Xmas deadline to save Milton mill

The clock is ticking for Mike Barra, of QualitYarns New Zealand, and what is left of his Milton workforce. Photos by Peter McIntosh.
The clock is ticking for Mike Barra, of QualitYarns New Zealand, and what is left of his Milton workforce. Photos by Peter McIntosh.
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.

In 2000, Mike Barra found a way to get the Milton woollen mill up and going again after it was shut down by Alliance Textiles.

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.
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 investment.

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 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 momentum."

Dyed "sliver" being processed through a "gilling" machine in readiness for combing.
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, intricate machines.

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.
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 products.

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.
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.
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 the shareholders.

"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.
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 years.

As the Bruce Woollen Manufacturing Company Ltd, it suffered fire, depression, under-capitalisation, financial losses, poor management, staff shortages, high wool prices and pollution concerns.

But, there were always enough good times in between to keep it afloat.

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 break.

"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 numbered 54.

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 Spencer Crafts.

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 tonne.

"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 problem.

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 manufacture.

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 from."

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.


- mark.price@odt.co.nz