The deadline is Christmas. If by then a deal is not
done, then it is goodbye to Milton's 114-year connection with
the textile industry. This is not news to the 28 people
who relied on the QualitYarns New Zealand Ltd woollen mill for
a wage. They have already been made redundant and are now -
like everyone else in Milton - waiting to see what happens
next. Mark Price reports.
The clock is ticking for Mike Barra, of QualitYarns New
Zealand, and what is left of his Milton workforce. Photos
by Peter McIntosh.
In 2000, Mike Barra found a way to get the Milton woollen
mill up and going again after it was shut down by Alliance
Dyed and ready for carding. This half-bred lambs' wool is
being turned into woollen knitting yarn for use in
Australian schools where students learn to knit.
Twelve years later, the mill is about to close again
unless Mr Barra can find a new way to keep the machines running
and save the mill, save the jobs, save his own personal
Mr Barra told the Otago Daily Times this week he is
talking to the mill's customers about whether they will step
in and buy the machines that make up the last New Zealand
mill turning out both woollen and worsted yarns.
He looks worn down and in need of some good news. If it does
not come by Christmas, he says, then it will all be over.
The wool rolls out of the carding machines on to spools
ready for spinning.
"The thing is, you have to be realistic about it.
"You can become too entrenched in your business and lose your
objectivity about the reality out there.
"I've sat down and looked at it.
"It guts me from a textile point of view, from a wool
person's point of view and [because of] the support we have
been given here.
"We've had huge support but you have to have that critical
Dyed "sliver" being processed through a "gilling" machine
in readiness for combing.
Inside the old brick buildings the machines are still
running - a few skilled staff kept on on temporary contracts to
fill the "immediate needs" of some customers, and in case a
last-minute deal is done.
Mr Barra shows the ODT wool in all its styles and
colours threading its way through an array of noisy, busy,
There is a machine doing whatever it takes to mix possum fur
with wool, another making "fancy yarns" out of alpaca fleece
and there are yards and yards of sheep's wool being cleaned,
and straightened and twisted.
A "sliver" of wool from a carding machine is combed to
remove short fibres and vegetable matter and will become
"bump tops" for home spinners.
Mostly the wool ends up as yarn, although some comes off
the production line at an earlier point and goes to
home-spinners in soft, brightly-coloured "slivers".
Each year, the mill has been producing 95-100 tonnes of wool
That is a relatively small amount, but the mill has survived
until now by fulfilling specialist roles - spinning alpaca
wool just one example.
"It's a difficult fibre but we feel over the last two or
three years we've put a lot of time and effort into refining
our ability to do it and we think we can process alpaca
fairly well now."
Spinner Haley Scott watches her woollen spinning frame take
carded wool and possum fur from spools and spin it into
yarn ready for winding.
He hopes those involved in the alpaca industry might buy
the relevant machinery at the mill and keep it running in a
kind of co-operative with other groups requiring specialist
machines and products.
QualitYarns would move from manufacturer to landlord.
"We're looking at various options but from a QualitYarns
point of view, as a manufacturer we're finished."
"If these people are not interested in buying the equipment
and operating it themselves we will say OK, that's it and
shut the door."
Tubes of worsted yarn are wound on to cardboard cones ready
to go to a Waimate knitting factory where it will be turned
into school wear.
The machinery would then be sold by tender and would
probably end up in India.
Mr Barra says the company has paid all its obligations to
staff and creditors.
"No creditors are out of pocket because of what we are doing.
"The only ones who are going to lose any money on this are
"That's the philosophy of the company."
Mr Barra, a minority shareholder does not expect to recoup
his investment from the sale of the machinery.
Dyed, loose merino wool straight from the vat. The blue
wool in the front will be blended with the brown possum fur
at the back to make a teal-coloured yarn for jerseys,
scarves, gloves and hats.
There have been many hard times during the mill's 114
As the Bruce Woollen Manufacturing Company Ltd, it suffered
fire, depression, under-capitalisation, financial losses,
poor management, staff shortages, high wool prices and
But, there were always enough good times in between to keep
Otago historian Gavin McLean in Spinning Yarns noted
the mill's "golden days" of the early 1920s when there was
"quiet prosperity" and improved working conditions.
Some parts of the mill were "comparatively pleasant places"
to work, Mr McLean wrote, but not the dyehouse where "working
conditions were nothing short of hazardous".
"Water covering the floor and the perpetual cloud of steam
that enveloped the place meant that employees quite literally
groped their way around in a world of semi-darkness."
Throughout the mill, any "unnecessary" conversation could get
employees into trouble and there was no singing or whistling
while managers were around.
As a sign of changing times, Mr McLean noted the mill
management's "concession" over the introduction of a tea
"It was certainly a very limited gesture, as the tea -
supplied only on winter mornings - had to be consumed by the
operative at his or her machine."
At its height, the mill employed about 400 people but when
its owner in 1999, Alliance Textiles, closed it down, staff
It was at that point, Mr Barra, with a long history in
textile industry management, was asked to do a feasibility
study on whether the mill could be reopened.
He considered a "viable mill" could be set up, and on January
17, 2000, it reopened as QualitYarns.
The following year he bought the 44 machines for making
worsted yarn from the Mosgiel woollen mill closed by Coats
That made the Milton mill unique in New Zealand.
"There's no other mill in New Zealand that has woollen,
worsted and fancy yarn production under the one roof."
Woollen yarn is used in blankets and some clothing, while the
finer worsted yarn, with its fibres laid out in a parallel
fashion, makes up the bulk of knitted garments.
So, what went wrong?
When Mike Barra got involved with the closed-down mill in
2000 he knew from experience textiles were "a hard, hard
industry to trade in".
"But we hammered away at it."
Then, about two years ago, a "significant changing point came
along" when the Timaru plant that supplied about a third of
the Milton mill's wool "tops" or raw material closed.
"So we downsized and when you downsize your structure changes
and your costs sort of go up a bit.
"And then we started to get hit by other costs as well.
"The emissions trading thing has been the bane of my life.
"Our energy cost now, inclusive of emissions trading,
represents something like 10% of our turnover."
The mill uses seven tonnes of coal per day, 1300 tonnes per
year, and the emission cost to the mill is about $23 for each
"So that's a big cost in our end product. It adds about 55c a
kg on every kilogram of yarn we put out the door."
Other compliance costs to get the boiler into a "better
emissions zone" for the Otago Regional Council added to the
And, each year, the mill has paid $45,000 in accident
compensation levies for its 28 staff.
"How can you compete with those free-trade agreements when
you've got to pay $45,000 a year in ACC costs?
"They don't do that in China."
Mr Barra sees New Zealand's free-trade agreement with China
as the mill's underlying problem - pitting what he describes
as a small "owner-driver" regional business against the big
yarn factories of China.
"The average spinner in China would probably be paid, and
I've spoken to a spinner in China that I know, and he would
be paying something like $US35 a month for wages."
To illustrate the difficulty of competing with China, Mr
Barra uses the example of a line of yarn for hosiery
The finished yarn was available from China at a lower price
than the Milton mill could buy the raw material to make it.
"Under free-trade agreements we cannot compete with China,
which has low labour costs, no minimum pay, holiday pay, sick
leave, ACC or emissions trading scheme."
To avoid competing head-on in the global yarn commodity
trade, the mill has sought specialist work and short runs and
took on commission spinning that "no-one else will do".
Mr Barra said he had looked at all the alternatives and his
conclusion was QualitYarns "had no future".
"You've got to make that decision when you are dealing with a
Government that is quite happy to put four hundred million
dollars into irrigation in Canterbury and put nothing into
the textile industry to process an indigenous raw material.
"So for us there was no alternative.
"We had to draw a line in the sand and say 'this is it'."
Threat to thread
Christchurch weaver Anne Field was planning to take the
Milton mill's finest merino yarns on tour with her to North
America next year.
"No one has merino yarns like he [Mike Barra] has."
She has 100 weavers lined up to teach in the United States
and Canada but is uncertain now about her supply of yarn.
"I'm a bit worried because I don't know where I can get them
The author of 10 books on weaving, Ms Field chose the Milton
mill's yarns because they were "top end.
"They are the ones we compete well with because China won't
compete in these high-end upmarket yarns. They will just
churn out the cheap ones."
She hopes some way can be found for the mill to keep going.