15 August 1997

HOME-GROWN

WOOL IS IDEAL FOR IT

Carpeting the house can be a major investment but as Tessa Gates discovered, the work that goes into making a traditional wool carpet makes it worth every single penny

The texture and resilience of British wool makes it ideal for carpet yarn, and most of the annual clip is used for this.

The natural fire resistance, springiness, hard wearing and insulation qualities of wool leave its man-made imitators standing. Even the popular 80% wool/20% nylon mix in carpets is based on a myth of added wear – the nylon is really there for cheapness. Nothing beats 100% wool.

"We buy our wool at auction, mainly British with some from New Zealand. British wool makes a better carpet yarn, it has more resilience," says David Salter of Buckfast Spin-ners which supplies all the carpet yarn for Axminster Carpets.

The mill at Buckfast was almost derelict when Harry Dutfield, head of the family firm which makes Axminster Carpets, bought it in 1950 to overcome the post-war shortage in yarn. Today it is one of the finest spinning and dying mills in Britain and something of a rarity in that it does its own scouring of the wool, which very

Carpeting the house can be a major investment but as Tessa Gates discovered, the work that goes into making a traditional wool carpet makes it worth every single penny

The texture and resilience of British wool makes it ideal for carpet yarn, and most of the annual clip is used for this.

The natural fire resistance, springiness, hard wearing and insulation qualities of wool leave its man-made imitators standing. Even the popular 80% wool/20% nylon mix in carpets is based on a myth of added wear – the nylon is really there for cheapness. Nothing beats 100% wool.

"We buy our wool at auction, mainly British with some from New Zealand. British wool makes a better carpet yarn, it has more resilience," says David Salter of Buckfast Spin-ners which supplies all the carpet yarn for Axminster Carpets.

The mill at Buckfast was almost derelict when Harry Dutfield, head of the family firm which makes Axminster Carpets, bought it in 1950 to overcome the post-war shortage in yarn. Today it is one of the finest spinning and dying mills in Britain and something of a rarity in that it does its own scouring of the wool, which very few spinners do now.

The first process the raw wool goes through after the bales are opened is mixing the slightly different types. Then the dags and raddle dyed fibre are removed. "We pick out 40,000kg/year of contaminated stuff – enough for one persons wages. Some of this can be recycled for darker dyes," says Mr Salter, who has worked for the company for 32 years. He started as tea boy and is now a managing director. The mill employs up to 160 people and he knows them all by name.

The wool is scoured in hot water (160F) and detergent then rinsed and steam dried. "We get 63% of what we put in," he explains. From then on, with dust extractors working at every stage, the wool does a lot of travelling. It drops into 8000kg steel bins, and then the light fluffy fibre is piped to a hopper to have a lubricating mix of oil and water added to it before being subjected to a 100t press that packs it so tightly into a 25K bale that even a blow torch wouldnt set it alight.

The set of the carding machines dictates the quality and standard the yarn will be – 2 ply or 4 ply. The fibre is teased off as soft thread to be stretched and spun, with the machines running a five-day double shift.

The yarn is pressure-dyed in vats with the colour forced in and then radio-frequency dried. "Like a microwave," explains Mr Salter. Package dying is also done on spools in great tubes instead of the vats. Then there is more scouring (to take out the lubricant the mill put in), more dying and drying until the colour is a perfect match to the Axminster sample palette.

"We have a spectrometer to compare the match, but only as a back up to the human eye," says Mr Salter.

After two weeks processing the yarn is ready for carpet-making.

Since 1755

Axminster has been home to carpet making since 1755, but the founder of todays carpet factory had to revive the tradition when he opened Axminster Carpets in 1937.

Harry Dutfield, the son of a carpet designer, had seen his first business of rug-making in Kidderminster disappear in flames in 1928, but he started again and had a flourishing enterprise by the time he chanced to find out that Axminster no longer had a carpet factory. With a hand-picked team he soon reinstated the tradition.

Still very much the boss at the age of 89, he is addressed throughout the factory as Guvnor and like many of his workers children, his son Simon had followed him into the industry.

The company is renown for its patterned carpets and brings in 10-20 new designs a year, dropping about the same number from the range. Old favourites die hard, however, and some designs have been running for 40 years. A set of designs for a patterned carpet costs £20,000 to produce while for a plain one it costs just a few hundred pounds.

Small samples, called Kibbys after the make of machine they are made on, are assessed before design cards are made and transferred to Jacquard card for the loom one row at a time. The principle for this has remained the same since 1700. There are 8000 bobbins on every loom and bobbin winding is done as piece work.

When the carpet rolls off the looms it is continuously inspected. At one check point the women who inspect by eye and hand walk 10 miles/day, back and forth across the carpet width, all the while running a hand across the pile feeling for curly yarn. "It is important to find flaws in the first run so they can be corrected as soon as possible," says the checker, her fingertips completely smooth from traversing miles of carpet. Any flaw is marked with coloured wool.

"We also try to simulate all the conditions the carpet might come up against – ie sunlight through a patio door, being laid the wrong way – when we check the colour and pile to find anything that might upset the consumer. We strive to make the perfect woven carpet but that has never been made," says Simon Dutfield.

Over light box

In the picking department, the carpet is fed over a light box so that even one missing thread will show up. This and any thread end is sewn in by hand. Another inspection looks at the repairs and every yard is re-inspected before the shearing machine takes a fraction off the pile for a level finish.

Then there is a final check – every flaw costs the previous checker £1.50 in docked pay. Needless to say, very few come up.

Then all that remains is for each end of the roll to be invisibly stamped with "honesty" marks so there can be no disputing the amount sent out and another Axminster 100 carpet is set for loading into the liveried trucks – each one carrying the letters AXE on their registration plates.

In all, it has come a long way from sheep to floor.

It takes two weeks to process wool from bale to yarn. Unloading the dye vats (above) is a young mans job. Below: The dyed yarn is wound onto cones.

David Salter, with 2-ply undyed yarn, has worked at Buckfast Spinners for 32 years. Below:Bobbin-winding at Axminster carpets.

Above: Feeling for flaws is a 10-mile-a-day walk for this worker. Top right: Simon Dutfield strives for perfection at Axminster Carpets, which is still a family firm.

CARE ADVICE

ADVICE on looking after your new wool carpet

&#8226 Forget old wives tales: Vacuum your carpet from the day it is laid to remove fluff and kemp (wiry hairs in wool).

&#8226 Vacuum daily, preferably using an upright cleaner incorporating a beater bar/brush mechanism. Take your time so the cleaner does its job efficiently.

&#8226 Act promptly to blot up spills.

&#8226 Do not shampoo the whole carpet as a matter of routine. Have this done professionally if absolutely necessary.

&#8226 Wear slippers: Shoes with rubber soles – particularly trainers and boots – can tear tufts out of a carpet.