At the height of the Industrial Revolution, West Yorkshire was considered the wool capital of the world. “There were lots of textile mills in Bradford and Keighley, where my great-grandfather started out in 1907,” says James Laxton, the fourth generation of wool spinners to run Laxtons’ mill. Much has changed here in the last 100 years, including the skyline, which used to be punctuated with tens of factory chimneys. Now only a few remain, standing like tombstones over the remains of mills.
There is little else to remind of the region’s industrial heritage, except Bradford’s canal and the wool auctions. “Every week, my great-grandfather would get dressed up in his top hat and take the train to the Bradford Wool Exchange with hundreds of others. All the wool in Britain is still sold out of Bradford, but there are only a handful of buyers now, and auctions are held in an office-like room rather than the grand interior of the Exchange.”
James, who lives nearby in Ilkley with his wife and two children, started working in the family mill when he was 21. He took over Laxtons in 2001, at a time when retailers were increasingly looking to the likes of Turkey and China to mass-produce fabrics at low cost. Many British mills couldn’t compete and had to close, including Laxtons’ mill. For several years, James outsourced the production of yarn to Europe. “Then, when the European market began to suffer,” he recounts, “I decided to bring the manufacturing back to Yorkshire… We’ve come full circle.”
In January 2010, Laxtons began spinning their specialist yarns in Guiseley, eight miles north of Bradford. What did locals think of him starting up again in the midst of a recession? “That I was mad!” James says laughing. “But, I knew that in a few years time it would be too late because the suppliers, the scouring companies, the dye houses and the technicians who know how to operate the machinery would have gone.”
James shows me the modern interior of Laxtons’ mill, which roars with the sound of generators and machinery. “I love coming in here,” he shouts over the noise, opening his arms to the rows of machines furiously spinning yarn, and containers stuffed with cream wool. “I enjoy watching the manufacture of goods from raw materials. There’s something about producing things…” he says leaving his sentence unfinished.
Best of British
James talks excitedly about the diversity of fancy yarns Laxton’s can produce today using the most advanced spinning machinery in the world, and the potential for British wool, which was traditionally only used in carpets because of its scratchy texture. “We’ve got machinery now that can do incredible things with wool, and it’s just about getting the demand back.”
To that end, James is involved in the Campaign for Wool, a project spearheaded by the Prince of Wales, which aims to promote the material and campaign for a better return for farmers. “We’re talking to the likes of John Lewis, Liberty, Rowan and Jigsaw about using British-spun yarn in their products. We’re also trying to find a breed of sheep that has both good meat and a soft, bulky fleece, which can be farmed in the UK,” James explains. In recent years, it has cost farmers more to shear sheep than they make on the sale of wool.
James is optimistic about the future of spinning yarn in the UK. “These are exciting times,” he says. “Home-produced products are really interesting retailers. We just have to hope the consumer comes on board… As a nation, we aren’t very good at shouting about the quality of British products. We need to do that more because when we make a premium product, we make it very well.”
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 39 OF COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!