Tweed Looms in Leeds

Since 1837 Abraham Moon & Sons has been weaving cloth and, with careful investment and growing markets for their own clothing and accessories, looks set to carry on doing so for many years to come

Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham

The first thing that strikes you when you walk into a cloth mill is the noise. Be it the clatter of looms and blending machines or the warning horns of fork lifts as they manoeuvre bales of wool and bolts of cloth around, there is a constant cacophony of activity. At Abraham Moon & Sons, this bustle has existed since 1837 though following a fire in 1902, the Victorian mill in Guiseley near Leeds did have to be re-built. Today, the mill is still housed in this re-built building and Moon is one of the very few vertical mills – in that it handles all aspects of cloth manufacture from dying to finishing in house – left in the country.

Being guided round the mill by Marketing Manager Martin Ellis, you are firstly confronted with the dying vats. The raw wool – mostly from South Africa or New Zealand – is bought in and left in the vats to be dyed in one of the 500 colour options Moon has on its files. Martin explains the mill does also buy in a certain amount of British wool, it is produced on a smaller scale and is rather coarser than its Southern Hemisphere counterparts, to weave four tweed patterns for both clothing and interior throws.

Following dying, the wool is moved on to be blended. Regardless of its Victorian shell, Moon has continuous evolved and improved its processes. Instead of the late 19th century blending rooms where the wool was raked by hand, the mill has re-invested to the tune of £8 million in technology over the last six years. A new blending plant was installed at the end of 2017; able to handle two tons of wool each run, it enables the mill to do in one day what took four when conducted by hand as well as being able to experiment more innovatively when blending colours.

Wool is drained is much of its natural protective oil during the dying and blending stages so a very small amount of lanolin is added during the carding process when the wool is combed and straightened being run through a series of rollers. The wool is then ring spun to put strength into yarn – the mill usually put between 23 to 28 twists per inch into the yarn before it is finally ready to go onto one of Moon’s 32 looms. The noisiest part of the workshop, unless there is a mechanical fault, all the looms are in constant use. Moon is within the top five per cent of global cloth producers and with clients ranging with Loewe, Ralph Lauren to Marks & Spenser and John Lewis as well as its burgeoning own label produce, it is hardly surprising Martin comments the mill is usually working to full capacity.

Walking round the mill it is fascinating to see the generations of machinery. Some is decades old, with names of now grievously defunct British appliance manufacturers on their sides, and Martin praises the work of the firm’s mechanics who repair and annually update the venerable tooling. Sadly but perhaps inevitably Martin remarks many of the newest machines are procured from Italian, Germany or Swiss makers. Whilst the ultimate cloth is still made in England, rather forlornly the machining means to make it is now not.

Over the past decade the “made in Britain” concept has meant Moon has thrived, with a staff of 242 – 150 on the production floor – the firm has pleasingly grown by 100 in the past six years alone. The mill has also introduced a small apprenticeship programme with eight school leavers undergoing full time training with plans to take on a further two more. Their current course is between 18 and 24 months long though those who aspire to become the master weavers of the future will face an extra couple of years of training. Moon has excellent staff retention; in common with many British craft firms, many employees rack up decades of service – if not their entire working career – at the mill. There is inter-generational continuity as well, Martin points as one example to their current receptionist who has been at the firm for 15 years, her mother worked at Moon for more than 30 years and her father also worked for periods at the mill.

Moon’s output has certainly changed over the past decade. Furnishing and homeware weaving has become vastly more important over the past 15 years with each area now making up 30 per cent of output, with homeware especially enjoying annual growth of 20 per cent over the past five years. Martin comments that out of the remaining 40 per cent fashion cloth manufacture, with the mill’s tweed emphasis 70 per cent is still for male clothing though women are increasingly turning to the robustness and richness of tweed for overcoats. Regardless of final usage, herringbone remains a stalwart perennial, “there’s always one on the go on one of the looms,” Martin laughs.

Whilst the mill’s main market remains the UK, Moon has a strong track record in supplying overseas customers having started exporting to both the US and Japan as early as the 1890s. The US still remains a substantial market for their fashion cloths whilst Japan continues to be a very buoyant client for Moon’s own fashion accessories. “Provenance means ever more to our customers,” remarks Martin as buy British has driven custom back to the UK over the past 10 years, “it’s about the story, being able to show openly and exactly what we do, what you actually pay for and why we’re special.” In a more unusual and innovative sphere, the mill recently wove for a Japanese client the world’s first 100 per cent wool electric blanket.

Designer Nick Holland has come on board over the past couple of years to consult on Abraham Moon’s own range of clothing accessories. Their own label throws and blankets are highly sought after being stocked in John Lewis. Tweed continues to be robustly popular; Moon’s creative director Martin Aveyard had fears that the materiel had reached its high water mark back in 2014. Moon’s own brand strength has grown to the point where the mill opened a new flagship shop on Stonegate in central York early in 2018. As well as large scale customers, the ability for private buyers to procure as little as one metre on the mill’s website offers both flexibility, constant small scale custom and an easy way to obtain beautifully made English cloth.

There remain challenges; as mentioned the mill is at capacity but the advantage of remaining a family owned firm under the helm of John Walsh, the fourth generation of the family which succeeded the Moon dynasty, has meant investment, growth and operational decisions have remained focused on the long term generational health of the firm rather than short term profit. As with all British craft manufacturing the need to bring in new blood, even with their apprentice programme, remains pressing, “it’s the need the attract the right high quality people,” Martin comments, Moon is working closely with Wool Mark and Huddersfield Textile Centre of Excellence to ensure a supply of young craftsmen to take this company forward.

Walking out the main floor of the mill – incidentally the length of the entire building is an impressive half a mile – Martin points out a number of solar panels which now supply up to 10 per cent of the establishment’s energy needs. Fusing up to date working practises with the best of British craft manufacturing means the future seems bright for this Guiseley mill. riddle_stop 2

 

Enquiries: Abraham Moon & Sons / www.moons.co.uk/

York flagship: 33 Stonegate, York, YO1 8AW

Riddle’s road trip was generously supported by Jaguar Land Rover with the kind loan of a Jaguar XF R-Sport Saloon (RRP from £35,735) #riddleroadtrip

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