to ensure that the animals are farmed with the utmost respect and are mulesing free.

Each day at the mill is different, but the one constant is satisfaction. The hours of work and skill that go into producing our yarn and tops ranges are reflected in the dedication of a knitter, spinner, or crocheter during the intricate journey from beginning to finished garment – 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.

Skeins of Appledore

Want to see our machines in action? Why not visit our Mill Open Weekend in June 2023! We’d love to see you there!

Thank you Sonja! Don’t forget, enter our MAL before the end of November and you could win 2 skeins of their brand new Yarnadelic Worsted base. Pom readers can also enjoy 10% off at until 30th November by using the code JATLOVESPOM at checkout!

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