Douglas Bence writes about the re-birth of the Natural Fibre Company that he and Sue Blacker bought eight years ago and moved to Launceston in Cornwall.
All businesses follow the opportunities that arise in their markets, from the largest multinational to the smallest breeder.
When we took over the Natural Fibre Company in 2005, the business was largely driven by small sheep breeders who wanted their wool processed. While some customers might have thought the delivery times eccentric, the Wales-based business was fully professional and operated from an industrial unit.
It paid no rent and so was not encumbered with the full commercial pressures faced by its new owners who applied for Objective One funding and relocated the business in Cornwall. Some people took a dimly pessimistic view and thought the incoming team would soldier on until the grants ran out and then quietly go bust.
Although the new Natural Fibre Company was fiercely competitive from day one, industry experts thought it would also have difficulty attracting the qualified staff a high- quality output would demand. Some potential shareholders sneered at it as a lifestyle business.
Neither view was correct, but the critics aired their prejudices again when worsted spinning was added to the available services in 2007.
They said much the same the year after when the dye plant went in. All those services under one roof ? impossible, no one else does that. Given that this last installation soared way over budget, we were inclined to agree!
But both additions to the Launceston mill allowed NFC first to follow the opportunities as they arose, and now to lead them. The worsted spinning side operation is working flat out, while the dye plant, which for the first 18 months of its life seemed like a liability, has now reached the point where we are looking to increase its capacity.
Eight years from what was admittedly a shaky start NFC is just like any other business. It needs to recognise change, accept it and move with the times to meet the new demands customers create.
Failure to do so means decline; look at the newspaper and magazine publishing industry today or the rust-bucket manufacturing operations that atrophied and disappeared through the 1980s. Many blame Margaret Thatcher, greedy trades unions or both. While each of these played their part, lack of investment and bad management meant those industries were doomed anyway. The only imponderable was not if they would go, but when.
At first we had no alpaca to process. Our opening customer base was inherited from the previous Welsh owners who were hampered as they had no facility for de-hairing. There had been insufficient demand for the processing of alpaca and no will or interest to increase it. Another factor, of course, is that eight years ago there weren?t as many alpacas in the UK as there are now.
The results of our first alpaca production can only be described as ?pretty average?, for both customer and processor. While we lacked the experience, the quality of the fibre we had was often poor, some of it so bad that it wouldn?t go through the carding machine without the addition of a good portion of wool.
Our perseverance and customers? patience paid off. We soon learned to spot potentially problematic fibre, saw how to get the best results from carding, experimented with de-hairing, made more use of the worsted plant and worked closely both with customers and prospective customers.
Our first spectacular success with came with a 50-50 alpaca-Shetland blend, which produced a wonderful yarn. But people were suspicious of it as a hybrid and sales were desperately slow. Those that did buy it loved it and keep coming back asking for more. Unfortunately, commercial pressures mean we don?t produce it anymore.
Another success came from a blend of Castlemilk Moorit, silk and alpaca, but we no longer make this either, largely because we are able to source a higher quality Castlemilk fibre, which eliminates the need for alpaca.
While huacaya never proved to be too difficult, some of our competitors cannot manage suri at all ? it?s just too smooth for satisfactory processing on small-scale equipment.
Sometimes we use alpaca to colour natural wool, particularly for organic yarns where up to 30% of non-organic fibre can be added without violating the Soil Association or GOTS guidelines.
Alpaca is not the perfect fibre, though, so our customers are learning to appreciate that it may not dye as well as wool. It is a source of irritation to them that lustrous woollen fibre, from sheep breeds like Cotswold, Teeswater or Wensleydale, take dye better than alpaca.
The explanation is simple. Coloured alpaca fibre is more intense in colour than coloured wool because the fibre is smooth and reflects the light better than wool which, when seen under a microscope, far from being smooth is more like a crocodile skin ? the antithesis of smooth. But lustre wools have greater light reflectivity than alpaca so dye colour brightness is increased
After all the work and some meaningful input from customers, alpaca fibre now accounts for 25% of out monthly production run, and in some months is up to a third.
An industry that doesn?t change is one in decline, so the demands of the new young knitters who are making their presence felt in the market need to be heeded as well as welcomed.
We watch the market carefully and try to stay ahead by attending shows in the United States, H & H in Cologne and by tapping into the valuable thoughts of our ever-growing list of international stockists.
In the eight years since we took over the Natural Fibre Company, we have experimented with over 50 of the 65 breeds of sheep that thrive in the United Kingdom. One of our greatest successes, but not for knitting yarn, was with the threatened breed Devon & Cornwall Longwool whose lambs? wool we use for garden twine. Very tough it is, too!
Another success was the small part we played in helping with the survival of the virtually extinct Boreray breed, which does produce a splendid yarn.
Experimentation continues as we blend various breeds or mixtures of breeds with alpaca, mohair, silk and vegetable fibre. At times the results are subtle and affect the way a garment sits on the wearer. Increased use of mohair has opened the potential for a mass of new colours because it takes up dye brilliantly; some breeds of sheep do not.
While there are exceptions, coarse, scratchy wool is a thing of the past; wonderfully soft worsted spun yarns are in. While new, inexperienced knitters like the psychological boost given by thicker wools that produce results faster, lighter weight yarns are selling in vast quantities. Buyers get so much more yarn in terms of length per ball or hank that these also appear to be better value.
Knitting yarn colours need to change not by year, but by season. The days of churning out the same old shades from one year to the next are long gone, thank goodness. A cynic might say that it isn?t the colours that are different, but the names. ?Autumn dawn? might well be yesterday?s bilous yellow, but it will be a different yellow, richer with a greater depth of colour.
While the environmental jury remains out on superwash, which might prove to be a passing fad, its existence in the market has had a positive effect, because it has addressed the prejudice of those who believed woollen or alpaca products shouldn?t be allowed near a washing machine.
Although some yarns are more inclined to felt than others, most woollen garments are fine in washing machines provided they are run on the wool hand wash cycle. Garments can be washed repeatedly, and if they are knitted from quality yarn, they will last for years.
The ability of protein fibres to resist dirt and staining also means these items need washing less frequently, which has economic and environmental benefits.
The planet is now much smaller than it was in the days when Yorkshire ruled the world?s wool industry. China is a huge influence, not just as the world?s largest producer of wool, but also as a buyer, largely of Merino from Australia.
Many people in the industry take issue with Australia?s husbandry. In Germany, for example, Munich-based Rosie Green Yarns, whose products are spun by the Natural Fibre Company, source their Merino in the international market and get it largely from South America where its organic provenance is guaranteed.
For a long time Australia produced perhaps the most reliable alpaca breeding stock, but now as readers will know, most major breeders have a mixture of bloodlines that can be traced back to the United States and South America as well.
But the key to a successful future for alpaca yarns and higher prices is the quality of the fibre sent for processing. If we load crap into one end of the carding machine, it will still be crap when the slubbing rolls off at the other. Or to borrow a Yorkshire phrase: you can?t make a silk purse out of a sow?s ear.
We believe we getting higher quality and more cost effective production all the time, but the silk purse requires a bit more work, from us, our fibre producing customers and partners.