John Arbon Textiles and its indie flock

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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!”

IU on the road: A visit to North Light Fibers

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When my husband, Mitch, and I started planning our 10th anniversary trip to Block Island, he was the one who actually told me that there was a yarn mill there. I of course knew of North Light Fibers from Rhinebeck and Vogue Knitting Live, but (I swear) didn’t remember that it was based on the island off the Rhode Island coast until after we decided to go there.

Neither of us had been to Block Island before. In fact, neither of us had been to Rhode Island, aside from passing through it on the way to Massachusetts. The quintessential coastal New England landscape, which had the feel of Ireland, was the perfect backdrop for our anniversary escape.

I ended up making a couple of trips to North Light, which was conveniently located a 10-minute walk from the inn where we were staying. The first was on Saturday morning, while my husband got ready after breakfast.

North Light alpaca

Before you get to the shop, you walk past and through the Abrams animal farm, a collection of exotic and domestic animals, including a yak, a pair of Scottish Highland bulls, camels, emus, donkeys and, of course, alpaca.

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I spent at least a half hour taking in all the yarn, samples and kits, as well as the beautiful woven wraps and scarves that were for sale, created for North Light by a weaving center in Hartford, Connecticut, that encourages people with low or no vision to engage in the craft.

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The yarn I admired included Water Street, a luxuriously soft blend of Merino and Cashmere. A few of the colorways had beautiful heathers, a product of blending the dyed fibers before spinning. The yarn was shown off in Marnie MacLean’s Flechir shawl, published in April’s Twist Collective and on display at the front of the shop.

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I ended up ultimately drawn to Atlantic, a worsted weight Merino from the Falkland Islands — soft, but wonderfully sheepy. The rich brown Sea Lion colorway particularly called to me, and I ended up buying two skeins for a cabled or lacy cowl.

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I was also wowed by the rugs on display — also woven by the center in Hartford. I snapped a couple of photos of ones I liked and plotted to get Mitch back there the next day to see if he’d want to get one for our soon-to-be new apartment.

As luck would have it, when we came back Sunday afternoon, one of the owners, Sven, was there. As he rang up the rug we chose, I told him about Indie Untangled and he ended up giving us a short tour of mill, a small space above the store packed with miniature versions of large-scale mill machinery — designed to process 40 pounds of fiber at a time, as opposed to thousands. Before giving us a quick overview of the milling process, he compared the scale of operation to that of a microbrewery, and I could definitely see the parallels to the breweries that we’ve toured.

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North Light is the only manufacturing on Block Island. While it imports the majority of the fiber that becomes yarn, the fiber from the alpaca on the adjoining farm does go into some of its products, like the rug that we bought. In fact, after I left the store on Saturday, the pair of alpacas that I had met on my way in were sheared while I was shopping, so I got to see them sporting their new haircut.

North Light alpaca sheared

Aside from running the mill and store, and selling yarn to shops and at fiber festivals, North Light also organizes annual retreats, including one this fall in collaboration with Vogue Knitting and one next May with Patty Lyons, Deborah Newton and Twist Collective’s Kate Gilbert. Mitch and I are already talking about coming back to Block Island, and I’m sure this won’t be my last trip to North Light Fibers.