Design Spun

April 2018

Design Spun is only one of three worsted wool yarn manufacturing mills in Australasia

Sheer bloody mindedness and a belief and passion for wool have seen the Design Spun team survive against odds that have closed the doors of every other worsted spinner in New Zealand over the last 30 years. Worsted yarn is predominantly used for apparel, hosiery, upholstery, weaving and the craft market.

This determined company has survived the free-market and fierce Asian competition by downsizing, specialising and embracing digital marketing. They’ve created a nimble company able to take on added value commissions, creating speciality fibre blends and offering small dye runs. They are developing a “direct to consumer model” to equalise traditional peaks and troughs by tapping into the global market online with their website:

The company is owned by Peter Chatterton, Ian Kelly and Brendan Jackson. Master Weave, a bespoke producer of fine homewares, is a shareholder and shares are presently being transferred to key people within the Design Spun team to assure succession.

25-30 years ago, the company employed 85 people and was manufacturing a mix of commodity yarns and specialised contract products. Today they’re a lean company with 18 employees, focused on the specialty yarns and manufacturing a remarkable range of blended natural fibres (wool, alpaca, possum, angora and mohair) in a range of colours they’ve lost count of, under contract and on commission. A contracted supply is where Design Spun undertake the sourcing of fibre through to the completion of yarn. Commissions are where they spin supplied fibre for smaller companies, and farmer/growers.

With the opening up of the free market and subsequent domination of Chinese manufacturing, yarn spinning mills were shutting across New Zealand in the 1980 /90’s. Today Design Spun is one of only three remaining worsted wool mills in all of Australasia. The directors knew they couldn’t compete with the “sausage factory” model and were struggling with staffing a 24-hour operation. They knew they needed to find ways to streamline/downsize and add value.

Early on they embraced digital marketing – it was a difficult change of direction and required balancing their contract/wholesale business while developing their own online retail portal – but a decision that was vital to the survival of the company.

Catering to the craft market they offer reduced ‘direct from the mill’ prices and they maintain a key point of difference from other online yarn sellers, as they manufacture the product. The online sales are export focussed and enable them to regulate work and cash flow by reaching into different global markets – for example in the New Zealand summer, when craft wool sales slow significantly, they are now targeting the Northern Hemisphere, with 15% of sales through the site now going to this market.

The website has been backed up with some savvy social media. In the early days of the website, Skeinz manager Maree Buscke saw wool jumpers being knitted for oil slicked penguins who’d been the victims of the Rena shipping disaster. The jackets stopped the penguins from preening and ingesting oil while the wools further wicked oil away from their feathers. Maree put a wee jumper on a toy penguin and co-ordinated an effort to have more penguin jumpers knitted.  The response was overwhelming and the site went viral with news companies calling from around the world – and thousands of jackets were knitted for penguins. Today they continue to sell these charming penguins in jumpers, with proceeds going to Forest & Bird and other blue penguin initiatives through their Skeinz Penguin Rescue Fund.  

Their online business continues to grow and has been able to successfully tap into the resurgence of craft and knitting and consumer demand for more sustainable products. Older knitters are returning to their craft and young people are embracing it with knit clubs and knitting nights. Their marketing too is now also predominantly online through social media with Etsy and being important sites where they post. They rely on traditional forms of advertising for niche markets, such as the Alpaca magazine where they’re able to advertise their commission services.

They’ve been able to take advantage of the growing consumer market for bespoke artisan products with a ‘good story’ by offering a bespoke service, dyeing and spinning yarn on commission. With many primary producers now seeking to add value to their own products it is an area with a lot of untapped potential.

Merino wool remains the most popular commission but they’re also producing more blends using alpaca, mohair, angora and possum for farmers, artisan growers and manufacturers across New Zealand and Australia. The jobs are smaller but higher in value. Their minimum batch requirement is 300 kilos of wool, which works out to about 600 jerseys.

One of their commissions comes from a merino producer in Tasmania, White Gum Wool. “With the advent of my yarn business, the bales of fleece wool that are destined to become White Gum Wool yarn are sent to Canterbury Wool Scourers (Christchurch, New Zealand) for scouring--removing the grease, lanolin and dust--and from there to Design Spun Ltd (Napier, New Zealand) for gilling--aligning the fibres for a worsted spin--spinning, plying, dyeing and packaging.” White Gum Wool:

The small size of the company and the expertise of their technical people have enabled them to grow their commission business. Technical Manager Ian Kelly and his protégé, Plant Manager Matthew August are able to adapt their equipment to meet a variety of requirements. The mill machinery is operating well outside original manufacturer specifications and they work with 15.8micron merino upwards.