In Conversation: Alan Thornber

I always love catching up with Alan Thornber. He is a man who speaks with such honesty and integrity - I put it down to that Yorkshire charm! Alan is the Mill Manager at Laxtons Mill in west Yorkshire where we produce our Herdwick yarn. In 2016, Alan agreed to sit down with us to discuss the merits and pitfalls of trying to bring a new, rare breed, natural yarn to life. Since then, he has been instrumental in helping us to develop a yarn that not only challenges convention but also encourages people to engage with both the physical design and the entire process behind it. 

Herwick wool is a force of nature; it has so much rich character, but it is not always an easy fibre to manage. The process of creating a highly durable yarn, that can be successfully purposed for a luxury bag, is therefore time intensive and draws on many years of experience. As we release our latest design, The Quentin Weekender, we are delighted to share just a snapshot below of a conversation we had with Alan which brings colour to why we chose to have our yarn made by Laxtons Mill in Yorkshire. 

Alli: Can you tell us about how you got started in the textile industry?

Alan: After crafting school, I went to college to focus on textiles and landed a job producing mohair yarn. The company employed 770 people across 3 mills, producing merinos for suiting fabric, as well as yarn for machine- and hand-knit, which was popular in the mid to late 80s. 

I quickly ended up in a product development position, which gave me access to a large sales team. Our customers included weavers, hand-knitters, machine-knitters, as well as luxury brands like Chanel; we had so much expertise across different functions that we were able to provide everyone with something unique.

We were acquired by a French company in the late 90s and downsized, losing some of the UK knitwear market. We subsequently had to close one mill, then two mills… then we worked from an office. Lots of people left and I was the last employee standing.

Alli: Is that when you moved to Laxtons?

Alan: I met James Laxton at an exhibition: I had industry contacts through mills in France, South Africa and Bulgaria, and James had the experience, the customer base, and the production manuals to make whatever our clients wanted. We both had customers who wanted to buy yarn, but didn’t know exactly where to get it from, so we joined forces and I transitioned to Laxtons.

From 2007-2010 we were office-based, but more and more customers were asking questions about the provenance of our materials. This was a new question, as previously the main concerns were around price and quality. We began to feel that we would lose customers if we didn’t provide our customers with a fully transparent supply chain. At that time, we weren’t able to offer that as our supply chain was evolving all the time, as we were dealing with one-man-bands who could go out of business! It was difficult to guarantee continuity when we were operating on a small scale. This made our customers nervous about the supply.

Alli: How did you manage customer concerns around supply chain visibility?

Alan: We began sourcing brand-new and secondhand machines to build out our production unit in the UK. Over time, we didn’t have enough space for these machines and we weren’t operating at full utilisation, so we had to think about expanding.

After a great deal of searching, we found a new location and designed it from the ground up. We didn’t need to hire more staff, even though the new site was bigger, as our staff had extra capacity freed up thanks to fewer production inefficiencies. For example, a sliding conveyor belt meant we didn’t need two people to handle lifting deliveries; spinning and roving were now next to each other, so our operatives could run multiple machines simultaneously, given our new ergonomic design. 

Alli: How do you train the people working for you (the “operatives” operating the mill machines)?

Alan: About 20-30% of these people had textile experience, but the majority hadn’t seen a spinning machine when they arrived. We work with the University of Leeds to set up a digital training scheme for all new operatives, which is easier and more interactive than static pictures. The digital nature of the course is more appealing as it challenges the stereotype that this is a backwards, old industry. It’s actually pretty high-tech. We share videos on how to tie knots, dust the machines, remove perms and safety parts, etc. 

Our biggest challenge is around people, not machinery. All you need for machinery is money. Getting the right people to turn out top-quality products is what’s really important. We take great pride in what we produce, and we have a real connection and satisfaction with what we do. Sadly, there isn’t as much demand for textile technology in colleges and university courses now. As we collectively lose these skills, it’ll become more and more important to pass on the knowledge. Fortunately, this is happening now!

Alli: What is your approach to sustainability?

Wool is the main fibre we use (80-90%), which is sustainable. We try our best to reduce waste, or process it sustainably where waste is inevitable. There isn’t an endless supply of materials, so we try our best to be resourceful and take great care of what we use. If we can reprocess something instead of throwing it in the bin when we are finished with it, we will. 

We like to be able to give our consumers visibility over our supply chain (which farms our sheep are from, etc) to show that our fibres come from ethical sources and more we have invested in dyeing vessels that use less water and less power, which means less drying - this means an overall reduction in power consumption. 

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The impetus for working with artisans like Alan and his amazing team, who share our vision and passion, is social as well as practical. These artisans bring years of expertise to the table that has helped  us to take an entirely fresh approach to natural material innovation. We are dedicated to bringing you honest, meaningful designs that mobilise the senses and remind us that we are all hardwired for the tactile world. 

With gratitude to Alan and the whole team at Laxtons Mill

Alli and the Team at RUSKIN

Discover the new Quentin Weekender bag here.