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.
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.
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).
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.
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!”