Who are we?

Part 2 of 4: Come & See Tour Analysis – Wrapping my head around the “creativity quotient” of our industry

On a scale of 1 to 10, how creative are you? Your answer to that question is directly linked to the perception of your identity. Most of us have or will struggle with identity issues at some point in our lives. Maybe more than once. [enter stage left middle-aged man facing identity crisis] Some of us are a little more confident than others, but at the end of the day, when we’ve been put in the furnace long enough to test our metal, questions (if not full-blown doubts) will rise to the surface. But when thinking about our identity these furnace scenarios are a good place to be. Anytime we can be refined in the fire it’s a good thing – painful but good.

In my last post, there was a good bit of kickback to the term “mini-mill”. Many folks don’t like the term and refuse to be identified by it. Cottage industry stirs up very similar feelings too. I believe it is healthy to address this issue openly and talk through it – painful but good. So in this post, I want to walk through some history and the major things that have revealed the identity of this industry. It’s fascinating to see how there is this common thread of creativity that has been woven the whole way through this industry fabric that we are a part of. And I’ll close the post with this thought – our identity has to be rooted in our ability to be creative… and all of us are creative by design.

Which brings me to ask this question, “Who are we”. Really we can apply it to any modern-day craftsman’s business. This doesn’t just affect our textile industry but many other industries as well – which I will discuss later in this post. But for now… this question is at the root personal – who am I? Who was I created to be? Why am I in this craftsman industry? How do I describe this business that I run to others? As modern-day craftsmen we have access to some very advanced tools, techniques, and equipment – much of it with a substantially larger capacity than what has previously been possible at the cottage industry level, but does that mean we should consider ourselves a commercial business?

As a short rabbit trail, I remember our mill purchasing an 80-gallon hot water heater for our business and on the side, it read “light duty commercial”. So I find myself asking, Are there levels of the commercial industry? Are there levels of the cottage industry?

I’m not sure how to answer that, but the reality is this: creativity has continued to advance technology and the global accessibility of our age has played huge roles in shifting industries and even turning them on their heads! In the past 30 years, several highly creative pioneers have given us access to our modern textile machinery. And this creative seed needs to continue to be watered and fertilized. We can do this by continuing to hone our skills, understand the form and function of these machines, and refine our processes. Think about coffee, beer, photography, graphic design, media… just like textiles, these industries are experiencing dynamic revolutions right before our eyes. And they are doing it because of the highly creative people who are involved in those industries. So in this sense, creativity has always spawned commercial activity – in the sense that people see the creativity, appreciate it, and spend money to acquire it.

Niche textiles have existed at the cottage industry level for who knows how long – millennia I’m sure! Families have been in the business of hand preparing fibers for the purpose of spinning them into yarns for various end uses. Even with the advent of the industrial revolution, when many of these family businesses suddenly grew into large commercial factories, creativity and the mastery of skill was required. Ironically, to the degree that creativity and mastery of skills waned the machine became an enemy in the hand of the craftsman.

Rediscovering our creativity and redeeming our true identity

One of the things that I paid close attention to while I was on the Come and See Tour was this relationship between the craftsman and his/her machine. Was the machine a friend or was it a foe? Was the machine foreign or was the craftsman intimately acquainted with it? These were questions that I had personal experience with during my 14 years as a craftsman (both friend/foe & foreign/intimacy), but I was never able to verbalize them until listening to Richard Sennet’s book, The Craftsman. It’s a fascinating read. And you can listen to it on Audible.

He explains that there is a direct correlation between an owner’s knowledge base and skill development compared to the relationship they have with their machinery. It was encouraging to find that as knowledge and skill development were learned and intimacy with the machinery’s form and function was discovered there was a joy that became visible in the craftsman. There was a renewed sense of hope that creativity was a part of their identity and they were excited to explore it.

But back to our history lesson… it was for this very reason (creativity and the mastery of skills) that the cottage industry continued on and persevered in little rural villages all across Europe and ventured across the ocean to the Americas – in spite of the industrial revolution. Families continued to process the fleeces of their animals that they raised on their farms and offered their skills and services to their neighbors in trade for the unique skills and services that they possessed. And this tradition is alive and well today – and many would argue it is re-emerging stronger than ever. Many are becoming more and more aware of the resurgence of the craftsman movement and the revolution it is causing. In fact this year The Artisan Fiber Network has begun to take major steps to create awareness of this very concept and the possibilities these small family-owned businesses are capable of.

But that’s getting a little bit ahead of the story. Let’s rewind and investigate if we can where this modern day third-wave of the textile revolution began…

As far as I’ve been able to find, it really started gaining traction back in the late 1970s – and it was a pretty significant change in this niche cottage industry. Patrick Green, a native Canadian, (who just recently passed away) leveraged his creativity and created a new hand carding system which created a real buzz in the handcraft universe. No longer was craftsman constrained to just a set of hand cards in each hand. Now folks who had small flocks of sheep could process their own fiber into roving much quicker and easier, and eventually, he developed a fully mechanized carder that could generate 30+ pounds of wool roving a day. These were the initial stirrings that a revolution in niche textiles was on the horizon. It wasn’t too long after that another Canadian team of creatives came on the scene in 1990. Back then they were known as International Spinners, but they are now known as Belfast Mini Mills LTD. They became the first manufacturers of a full line “min-mill” – a term they coined themselves.

This cottage industry fiber processing equipment was on an even “bigger” scale in regards to creativity. I say bigger because their equipment brought with it significant advancements in technology – a trend which they continue to improve upon every year. I still remember my dad’s comment (an electronics engineer by trade) in reference to his first encounter with BMM he said, “It’s pretty impressive.” Now my dad doesn’t get excited about much of anything – it’s an engineering thing – so I knew there must have been something that caught his attention.

Since Patrick Green is no longer living, and the people who work at Belfast have become well known to our family, and good friends, over the past 14 years, I decided to reach out to Belfast and talk with Doug Nobles who is the current owner of the company. I was sure that if anyone could help me to better understand the revolution in this industry, it would be Doug. He has literally been in the eye of that perfect storm for close to three decades! So I called him up and here’s what he had to say…

I remember sitting around the table with Larry & Clive (Sutherland) back in 1990. I had just sold my business. My brother-in-law Clive was running a sawmill business at the time, and Larry (my father-in-law) had a business making weaving looms. I still had a machine shop of my own. We got to talking about the realities of making processing equipment for my wife Linda’s small flock.

[do you notice the creative cogs are turning?]

We had seen what Patrick Green was making and some of the other sample cards that were part of the commercial textile market, and we began to form our own ideas about what capabilities a carder might need for someone who owned a small flock of sheep.

You see my wife Linda had about 40 head of sheep, and there was no one she could send her fleece off to so that it could get processed – they wanted thousands of pounds – so her only option was to send it to a commercial mill and get back wool products that weren’t from her sheep. After creating several prototype carders I remember Linda saying, “There might be a business here, this really could work.”

We’ve talked with several textile engineers over the years about the realities of creating textile machinery that can process individual fleeces and they have always said the same thing, “You can’t do it!” But the more we started investigating the idea we were discovering folks who raised rabbits, camels, muskox, mohair, cashmere goats, or alpacas who wanted to have equipment like this. So the challenge became to create machinery that could not just process small lots but a very wide variety of small lots.

But it’s not easy to build small equipment. The reality of taking large commercial machines and creating a mini version of them is extremely difficult. It takes a lot of prototyping. This is ultimately where the idea for the name “mini-mill” came from. Then to add onto that the ability to process not just one or two types of fiber but an almost infinite number of fiber types… that’s not easy to do either. Traditionally in textiles, machines are designed and manufactured with one or possibly two fiber types in mind – and both of them were similar in characteristics. This is much, much easier. What we set out to do, and continue to do over the years, is continue to refine our equipment to work with an ever wider range of fiber types.

Doug Nobles, owner of Belfast Mini Mills LTD

Here’s a video that was created for the Belfast company. It’s very nicely done. Also if you’re interested, you can stay up to date via their Facebook Page

It was after these two companies emerged in the industry as the early innovators and creatives that some other folks came along and got involved: Stonehedge (also known as McDermott equipment within the industry), Keith Wild (a broker of used commercial textile equipment), Carolina Specialties (no longer in business), and then there’s the most recent addition to the list of creative pioneers – Ramella. I hope to do an interview with Federico Siragusa of Ramella this next week at the Artisan Fiber Mill Network Summit in Lebanon, TN about their company which is based out of Italy, and the future goals they have that will shape this industry. Ramella is the key vendor for this year’s summit.

So those who own a cottage industry mill typically have equipment from one of these entities. I would venture to say that a fair majority of the mills have at least some Belfast Mini Mill equipment if not a full line mill. There is also a solid number of mills using Stonehedge equipment in the market, and even though Ramella is the newcomer there are a growing number of mills using their equipment for their business. And of course, you will occasionally still find a mill with a Patrick Green carder and/or picker, and folks using refurbished used commercial textile equipment. While there are several mills who own Carolina Specialty equipment out there, due to the untimely death of Marcel the owner, that company no longer exists, so what’s out there now is all we’ve got. He was another great innovator.

So I think you can see why the term “mini-mill” is embedded in our industry’s identity, not only is it literally tied to the Belfast Mini Mills LTD name, it is often used generically for these niche mills given their 25+ year history in the market. Many people who use fiber processing mills refer to them as mini-mills even if they don’t use BMM equipment. But back to this identity question that I raised at the beginning of this post, if you talk to any one of the 150+ mills that are in operation many of them will struggle with which word/phrase should be used to describe the industry in which their business resides. Are they using commercial or cottage industry equipment? And how much does it really even matter?

Another small rabbit trail, but it might also to be helpful here to point out that there has been a very impressive effort made by the Fiber Shed organization to bring to light the capabilities and opportunities of the current textile industry in the United States, with a focus on regional efforts to create dynamic supply chains with circular systems that invest in the local economy. Their mill inventory report is a good one. Their site is well worth your time.

But back to this identity question… I’ve been a part of a small textile mill group on Facebook since January of 2011. We now have 250+ members who are owners/operators of this smaller scale processing equipment. We have come up with the term Artisan Fiber Mill. And as mentioned earlier we have decided to create a network for lack of a better term that properly represents who we are and what we can do in the larger textile industry. In my opinion, the word “artisan” puts the emPHAsis where it needs to be on artistry and craftsmanship. If there’s one thing we’ve discovered, the real joy in running one of these types of businesses is the daily opportunity to use your creativity to make something beautiful. And when it all works, man it really sings!

Case Study in the Steel Industry

Let’s pause for a second and take a look at the steel industry. There’s some insights that I think we can learn from this industry. The terms “micro mills” and “mini-mills” have become well known in the steel industry over the last 40 years. These mills are called such because they don’t make steel from iron ore but instead melt down scrap metal to repurpose it which requires a far different business model – hence the steel industry deciding to give these new mills a different name. Nucor was the first company to do this well. I think there are many similarities to what these new textiles mills do on a smaller scale compared to our commercial textile mill friends, which makes this case study interesting.

“Traditional steelmaking operates profitably by leveraging large economies of scale: the bigger the mill, the more efficient. However, CMC’s (Commerical Metal Company) mini and micro mill operations aren’t tied to bulk transportation networks for raw materials. The firm’s steel products are heavy and expensive to transport, so the ability to put in a mini or micro mill almost anywhere lets the company optimize both sides of the logistics problem: getting raw material in and finished goods out to customers.”

August 7th, 2015

You should do some research into this case and consider the correlations between the steel industry and the textile industry in this regard. What similarities and differences can you find? How are these insights helpful in understanding our role in the textile industry?

But in an effort to begin landing this post and head to bed, the bottom line is that I believe we fall firmly into the small scale industry definition. Anyone of the businesses that I visited on the Come and See Tour has at best local impact economically speaking, they generally generate less than $250k a year, and they have fewer than 10 employees – most have less than 4. 

The smallest of that small scale industry is the cottage industry… a term which was created to denote families that worked out of their own homes or at least on their own properties. While this is a term that seems to fit AFMN well, I believe that some of the kickback is based on its historical use. Cottage industry typically meant more primitive tools and equipment compared to their commercial big brothers. This is why it is a disparaging term, as the technology used in most of our equipment is often very advanced and that trend is constantly improving. In that sense, this industry is not using second-hand equipment passed down like “hand-me-downs” from the commercial “big brother”.

And here’s where the conversation gets even more interesting (in my opinion) because what Belfast Mini Mills continues to bring to the table is machinery that demonstrates superior advancements in technology. There dehairing/fiber separating machine, for example, is able to remove coarser hairs while not damaging the finer undercoat and maintaining the original staples lengths found in the shorn fleece. While dehairing systems have been around for a long time they typically rendered the finer fibers to be less than an inch after they had gone through the process. This has been a game changer in the muskox, cashmere, yak and other exotics. And I think we will all see from Ramella at the summit this next week that they are pushing this concept of advanced tools even further. And yet these are pieces of equipment that still fit easily within the “work from home” aspect of the cottage industry. So you can see the difficulty of defining it as cottage industry.

So what is our identity? Are we a true cottage industry? It would appear that we are a hybrid of sorts. We represent a sort of “mystery” industry. We are currently experiencing a “craftsmen revolution” phenomenon if you will. In that sense, we are part of a “third wave” of textiles. And what’s so incredible about that is what becomes of that is ultimately up to those of us in the industry – which is why this AFMN group and the summits they put together are so important. 

So regardless of what industry you are in – leather, clay, wood, beer, design, photography – we have to start asking ourselves,

  • What level of craftsmanship are we collectively capable of developing?
  • What kind of dynamic relationship can we develop with manufacturers of your tools & equipment to continue to advance the design of new and improved tools?
  • Are we able to develop the skills for these tools in such a way that they are still extensions of our hands or will the flow of creativity from head and heart into our hands cease?
  • What insights can we gain from doing case studies of each others’s industries who are experiencing similar type phenomenon?

It’s this aspect of research and development that excites me and one of the main reasons behind why I am realizing that The Master Crafted is such a perfect fit for who I am personally. I believe this industry needs dedicated folks who will focus on helping the industry for such a time as this – to leverage this opportunity and bring clarity, diversity and yet unity to who we are as an artisan revolution.

So I’ll wrap up with these final thoughts. When it comes to our identity we can take a lesson from the craftsman in his workshop. And I will use the female pronoun here because the majority of craftsman I encountered on my tour were women.

Consider the craftsman… upon her bench sits this piece of work that she has determined is going to be yet another masterpiece. She is capable of doing this because over the period of years even decades she has studied and refined the skills necessary to make the tools extensions of her hands. Her creative mind is released to make exactly what she sees in her mind’s eye. Consciousness, love, and thought flow through her hands and into the tool in one fluid motion. The identity of the piece becomes ever more apparent the longer she works on it. Do you see the important connection here between creativity and identity? I believe that to the degree that we are able to reveal our creativity through the skills that we have mastered we will solidify our identity.

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free... Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” 

Michelangelo

Which brings me to this closing statement: Each of us was created by God, and we must find our identity in Him. He is a creator and we were created in His image. Therefore, our identity includes this amazing capacity for creativity. Look around us at the things which God has created. We are fearfully and wonderfully made – and our souls know this full well. Like the psalmist describes it so poetically in Psalm 139,

For you formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
    my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
    the days that were formed for me,
    when as yet there was none of them.

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
    I awake, and I am still with you.

If you’ve made it this far… my hats off to you!!! You are well on your way to identifying with the third part in this four-part series which is the observation of the work ethic that I discovered residing in the hearts of these craftsmen. It was like waves undaunting as they continued on in spite of a multitude of setbacks and anxious thoughts about the unknown. Their quest to learn and do was almost insatiable!

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