A few weeks ago Pom Pom decided to take a much needed break from the hustle and bustle of London and escape to the Devonshire countryside. Unsurprisingly, we couldn’t resist doing a little yarn related sightseeing along the way. We loved reading Emily Foden’s article on John Arbon Textile Mill in issue 5 and took the opportunity to visit ourselves. Since Emily’s article, the mill has moved to a new location in South Molton and it was great seeing how well they are settling in. As The Natural Dye Studio is just around the corner, Pom Pom thought we would also pay Amanda and her family a visit to learn about their dyeing process.
The machinery was chattering away as we drove up to the door of John Arbon Textile Mill. Moments later we were greeted by John wearing soundproof headgear, and he invited us inside. Stacked against one wall were oodles of bags containing fibre of all descriptions: dyed, undyed, alpaca, at least 3 breeds of sheep and silk waiting to be processed. John explained that as well as producing their own yarns, the mill also spins to commission. During our visit they were processing a large order of Twool, wonderfully ethical garden twine, and also a special order of yarn for a local farmer who wished to knit with wool from her own flock.
John was kind enough to give Pom Pom a tour of the spinning mill, explaining each step of the process. The first step is carding the fibre, ensuring that each strand is aligned in the same direction. The first machines do this by drawing the fibres repeatedly through needles, like a giant hair brush. This is the stage at which various fibres can be combined to make a blended yarn. As well as removing all the short fibres and plant matter, carding gives the fibres lustre and strength. John Arbon’s mill has several machines to complete this process, each one doing a finer job. This allows them to spin superior quality, or worsted, yarn.
Once the carding process has been completed, the fibres become tops and are ready for spinning. John Arbon cater not only to hand knitters, but also to spinners. Tops can be bought directly from their website for those who wish to spin at home. Like carding, the spinning must also happen in stages as putting too much stress on the fibres at one time would overstretch and break them. So again, many machines complete this gradual process. Each machine adds a tighter spin to the fibres and stretches the yarn with more tension. On each machine this tension is controlled by two spinning wheels touching the fibres at the same time, one of them goes faster in order to stretch and lengthen the yarn.
Once it has been spun, the yarn must be spun in reverse, or spun together with another strand. This final step removes the yarn’s urge to curl upon itself.
Once it has been spun, the yarn can either be wound into skeins or left in hanks to be used on knitting machines. The skeining machine is very impressive. Like many of the machines in John’s Mill, it is over 40 years old and has been lovingly restored. The ground was peppered with spanners and wrenches. John and his wife, Juliet, have plans to expand the mill by adding a mezzanine layer of knitting machines for the socks they sell in their shop. These upgrades should be complete in around a year.
All that learning had made Pom Pom hungry, so we decided to stop for lunch before visiting Juiliet at the John Arbon Textiles’ shop in Lynton. The Lynton shop is located on Queen Street, which is the heart of the town’s handcraft and antique district, complete with wicker weavers, furniture shops and even a record store. John Arbon Textiles is located right at the bottom of this pedestrianised lane. The baskets outside their shop are filled with wonderful socks, enticing customers inside for a closer look.
The centre of the store is stocked with a range of socks, which are all gloriously soft and come in a range of squishy colours, materials and designs. From Exmoor walkers to Alpaca bed socks, John Arbon Textiles stock something to suit all tastes. The walls of their shop are given over to shelves crammed full of squishy yarn. As well as the Viola, their beautiful Knit by Numbers is a Pom Pom favourite, perfect for knitting fair isle sweaters! In addition to running the shop, Juliet also runs the business side of the mill. She is highly knowledgeble and makes one feel instantly at ease. While we were visiting she offered both us and some friendly German tourists advice on everything from where to get the best fish and chips, to camping fields, colour combinations and which size of socks would be the best fit.
Three skeins of carefully considered purchases later, Pom Pom were off to visit Amanda at The Natural Dye Studio. The Natural Dye Studio is a family run business with all the dyeing being done by Amanda, her husband Phil and their daughter Daisy. Their studio is located on the outskirts of Lynton, in the heart of Exmoor. Many of their colourways and ideas draw inspiration from the surrounding wilderness. As the name implies, The Natural Dye Studio use only natural dyes. Amanda, Phil and Daisy are committed to living a life which has a low impact upon the environment, using only dyes, fibres and mordants which are natural and can easily be biodegraded.
Amanda’s colours are based upon a rainbow. She uses madder, cochineal, indigo and logwood. Her extensive range of natural fibre blends are available online. Before dyeing, the yarns must be mordanted with cream of tartar and allum which allows the dye to adhere to the yarn. During the dyeing process the yarn is never heated above 45 °C, as Amanda thinks of the yarn as still being partially alive and doesn’t want to shock it with excess heat.
Once mordanted, the yarn is submerged into its dye bath and in the case of some dyes like logwood and cochineal it is simmered for about an hour. With indigo and stronger dyes, however, the yarn is only submerged for about half a minute. There is no natural way of achieving green, so the green hues are first dyed yellow and then dyed again with blue.
Some types of yarn like the Precious, a silk, are dye resistant so they go in the bath first. After this go in the wool blends like the Great British Wool which is spun by John Arbon. The wool and alpaca blends seemed to just soak up the dye like sponges and would exhaust the dye baths in a matter of minutes. When this happens, a little more dye is mixed up and five minutes later Daisy and Amanda are back to dyeing. They both dye without gloves as being able to feel the yarn react is an essential element of the dyeing process.
The above yarn is dyed with indigo, a powder derived from plant matter which has been used in dyeing for centuries. The colour comes out of the dye bath quite light, but intensifies as it reacts with the oxygen in the atmosphere.
Amanda uses her yarn to make some impressive crochet blankets and shawls. She has just released a new book called Madder Triangles. Above is one of our favourite patterns. Daisy, who is modelling this shawl, is also a budding author. If you join The Natural Dye Studio’s ‘Murder on the Moor’ club, you’ll not only receive a skein of their yarn in an exclusive colour, but also a spine-tingling murder mystery set on Exmoor and a clue for solving the murder.
Pom Pom had a blast driving around Devon and learning about yarn production. We would like to thank both John Arbon Textiles and The Natural Dye Studio for inviting us and being such gracious hosts. Both John Arbon and Natural Dye Studio have blogs, so please follow the links if you would like to find out more about either company. The final picture is one of our incredibly restrained purchases basking in Devon’s early evening sunshine. What beautiful skeins!