Carding Engineer at
THE NATURAL FIBRE COMPANY
James McQueen is an experienced carding engineer working at The Natural Fibre Company in Cornwall, a leading natural fibre specialist providing support to local farmers and yarn producers. There is a huge shortage of skilled carding engineers in the UK, which means people like James are in high demand.
James oversees production at The Natural Fibre Company, which is one of only a handful of mills worldwide that processes yarn in small quantities for craftspeople and small businesses. It specialises in blending high quality regional and rare wool, mohair and alpaca with natural fibres such as silk and linen, with a 20 strong, highly skilled, local workforce.
The company was founded in Merthyr Tydfil in Wales in 1991 to spin wool on a small scale, largely for smallholders. It moved to Cornwall in 2005 and launched its own brand of wool products, now known as Blacker Yarns.
Today the firm scours, cards and spins fibre on both woollen and worsted systems, working in batches upwards of 20 kilos. There are also organic production runs.
In addition to advising sheep owners how to get the best fibre from their flocks and turn it into a form they can sell, The Natural Fibre Company is increasingly buying wool from its customers for use in its own range of products, Blacker Yarns. Blacker Yarns produces a range of contemporary, high-quality, breed-specific yarns in a large variety of colour palettes, made exclusively from British sheep and demonstrating provenance to the ethical consumer.
Conventional wool mills based in West Yorkshire or Scotland typically make their own yarns to sell or commission spin for knitters, working with two or three types of fibre. The Natural Fibre Company, however, works with much smaller quantities and a huge variety of types of fleece.
“The types of fibre we work with typically comes from smallholders who have 20 or 30 speciality breed sheep, who send the fleece here and we do everything to process it for them, then they can sell it at country markets, in farm shops or on their own websites,” explains James. “It is a totally different environment than many of the other mills I have worked in.”
“Today I’ve been asked to make yarn from the husky dog hair. You can do it but it will have to be 50/50 blend wool. In my time here, we’ve been asked to do pretty much anything. You can even make yarn from tea leaves; it is all about what you blend it with.”
James started in the textile industry aged 17 as a youth training scheme (YTS) apprentice on £19.50 a week at a mill in Scotland.
“I was originally going to be an engineer but I found my way into textiles,” he says. He moved to a couple of other mills in Scotland, before moving to West Yorkshire for new opportunities and then eventually joining The Natural Fibre Company in Launceston, Cornwall, in 2006.
“I enjoy the job and you can earn a decent living doing it, which is a rare thing to have,” he explains.
A typical day for James will see him blending and running the two carding machines, overseeing production in the mill. There are five people currently working in production and James is training up the others to ensure production can continue to operate at its current pace and expand in future.
The company currently processes approximately 15-1700kg of fibre a month and had a 4 ton waiting list before the pandemic hit. Production resumed after the first lockdown when manufacturers were allowed to restart, and now the firm is getting back to normal, poised for future growth.
The Natural Fibre Company works with very old carding machines – one is from 1946 and the other from 1958 – but these are well suited to the types of fibres the company processes.
“If you had a modern carding machine, you probably wouldn’t be able to run these types of fibres,” says James.
The company was bought by Colin Spencer Halsey and Graham Higgins in December 2019, who brought a wide range of management, manufacturing and accounting experience.
“When the new owners came in, they asked if money was no object, what would you have? I answered basically what we have when it comes to carding machines. Where we need some investment and we’re looking at for the moment is at the finishing end. We need more balling and hank winding capacity so that is next on the list.”
James says to succeed in his role, you need to be patient and adaptable. You also need to enjoy solving problems and finding solutions because no day is the same.
“When I first started here I struggled in the first few years as the fibre is so diverse. Where I had worked previously, you were working with a much more consistent fibre so it has been a steep learning curve in learning how they react. I’ve done things to the carding machines to adapt to the types of fibres we are working with. They are called rare breed [sheep] for a reason!
“There is a big variation in fibre and I have been learning what each fibre is capable of and how the machine reacts. For example, we work with a breed called the Devon and Cornwall Long Wool and the fleece is almost like straw so you have to create a blend for that one but we know how to get the most from fibres. Shetland and Bluefaced Leicesters make a lovely product and I like the character of the Dorsets, the Southdowns and Ryeland. It all depends what you are going to use it for: if you’re going to wear it next to skin then it needs to be a lambswool but everything has a purpose. If it has a more coarse handle, then it is more suited to rugs or throws. Often you get a nice looking yarn but it hasn’t got the handle for clothing. We work with customers to help them get the best from their fibres.
“We had an instance with some long wool sheep and told the customer to shear them twice a year so the fibres were shorter. It makes a difference whether you can run it or not.”
He most enjoys making a viable product from something that would have otherwise been discarded. “I love that I can make a decent yarn from something that should have been burned,” he explains. “There is satisfaction in that. And from hearing the response from customers, they sell well and keep coming back.”
He is also proud to be part of a historic industry that has adapted to stay relevant in today’s fast-moving market.
“When I started out in this industry, there were a lot of mills but now there are a handful doing anything like what we do. It’s a niche business but as manufacturing has moved offshore, we offer something different. If you can do something they can’t do in China or India, then you’re onto a winner.
“There feels like there is a lot of opportunity ahead of us as we have the experience of knowing what is going to work. The pandemic has brought unforeseen challenges over the last 18 months, but we have a clear strategy going forward to strengthen our position and grow. We’ll be automating some of our processes, adding to capacity in some areas and further developing our research and development work to continue to increase productivity.”
“James is one of only a handful of time served carding engineers in the UK,” says operations director and co-owner Colin Spencer Halsey. “We are very fortunate at The Natural Fibre Company that he enjoys living and working in Cornwall [which is a long way from the majority of mills concentrated in Yorkshire and Scotland]. As our most senior employee, he takes a great deal of satisfaction in delivering a key function of our yarn production and recognising his role in fulfilling the customer’s order. James has a strong work ethic at all times ensuring the company’s products are delivered on time even if this means working extra hours or forgoing time off.”
Commercial director and co-owner Graham Higgins adds: “Since taking over the business in December 2019, we have bombarded James with questions about yarn processing and to his credit he has demonstrated a remarkable degree of patience with us on our steep learning curve in terms of textile sector knowledge. Our company policy is to develop our own talent, James is therefore instrumental in passing on his wealth of experience and creating his own legacy of a new generation of textile engineers.”