The first time I came across Anna Gratton was probably in about 2008. I’d only recently rediscovered knitting, and was trawling the internet, looking for moderately priced New Zealand made knitting yarn. I came across her site, ordered some sample cards, and was very impressed when they arrived. After spending a considerable amount of time stroking the pretty colours and trying to make up my mind about what I wanted, I ordered several yarns. The hanks arrived quickly, and I was one very happy customer! In the corner of the enclosed price list, I noticed a hand written note, telling me that she would be at Dunkley’s (a New Zealand craft show) in Wellington later on in the year. It was a date!
On the appointed day, my sister and I eagerly made our way to the venue and found the Little Wool Co. booth. After years of experience in the craft market business, Anna has made a fine art of her booths – they are very much like an Aladdin’s cave of yarny wonder: wonderfully displayed, jewel-toned knitted garments, kits, spinning and felting fibres, cones, hanks and balled yarn (lots of yarn!!) (She also makes sure the booth is roomy enough that you can browse comfortably and see everything, without feeling claustrophobic). We were so early that Anna was still eating her breakfast, although that did not stop her from welcoming us warmly. She asked me about what I was knitting at the moment. I told her about my most recent project, a failure: a sweater I’d knitted for my son, only to find it was too small! She cackled delightedly. I thought she had a wonderfully wicked sense of humour!
My sister and I each fell in love with a beautiful alpaca/wool boucle shawl kit. I also bought some silk yarn, but sadly had to stop at that as my budget was tight. Casting a longing glance back at all that glorious yarn I had to leave behind, I knew that I’d found a New Zealand yarn worth staying in touch with!
As the years went on, I continued to buy Little Wool Co. yarn, and my respect and admiration for Anna’s business and her down-to-earth nature grew. I was therefore thrilled when she said “yes” to this interview!
This is Anna.
Anna runs the business with her husband, Colin. The business, Anna Gratton Ltd. was founded in 1976 and is based on Corriedale wool grown on the Gratton’s farm (the yarn and other products are sold under the brands “Little Wool Co” and “Filaro”). The wool from these Corriedales averages between 27 and 29 microns and is turned into over a hundred different products.
Anna and Colin are totally hands-on: Anna farms the sheep, dyes the yarn, designs and finishes the knitwear, does the marketing and on road selling. Colin is responsible for fibre preparation, yarn spinning and keeps all the machinery running in the mill.
The couple employ another three staff: Andrew assists Colin with running the machines, Sue works in the finishing area making balls, cones and hanks, and drafts many of the handknit patterns. Sue also shears the sheep and looks after the factory shop! Peter works with Anna to design the yarns.
The Boutique Mill is housed on the farm in rural Feilding, an attractive, purpose built 70,000 square feet building that blends in seamlessly behind the Grattons’ elegant two storied Victorian-era house. The business is totally vertical, a unique tourist attraction in the Manawatu District. The mill houses 30 machines: it is a full worsted line of machinery. The majority of the yarns go through most machines before they get to the dyeing stage.
Let’s hear a few words from Anna:
How did you come to farming and producing yarn? Was it the yarn first or the farm and then the yarn?
“Colin and I worked in Wellington, we wanted to leave city life and live and work in the country. I found the property in the Dominion Post, and we sold up down there and moved so we could grow our own food and be self-employed. This move has become more popular over the last 35 years! I was a potter then, I also handspun and knitted as a hobby, Colin was an Engineer, he was perfectly qualified for his new position!”
How did you start dyeing? Did you receive formal training in colour?
“I come from a very artistic family, my mother was ahead of her time and had her own business from the time I was five years old – women rarely worked when I was a child, like so many, my grandmother taught me to knit. With our first machines we spun only naturally coloured wool, it sold well however it was when I started dyeing it that production sold twice as well.
I was taught colour theory and percentage dyeing but I’ve never followed any of that, I’m a bit of a rebel – it’s all too boring! I rarely measure, I’m a true craft dyer, the work has to come from the heart to work its magic. It sounds big-headed but I know instinctively when colours work together and I know what will sell fast and what will lag the moment it comes out of the vat. On the odd occasion yarn has to be redyed, these hanks usually end up the very special ones and kept for myself.”
What does your typical day look like?
“Ha ha… (maybe a typical seven-day week would cover it all!) My day begins at dawn, answering emails for an hour and checking and updating facebook. I then race out into the cold with mail order parcels which are all piled up at the front door for the rural mail man to collect and take to Feilding Post Shop – then out to do a day of dyeing, today all fine yarns for the knitwear business, tomorrow will be dyeing orders for mail order customers, then the next couple of days will be dyeing for the next craft market day…
No day is the same – every day is super busy, with no time to sit down – yesterday between rain showers, I tidied up the sheep ready for their annual shear. These sheep produce the top lines of hand spinning fleece, so they must be clean and free of contaminants at the time of shearing.
Here are some of them, enjoying their winter breakfast of yams:
Other days Colin and I work machinery preparing fibre for export and spinning.
Some days I do fairs and trade shows which means a lot of travelling. It’s wonderful! I’m in a different town or city almost every week.”
What do you love most about what you do?
“The joys of being self-employed – if one is well organised one can choose what one does and when one does it. We took a small step 35 years ago and escaped the city, I’ve been fortunate in having creative freedom for my working life.
I love the dye work, it’s extremely physical and taxing however the resultant products are very satisfying.
I also adore working our blender gill, that’s where we produce all the blends of fibres for the handspinners and felters, I feel that’s where my colour skills show best.
I like to see what my customers make from my products.
Wool is my first love as a fibre, it’s a natural renewable resource, it breathes, is durable, flexible, dyes easily, it’s fire resistant and keeps the human body comfortable, warm and healthy.
I enjoy working with all manner of fibres, however all our yarns have a good solid wool base in the blends. I feel that is very important to get the very best from all components. All breeds of sheep fascinate me, they all have a purpose. I love sheep, mine are funny and smart. The picture below shows one of the girls with her quadruplets born this Spring.”
Do you deliberately breed the sheep to be coloured?
Yes – the sheep are deliberately bred for their colours – light and dark grey, coffee, black and spotted.
What’s the yarn you like to spin?
I have several garments knitted from the merino/mohair/silk mix. Some are 17 years old now… pictured below is one of my favourites. I wear it a lot to “spin ins” (guild events)… it has never gone out shape or pilled, hard wearing as hell!!! That’s the type of yarn I like to make.
How do you see the yarn landscape?
“Most of NZ’s spinning mills, scours and textile factories have either closed or gone to Asia where the labour costs are low. As we all know, the market is flooded with cheap goods. So there is a huge gap in the market for interesting knitting yarns and exclusive knitwear. My aim is to design colourful, good quality, yet practical, hardwearing knits and interesting colourful yarns with simple patterns.
It is the creative and innovative knitting wool companies which are still in business, in fact those left are growing to meet the market, while the bigger mills have not been able to change with the times. With ever-increasing price rises from the petro-chemical industry, I see the future even more so in natural fibres and blended yarns, especially mixing Corriedale and Merino with silk, mohair and alpaca, to get the best from the each of the fibres. We are spinning finer and lighter weight yarns all the time on the industrial machines and the hand knit yarns produced have to be exotic to sell and these include boucles, brushed mohair, slubs and many fancy effect yarns.
The Boutique Mill has found a niche market, which has seen it grow into an exporting business. I have many local wholesale accounts including retailers and other manufacturers and sell world-wide (including Canada, Europe and Australia) by mail order. NZ accounts for about three-quarters of Anna Gratton Ltd’s market with specialty knitwear products sold to Japanese orientated tourist shops.
North America is my key export market. Alaska in particular is an important market for us, cold weather making woollen clothing and good thick yarn very popular.
60% of the production is hand knit yarn and 40% is industrial, the latter is taken right through into a comprehensive range of lightweight knitwear and accessories.
Small runs and regularly designing new products are the keys to my business survival. I design everything from scratch.
Planning is crucial. You have to be right up to date with the latest styles and colours from Europe and the US. We used to be a season behind, now it’s more like 3 to 4 months. You have to stock up months ahead, this can be nerve wracking!
Being in tune with trends demands a hard nose approach to pricing too, the fashions are cheap and transient and we have huge competition still from imported goods. I have had to alter many lines, I’ve had to come up with new products to please the “cheapies” at the bottom plus develop many more luxury products to appeal to the top end of the market.”
Thanks so much Anna, for that insight into your business and background! One last thing… can you tell us about the Kaffe Fasset award you got?
“It was a competition held in Auckland in 1986. It coincided was his very first visit to NZ… so long ago… Kaffe judged it. As predicted, everyone else knitted complex colourful jerseys, so I wanted to do something different. I didn’t win the competition but got that award, maybe it was too much outside the square then. The wall hanging is 2 meters by 2 meters, it was knitted in strips and then sewn together.
I enjoy having it on my wall in my work room.”
Wishing you could have some Little Wool Co. yet?
International and domestic customers can contact Anna directly on facebook, or view and order from her website. More information about the yarns is also on my page “Anna Gratton Ltd. – Little Wool Co”.
As a special treat, if you’re lucky enough to live in Wellington or you are visiting Wellington for the Brancott Estate World of WearableArt Awards Show next week, I leave you with a couple of pictures of the kind of hand-dyed yarn that will be available at Anna Gratton’s booth at the Wellington Underground Market on 29 and 30 September. Be there early though, as I might have got there before you! 😉