John Arbon Textiles and its indie flock

John Arbon at work at his mill.

John Arbon at work at his mill.

Earlier this year, Linda Lencovic of Kettle Yarn Co. posted to the Indie Untangled marketplace about her new custom yarn base. Baskerville, a fingering-weight blend of two British wools — Exmoor Blueface and Gotland — plus silk, was born of a collaboration between Linda and John Arbon Textiles, a small worsted spinning and processing mill in North Devon, on the coast of southwest England.

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Linda described the process on her blog, noting that she was looking for a blend of British wool that was sheep-y and rustic, but still soft against her sensitive skin. “I wanted a yarn that looked like handspun and had enough tooth to hold its shape, without the scritchy qualities I normally associate with these types of traditional yarns,” Linda wrote.

It’s the perfect marriage between small fiber businesses.

The mill has been built up over the last 15 years by founder John Arbon, who, awesomely, spent his teen years as a guitarist in a punk band, later studied textiles at De Montford University in Leicester and then came to Devon to work with the British Alpaca Fibre Co-op. After a while, he decided to go off on his own, and began buying, refurbishing and reconditioning old manual mill machinery. While many UK mills have since gone overseas to utilize cheap labor, John Arbon is one of only a handful of mills still operating in the UK, producing specialty yarns and tops using local and rare breed fleeces, as well as luxurious wool and alpaca socks.

A roving frame at the mill.

A roving frame at the mill.

Several years ago, the mill began working with independent yarn dyers on custom bases, putting together a blend of their own fibers or using fiber that the dyer supplies. The Exmoor Blueface in Linda’s Baskerville, a cross between the Exmoor Horn and Blueface Leicester sheep, comes from the sheep farmed on fields in nearby Exmoor. She has offered it both naturally dyed with indigo, and in its raw, undyed beauty.

John Arbon has also put together its own fibers to create personal blends for other indies, including Debbie Orr of Skein Queen, Joy McMillan of The Knitting Goddess and designer Ysolda Teague, whose Blend No. 1 — a 3-ply, worsted-spun sport weight made with Merino, Polwarth and Zwartbles, which gives the creamy wool a touch of gray — I got to pet when visiting my friend Sherri’s last weekend (unfortunately for me, it sold out lightning fast after it was released in March).

Ysolda blend

The mill also creates yarn for dyers using their own fiber, including The Little Grey Sheep, a small family farm on the border of Surrey and Hampshire counties, and Rachel Atkinson of My Life In Knitwear.

“When we produce a specialist blend for a customer, it usually starts with John chatting to them at a show,” writes Juliet, John’s wife and business partner. “He finds out what sort of yarn they would like and how they would like it to perform and why they are making the yarn and what they want to use it for… Then, he will suggest some fibres, and so will the customer, and after many a chat and a tweak and a trial, a new yarn is born!”

Yarns in action on the skein winder.

Yarns in action on the skein winder.

The mill produces the commissioned yarns in small runs, with 12 kilos or more per blend.

Some knitters may also know about John Arbon’s collaboration with Emily Foden, the talented dyer behind the nuanced, speckled colorways of Viola. A few years ago, Emily came over from Canada to do work experience at the mill, and then ended up staying on as an employee. The company created a line of special Viola yarn, a DK-weight, worsted-spun yarn made of organically farmed Merino, with colors created through a special technique of blending dyed tops that the mill refers to as “dry dyeing.”

The blend came about when John showed Emily how to blend pre-dyed yarn shades in such a way as to produce the effect of a hand dyed yarn. “She loved this and spent ages creating… and our Viola range evolved,” Juliet says.

I asked Emily about her experience at the mill. She wrote that while, as a hand spinner, she had an understanding of how yarn is made, she learned how that translated into machine spinning. Eventually, after John patiently walked Emily through all the steps in his worsted spinning process, she learned to operate the “big, clattering machines,” and could even anticipate a machine mishap before it happened.

“My time with John, Juliet and the team at the mill taught me more about fibre growing, buying, scouring, preparing, processing, spinning, yarn construction, the history of spinning in Britain… I could go on here, John knows a lot about yarn,” Emily wrote. “But I also enjoyed working with the close knit group at the mill and in the shop, tackled my fear of scary machines and picked up lots of small business owning skills. Most importantly, John and Juliet are downright lovely people and I’m so happy I got to spend that time with them!”

A reason for yarn

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Editor’s note: At TNNA last weekend, my friend Anne Choi of Middle Brook Fiberworks ended up hopping on the train from New Jersey at the last minute to attend the show and help out Dalis of Dancing Leaf Farm in her booth. Anne was also doing some research on the perfect fiber mills to help her create a custom blend of yarn, to include fleece from the sheep that would soon call her rural New Jersey property home. While our group was at dinner at Momofuku, Anne took out some fiber and a handspun prototype for us to pet and admire the natural creams, browns and grays.

This post originally appeared on the Middle Brook Fiberworks blog and I thought it was a fascinating exploration of the process of creating a custom-milled yarn.

I’ve been thinking about yarn lately. Don’t laugh; I’m usually focused on the front end of working with fiber, so this is actually a departure. Abby Sarnowski (Folktale Fibers) and I share a booth at Maryland Sheep & Wool, and we like to pass the time by asking each other questions along the lines of, “how could we breed a miniature cormo sheep?” and “what breeds would you cross to spin the ideal sock yarn?”

On the long drive home, I mulled over what fibers I would blend to produce the ideal shawl or sweater yarn. The Shetland Islands has been a leitmotif in my life this spring, so when I envisioned shawls, I had haps in mind. Unlike the intricate lace wedding shawls that, according to tradition, were fine enough to pass through a wedding ring, hap patterns were written with a simple lace design and knit with a thicker yarn, for everyday wear.

My yarn, I decided, would be lofty for warmth, durable–no wimpy pilling!, elastic because my hands are getting arthritic, and able to hold a lace pattern like a champ. The yarn would need to make a finished fabric that was lightweight, but have enough substance and body so that it didn’t just puddle around my neck. And on top of all that, it needed to be soft enough for my sensitive skin.

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The more I thought about it, the more requirements I kept dreaming up for my yarn. I wanted to be able to hand-pick each fleece from sheep I knew personally (or at least knew the shepherds), and I wanted a range of natural colors. But natural colors with depth and tonal complexity. And the last thing? I wanted heaps and heaps of this wonder yarn, which meant that I’d getting it spun for me. So it needed to be a blend of fibers that could be processed by a small fiber mill, and still retain its homegrown roots.

When I got home, I started weighing, carding, and blending some fibers together.

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For weeks, I played with percentages and color combinations, and I spun and knit several test samples. I took the yarn with me everywhere, showing it to knitting friends and asking for feedback. It wasn’t until I finished my Hansel Hap Shawl by Gudrun Johnston, and blocked it, that I was certain I got it right.

It was time to go mill shopping. I heard so many glowing recommendations for John and Lydia Piper at Gurdy Run Woolen Mill, and when I spoke with John, I could see why. I’ve never dropped off fiber to be processed before, and he was very patient about walking me through the process. We talked about the the fibers I’d chosen, and the best way to draft them individually and together. We talked about starting with a combination of combed top, carded roving, and raw fleece to end up with a yarn that had all the qualities I wanted.

Yesterday, I drove to Gurdy Run with my bags and bags of fibers. I met with Lydia, and we made the final decisions about colors, yarn weights, and put-ups. It was an incredibly educational trip.

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The process of mill-spinning is both more high-tech and at the same time, more hands-on than I’d thought. Sure, the machines do the actual carding, drafting, and spinning, but it’s not all one run-through. I didn’t exactly think that John and Lydia just dumped fibers into a chute, tapped a few buttons on their laptops, and enjoyed iced tea on the porch while they waited for the machine to spit out skeins of yarn. What did I know? Not much, apparently.

The raw fleeces are washed by hand, and the carding, picking, pin-drafting, and spinning are each individual steps, requiring human oversight and adjustment. They handle the fiber between each stage, to weigh and evaluate what went in, and what came out. There’s complex math involving weights and measurements, which Lydia explained and I nodded whenever I thought she needed the encouragement to go on.

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There are cool gadgets like an air splicer (I want one!), but the skeining and tying are done by hand. I hope to go back for a visit on the day they’re working on my yarn, and Lydia said if I’m lucky, she’ll put me to work tying up the skeins. I can’t wait.

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My afternoon with a yarn ‘detangler’

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Detangling during

I’m sure you already know how wonderfully generous knitters can be. Over the weekend, I experienced a great example of this community’s uniqueness when I desperately called on a Ravelry “detangler” — one of those strange people who actually looks at a spaghetti-like pile with excitement — to help me unravel a mess of Merino sock yarn. My yarn emergency couldn’t have been more timely, with the Wall Street Journal running a feature on Ravelry’s Knot a Problem group this past Monday.

I probably should never have taken the yarn off the swift. Friday night, in my haste to start on a gift with a tight deadline, I rushed through the winding process and after hitting a tangle, decided to loop the hank over my husband’s arms. Then one tangle turned into more, and before I knew it, we finished The Empire Strikes Back with a ball that was a tiny fraction of the size that I needed.

The scary "before" picture.

The scary “before” picture.

As the night went on, I knew I was going to have to get help. I remembered hearing about a group on Ravelry filled with willing yarn detanglers, so I sent a desperate PM to one based in New York City who had recently posted in the group’s thread listing detanglers by location (the WSJ article definitely gave the thread a bit of a boost since I last looked). On Saturday morning, I woke to find a message from Lucy, who lives in Queens and was happily willing to meet up and take a stab at my mess.

So, I hopped on the 7 train and went to meet Lucy at the famous Nan Xiang Dumpling House. Since the wait was fairly lengthy, and standing in line at the front of the restaurant was not ideal for detangling, we walked over to a modern cafe and got some tea. We grabbed a table by some large windows in the back and I handed Lucy the bag.

“Beautiful yarn!” she said (it’s a Duck Duck Wool purple, so of course it is). In a fit of desperation, and because I figured I could at least start my project with what I had managed to wind, I had cut off the ball, so Lucy had to dig a little to find an end and start her work. After a minute or so, she determined it would be best to make an end, so I took out my scissors and she let me decide where to cut.

For the next few hours, as Lucy followed a few different ends through the various tangles, I worked on the start of my gift. Our hands busy, we chatted about all things fiber — the crazy lines at Rhinebeck, how knitting has gotten us to appreciate colors we normally don’t gravitate toward — and also about our families and living in the city. As it got darker and I neared the end of my small ball, Lucy handed me two more large ones. I had enough to finish my project and left Lucy with around 100 yards for her to detangle and use at her leisure.

Success!

Success!

As she worked, I did ask Lucy about why she enjoys detangling so much, and she said it was a bit like knitting — it’s calming, but also challenging, and I can kind of see it. As knitters and also spinners, we take what is basically a mess of yarn (maybe not quite as messy as a big tangle) or fiber and turn it into something neat and orderly: “It looks like an unruly mess, but it is not true,” Lucy wrote to me in a PM. “It somehow knitted together not the way I (or knitters) wanted. So, for me, there’s not much difference between the detangling and knitting process.”

“You know, it’s definitely a different approach from what Alexander the Great did, so I might never be the great king — but detangling is more… respectful,” she continued. “I’m not sure this is the right way put it down, but I feel that way. Raising sheep for wool, shearing, carding or combing, spinning and dying, takes enormous time and effort. I do not want to waste any of it. I unravel a thing, and repurpose it, and make it out something loveable. Like what we did. … It’s joy that all knitters shared — tangling accidentally adds one more detour to knit a more special thing.”

This “Christmas miracle” is just a testament to the fact that, like I always say, Knitters are awesome.

Storing your yarn stash

Stash

If you find yourself clicking the Add to Cart button on Etsy or a dyer’s online shop more frequently than you can churn out FOs, you may have a problem.

No, not that kind of problem — there is definitely no stash shaming on Indie Untangled. But, you may have trouble finding a place to store all of your lovely acquisitions.

Living in a small one-bedroom apartment, I find this consistently challenging. A year or so after I started knitting, I decided that my stash deserved a better home than the tote bags hanging on hooks in my closet. On the advice of a knitting friend, I bought a cart with drawers similar to this one from Target. I use the two large drawers for yarn (sweater quantities on the bottom and single skeins on top, though there are some exceptions) which I store in Ziploc bags, and the two smaller ones for my folder of printed patterns, class handouts and accessories, including blocking wires and pins. (I thought I would use the wheels for dragging the cart over to the couch while I was knitting, but it’s become a permanent fixture in my bedroom.) It has served me well, though the two drawers have not been able to accommodate many more Rhinebeck and other purchases, so I’ve had to repurpose one of my deep sweater boxes from the Container Store for stash storage.

The tote bags in the closet still remain, but they’re for storing partial skeins that could still be used in a project or to help out a fellow knitter who lost a game of Yarn Chicken. I display the small scraps of yarn in a crystal vase that was a wedding present.

Stash vase

A while back, I reached out to some knitters I know and asked them to share their stash storage solutions. Here are some of their methods:

Stash Erica 1
Stash Erica 2

This is Erica’s setup. She’s chosen pretty, but inexpensive, boxes from Ikea on a shelf, with space designated for future stash (because, hey, it’s gonna happen).

Stash Pat 2

Patricia has the best way to double purpose stash — hanging up some of her favorites on the wall, showing them off as the works of art that they are.

Stash Pat collage

She describes the rest of her storage:

The shelf is basically made up of yarn that already has a project assigned to it. So are solo skeins from clubs but they are fingering weight yarn so they have lots of options.

The yarn hanging on the back of the door on a shoe rack is scrap balls.

The yarn hanging on the door with the mirror is on a wreath hook and that is freshly spun up yarn waiting for a decision.

The baskets/trunk is for undyed yarn and any fiber.

The tubs of yarn on the shelf are for the most part leftover skeins from sweaters or any large left over amount that can fit in the pockets on the wall.

StashLina

Lastly, the stash storage I envy the most, courtesy of Lina, a photographer who lives in Brooklyn (and is making me seriously reconsider living in an apartment…).

This is why when we bought this house (almost two years ago… wow, time flies!) I made sure to let my husband know that I needed a whole room for my yarn. And since we don’t really have a ton of books anymore (yay for Kindles!) I appropriated the library as my yarn room. Got some glass doors installed so they are less than 1/4” in spacing (so moths can’t get in) and now all my yarn fits and it looks beautiful, if I do say so myself. 🙂

Share some of your functional or creative — or both — stash storage solutions in the comments and check out my stash storage board on Pinterest, which has a bunch of really cool ideas.