Spinners in the UK and Ireland can’t compete with Chinese rivals on volume, but instead they are making the most of their quality and heritage.
Almost every adult is able to recall wearing a scratchy woollen jumper at some point during their younger days. Fortunately the landscape of the wool industry has moved on. On-farm sheep breeding programmes in Australia and New Zealand, paired with evolving technologies, are improving the quality of the fibre that yarn spinners have to work with.
It is these developments that allow major domestic spinners such as Z Hinchliffe & Sons in Huddersfield, Todd & Duncan in Kinross and JC Rennie & Co in Mintlaw, Aberdeenshire, to produce yarns with a softer handle.
But they face a challenge. Chinese spinners have become a force in the last two decades, helped by a government export tax rebate system. European spinners, largely the traditional quality spinners in the UK and Italy, find it difficult to compete.
However, the Far East focuses on volume, with high quantities of man-made yarns produced daily. This leaves a window of opportunity for domestic spinners to deploy their heritage and skills through high-quality, bespoke product.
“[UK and Irish spinners] are paying more for raw materials than the Chinese are able to sell yarn at,” says Bruce Cameron, sales director of cashmere yarn spinner Todd & Duncan.
“There remains a demand for higher-quality yarns and as China develops and grows more confident in its designs, domestic Chinese designers and brands are looking to source higher-quality European yarns, which then provides additional opportunities for European spinners.”
Todd & Duncan sells about half its yarns overseas, in particular to Italy, the Far East and large US brands. In the UK it supplies manufacturers in the Scottish Borders, who tend to work with French couture houses and upmarket UK and US brands.
In addition to the growing competition, spinners are increasingly affected by other influences beyond their control such as currency fluctuations and
availability of fibre at auction, in particular in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
“The industry is not easy at the moment,” says Graham Wilby, director of family-run Z Hinchliffe & Sons. “We are obliged to sell on credit due to competition and this makes it a risky business. There is also a shift across the globe. In the west consumers may be reducing their spending in price and quality, whereas the ever-increasing affluent in China want to buy more expensive western brands.”
Shifts in the knitting industry have also had an impact on the type of yarn demanded. Peter Longbottom, managing director of West Yorkshire Spinners in Keighley, which is one of the few remaining worsted spinners in the UK, says hand knitting today is far more influenced by fashion. This is good news for Scottish spinners, which Cameron of Todd & Duncan says are leaders in colour. Many travel to international yarn shows to pick up the latest trends and colour directions.
After spinning, the yarns can be used in the production of textiles, sewing, crocheting, knitting, weaving, embroidery and even rope making.
Cameron says Todd & Duncan procures raw materials from China through its parent company Ningxia Zhongyin Cashmere Company, which acquired the business in 2009 for £11m and is based in Ningxia, the country’s best cashmere producing area.
He says the finished yarn is used by French couture houses for luxury knitwear produced in Scotland, and also sold to Italy and the Far East, where it is used to make knitwear for the US and Japanese markets.
Z Hinchliffe & Sons also counts knitwear as the end result for most of its yarns, selling in the UK to the likes of Johnstons of Elgin, Peter Scott and Hawick Cashmere, as well as across Europe, the Far East and Madagascar to Prada, Ermenegildo Zegna and Salvatore Ferragamo.
West Yorkshire Spinners carries out its entire operation within a 40-mile radius, with fleece sourced from the British Wool Marketing Board auction in Bradford and the spinning process completed at the firm’s factory in Keighley.
All agree that the future of the UK and Irish spinning industry rests on continued demand for premium textiles. It is just a question of what quality people buy and where from.
For now the focus for UK spinners is on innovation. Typically the industry is geared towards spinning wool, which is mostly used for autumn/winter products. Developments are underway on lighter-weight yarns, which are more suited for spring products, increasing sales in the second half of the year.
Quality and service, as well as education, is also at the forefront of spinners’ minds. Longbottom, who started out as an apprentice technician at Hayfield Textiles in Wakefield, believes training young people is vital to retain skills and ensure the industry’s future. While a younger demographic has picked up hand knitting in recent years, attracting them into the production side of the industry is much harder.
“I’m so enthused to see where the market is today; there is a real mix of young and established knitters involved. The level of skill and creative vision is world class. This is a special and unique industry and we must do all we can to nurture it and promote its growth,” says Longbottom.
The yarn industry proves its worth to the UK. According to the UK Hand Knitting Association, craft skills alone – which includes knitting and crocheting – contribute £3.4bn to the economy.
In 2014, the Knitting & Stitching Show in Harrogate received the most visitors ever at 22,000, up 6% on 2013. In the same year, John Lewis sold enough yarn to go around the world twice and sales of Christmas jumpers rose 200% on 2013.
The spinning process
The journey from fibres to yarn can be unravelled into a series of steps. One very important one is spinning, which involves taking washed, raw fibre – which can be natural (cotton, linen, wool or silk) or synthetic (viscose, acrylic, nylon, polyester) – and converting it to yarn to be put on a knitting or weaving machine.
Wool fibre, for example, is brought to the spinning mill as a bale. Next is the carding stage, when fibre is disentangled and mixed with others if the intention is to create a blend. Worsted spinners use an extra process, during which fibres are passed through pins on several machines, called combing. This flattens fibres and reduces thickness for more luxurious yarn.
How fibres are spun varies depending on type. Each spinner will use a different process based on their equipment preference, the fibres to be used and the desired outcome for the yarn. Spinning has been carried out in numerous ways over the centuries, but the same principle remains. Before the industrial revolution, spinners would do all the work by hand, a laborious process. Today, high-tech machinery can produce thousands of kilos of yarn per week.
After spinning, yarn is wound evenly onto cones and imperfections removed. Yarn is then ready for folding, which is the twisting of multiple single spun yarns together to create different thicknesses from two-ply to four-ply. The most common blends are cotton-polyester and wool-acrylic. Natural fibres such as wool and cotton are often blended with premium fibres such as mohair and cashmere to cut costs. The degree of twist influences its character. A lot of twist gives a harder yarn that is more compact and strong. Less twist makes it softer, yet bulkier and weaker.
The lead time for creating bespoke yarn to order is between four and six weeks. However, many spinners hold stock in order to deliver immediately.