On Tuesday this week I took a trip west along the M62 to a small town called Slaithwaite near Huddersfield. It was a very dreary damp day and the hills around the town were almost hidden in the clouds and sheets of rain. This is mill country – the part of the north of England that was at the heart of the industrial revolution and the rise of the cotton industry over 200 years ago.
This is Slaithwaite on a brighter day in summer, courtesy of Wikipedia. The building on the right is a typical mill building with several floors and long lines of windows.
Many of the old mills still survive but have been converted into flats or offices. Only a few – including the Spa Mill – are still operating today. This vast mill is now the home of Spectrum Yarns and their well-known brand, Stylecraft Yarns. Again this is not my picture, but the mill looks very much like this today.
The traffic along the stretch of the M62 up to Junction 24 is often bad so I left a bit early. Unusually there were no hold-ups and after a slight detour via the MD’s parking space (whoops) I arrived. The mill is on many floors and while there is an industrial lift, there was plenty of walking up and down the stairs, which were very obviously worn. I kept thinking about the hundreds of feet, probably wearing clogs or hobnail boots, that had made their mark over 150 years of use.
At the top of the building, there is a large open-plan office with fabulous views over to the hills. I met Annabelle, the Sales Director at Stylecraft, Jo, who handles all the social media and Danielle, Administration Manager. After a very welcome coffee and naughty piece of cake, we chatted about what I’d been up to in terms of crochet projects (I took along a stash of my bags, naturally) and Annabelle showed me some of the new yarns that are due for release next year. I can’t show any of these but I can report back that they are very, very lush!
Worryingly, Jo then went off to think about some questions to ‘interview’ me for an article in the Stylecraft newsletter… but I was distracted by a short visit to a room a couple of floors down that, on the face of it, looked a bit dull. It was just full to the brim with cardboard boxes. But this was Stylecraft stashdom… woohoo.
I was allowed to delve into all of the boxes, all carefully labelled, to dig out loads of yarns that I hadn’t tried before. With a bit of colour coordinating and chat with Annabelle, I had soon put together a very large and exciting goodie bag to take home.
The yarn is in the ‘surplus’ section and is made available by Stylecraft to bloggers and designers who will use the yarn and produce reviews and patterns – and very generous they are too. I spent quite a ridiculous amount of time this morning having a bit of a drool over it and planning new projects, which I can’t start until I’ve finished some of the ones I’ve already got in progress…
Touring the Stylecraft Mill Slaithwaite
By this time, poor Jo had been out in the weather to buy some salads for lunch but before that there was a time slot available for my mill tour, so off we went to the first floor.
Before I go into loads of detail about the mill, there are a few things that I need to explain that I didn’t know about Stylecraft before my visit.
The mill in Yorkshire doesn’t produce the acrylic yarn in the Stylecraft range-they now only produce natural fibres. It used to until a few years ago, but then costs of raw materials made it unfeasible, so manufacture moved to Turkey, where it is all made today. Stylecraft licences production to a manufacturer over there and still handles all the quality control. Each batch of yarn, no matter what its made of, is carefully checked against prexisting batches, which are all carefully archived. These archives date back over 30 years!
The production in the Slaithwaite mill is all about pure, high quality woollen yarn. Most of this isn’t sold to me and you as yarn to crochet or knit with. We are only able to buy one of the products made here – the Yarn Stories merino (more about that later).
The other products include:
- Fine, high quality woollen yarn for supply to specialist weaving companies who produce suit fabric for the top 7% of tailors in the UK – mostly in London (Saville Row) and to the top designers in Europe. One special order a couple of years ago, Dani told me, was for the woollen thread incorporating tiny but real diamonds. These were woven into suit cloth for designer suits that retailed at around £25,000.00!!
- Thicker but still very high quality and therefore very hard wearing woollen yarn for use by companies that weave the materials to use as seat coverings in cinemas and airports. Spectrum Yarns Ltd – the parent company developed a special hard wearing yarn for seat covers, used in lots of airports and public buildings,guaranteed to withstand 10 years of use. From this challenge, Spectrum Yarns Ltd modified the yarn and developed Glenbrae, a brand of specialist knitwear for the sports and leisure market.
This very fine woollen thread for sports wear is now produced by the mill under the Glenbrae brand. The unique Spirol yarn is designed to be washable without shrinking, to have stretch but to spring back to its original shape and to be able to take up a vast range of dyes. The company produces its own knitted fabric in its factory in Belper, Derbyshire, and it is made up there into the finished garments. These come back to Slaithwaite for distribution, and to have logos such as sports club crests added. An entire huge room is dedicated just to embroidery!
Yarn Stories merino and merino/alpaca
Something else I learned was that merino wool, which is obtained from merino sheep that graze in Australia and New Zealand, is obtained from the second and all subsequent shearings of the sheep. The very first shearing is classed as lambswool, so is more highly prized as it is (if that is possible) even softer.
The Yarn Stories range of yarn is expanding and is soft and squishy, coming in a large range of gorgeous shades. Currently 16 colours are available in the Fine Merino and Baby Alpaca blend (DK and many as aran), with 20 colours in the Fine Merino (DK and many as 4ply).
I drooled over this but its the premium wool brand and as I already had almost more yarn in my goodie bag than I could stagger back to the car with, its all still on the shelves 🙁 In the future I will definitely be investing in some though, once I have sorted out a special project that will do it justice.)
On with the mill tour!
On the first floor, processing of the raw merino and lambswool fleeces begins, some of which are already dyed. The colours aren’t really the exciting ones we associate with Stylecraft. Navy, black and dark green are the main ones, dictated by the requirements of tailors and airport seat makers!
Some undyed ecru fleeces are also processed but there is a strict separation so that dyed and undyed fleeces do not contaminate each other. The undyed wool is dyed in the mill to produce the range of colours in the Yarn Stories merino.
The first part of the process is to draw out the fibres within the fleece to generate thread suitable for spinning. This is done gradually, so that there is very little wastage and the thread produced is as fine and even as possible. For really good woollen thread, the fibres all need to run parallel – any that stick out form what is known as ‘fly’, which can’t be rescued later in the process and so represents a loss of very expensive raw material.
Its probably difficult from the photographs I took to get an idea of the scale of this operation – but the mill rooms are VAST. Each of the fleeces that you can see pile up was about 3 feet tall and the machines towered over our heads. The noise is also quite something! There are many machines in each room, all thundering away. If you work there, protective ear plugs are compulsory for Health and Safety but we were OK doing the tour without as we were not in the rooms for very long. It would also have been pretty difficult to hear what Dani was saying, although she did still have to shout quite a bit!
You can see how the fleece changes its appearance after the first drawing, even though its very far from being spinnable thread as yet.
Over in the separate area were also some undyed ecru fleeces waiting for the next stage of the drawing process. The cylindrical containers were huge and the fleeces popping up out of the top were around five feet tall.
The thinner, smoother lengths of fleece are then drawn again, and made thinner with each drawing.
Eventually, a raw woollen, unspun thread is produced on large spools. These are all spinning in long lines on the machines and are checked and changed as required by the staff who work on the mill floor.
By the end of this part of the process the thread is drawn out to a thickness so fine that is impossible to see as its also moving fast on this machine. In the photo below I’ve marked with the red arrow where it goes – a thread is in place on each of the sections of machinery in the picture.
The spools of thread at the bottom (you can see the yellow tops and bottoms and the navy thread in the middle) are whirring around and contain thread that is no thicker than the thinnest of cotton sewing thread (but a lot more expensive!). A photo of the whole row shows the scale of production – and there were another dozen rows beyond this too.
Because the threads are so fine, they do occasionally break during this stage. One worker is in charge of all the machines and it is her job to walk along each row, feeling for the thread and rethreading any that have broken. Its easy to under-appreciate the value of doing this type of job. Even though the process is mostly mechanised, it is her skilled eye and touch that keeps the production going at an efficient level, minimising the down time of individual bobbins. All done in noisy conditions – and in an environment that is a bit like a tropical hot house.
The machines in several of the rooms work best at the temperature of a hot summer’s day and at high humidity. So the atmosphere is very steamy, with fresh steam being pumped into the air constantly from thin pipes running overhead.
To maximise production, the machines are also kept running 24 hours a day for 5 days a week, so shift work is also necessary. At certain times, demand means that maintenance has to be done at a weekend, but if demand is being met, shut down happens every Friday lunchtime to allow a full maintenance and thorough clean down over everything from ceiling to floor, during Friday afternoon.
And here is the finished thread, all ready for spinning. Remember this is thread destined to become the next crop of Saville Row suits!
From here the thread goes off to a different floor where it is spun into the thread that is either sold to cloth weavers and manufacturers or that is used to make the Yarn Stories merino yarn for knitting and crochet.
Again, the scale is vast with rows and rows of bobbins whirring and clattering.
In the picture below you can see that the spools of thread are being twisted by the machine to create the cones of spun yarn at the top. The ply of the yarn is determined by the number of spools – so here you can see 1ply, 2ply, 3ply and 4ply being spun.
Finally, although I can’t show you any of the details (this is a competitive business and Spectrum Yarns has developed a lot of its technology and understandably has restrictions on photography) I was shown around quality control. I can say that it was very impressive. The vast archive of yarns and yarn batches is an amazing achievement and, combined with the experience of some of the staff who have worked there for over 25 years, its very reassuring.
A late lunch
The mill tour was really fascinating and I didn’t mind having a late lunch, even if I did have to have my ‘interview’ with Jo while I was munching. You’ll be able to read about how boring I really am in their newsletter next month! Bet you can’t wait 🙂
After a bit more chatting I gathered up my goodie bags and crochet bags and said my goodbyes. Thank you so much Annabelle, Jo and Dani for a real eye-opening yarny experience!