In a nondescript town (called Milton) on a quiet highway, we found the last wool mill in the south island of New Zealand. The brick buildings line the road and, were it not for the modern cars, I could almost imagine I was in Dickensian London. The Bruce Woolen Mill was built in 1897 and at its peak, employed over 500 workers, although there aren’t nearly so many employees now. In fact, a fair portion of mill space is actually rented to a fiberglass company for storage. They no longer offer tours, but if you show up first thing in the morning and happen to tell a certain friendly employee that you actually spent 2 nights in the town of Milton (because you arrived on a Sunday and they were closed for a public holiday on the Monday) and you came all the way from the United States and you are so excited to see a working wool mill, she just might give you a peek inside. But shhh! Don’t tell!
Of course the first thing that I was entranced by was the bins of wool. So. Much. Yarn. I think I might have actually been drooling at this point.
Since I wasn’t really supposed to be in the factory, I got a super quick look around at the machines in no particular order. Only one of them had actually been started up for the day, so I didn’t get to see a lot of action, but I could imagine the factory bustling, even if its truly bustling days are over.
All of the machines had clearly been around for a long time – I was told that most of them had been there since the 1950’s, including this Schlafhorst AutoConer, a German machine from a company that still makes the same machines (albeit in a modern form). Most of the machines were for moving yarn from one hank or cone to another and at least one was for plying yarn.
When moving large volumes of unspun wool, the easiest way to do it is to stick it in a tube and use air to blow it around – so that’s exactly what they do! Large metal pipes connect to each other with tubes of clear plastic and forced air moves the wool from one part of the mill to another. When there are large amounts of unspun wool around, they are stored in small rooms into which the tube feeds from above. Apparently, it used to be the job of a mill worker to jump up and down on top of the room of wool to compress it so that more could be stored. A rope would be tied around his waist for safety in case he fell into the wool. Clearly, such jobs have since been replaced by machinery (which is unfortunate because, if you completely ignore how dangerous it probably was, it sounds like fun!).
Attached to a little gift shop was a rather dusty “museum” that had some old machinery, old photos, old samples, and a little bit of the history of the woolen mill. Highlights include: In 1897, the Bruce Woollen Manufacturing Company was formed and started production with a batch of merino wool purchased locally. In 1901, a fire destroyed the mill and it was rebuilt. In 1922, the mill worked with the city council to bring electricity to Milton!
The most exciting thing about the wool mill was getting to see one of the machines in action – a gigantic carding machine. The woman who snuck me around the mill asked one of the workers to get this machine going for the day since it was her favorite and she knew I’d like to see it. Raw wool gets fed into one end. It then goes through a series of rollers with combs to card the wool and it gets spit out the other end as a tube of wool, ready for spinning. She said that her favorite times are when the wool is dyed in its raw form because if it’s dyed pink, it looks like giant tubes of candy floss being made in the machine!