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The Winning Post
Article by Shaun Daniel of County Alpacas, Brighouse, West Yorkshire.
Release date: 1 October 2006

County AlpacasIn my short time as an alpaca owner and breeder one question has remained unanswered. “What is happening with the fleece”? There seems to be no single answer. I have listened intently to lectures and presentations. I have seen mini-mills and visited cottage industry spinners. I have met felt makers and people that sell the fleece for bird’s nests. I really think that there is a place in the industry for all these production methods. That said, there is something lacking that’s preventing the industry from reaching its full potential. It needs a standard to work towards. It needs a goal, a winning post.

That winning post exists. It exists in the form of a sample book that was produced in 1853 and believed to have been handed to Sir Titus Salt during the opening ceremony of his famed Salts Mill in Bradford, West Yorkshire.

It was one of those chance encounters with someone I hadn’t seen for years. He had heard that I had bought some alpacas and was keen to tell me about a job he had over 25 years ago. He was helping out Salts Mill during the clearout prior to its transformation into the tourist attraction and David Hockney art gallery it is today. He described a dusty room full of old catalogues and sample books. Some of these books dated back to the opening of the mill in 1853. Some were leather bound some cardboard. A number of these books he remembered were alpaca sample books. This was the start of a bit of detective work. I knew that I had to find these books and see them. After all this was the start of the alpaca industry in Britain.

Whilst he didn’t know where the books had gone, my old friend gave me details of a few people who had also been involved in the clearout. I finally located two of the books in the possession of the Bradford Industrial Museum. I spoke to the Museum Officer for Technology, Mr Eugene Nicholson. He told me that there were indeed two books in the possession of the museum. However one book contained samples of a silk / cotton mix whilst the other contained samples of alpaca / cotton mix.

Mr Nicholson kindly allowed me to visit the museum and have direct access to the books. This offer was not to be underestimated. These books are a national treasure, normally kept under glass and away from direct sunlight. The room temperature has to be right, as does the humidity. Yet I was to be allowed to open the book and touch the fabric. He warned me that I would be amazed at what I was about to see. He explained the quality of the fabric and the depth and range of colour was something no longer seen in alpaca fibre or material in this country, probably the world.

It was a hot and sunny Monday morning when I arrived at the Museum. Normally closed to the public, it was still bustling staff as they busied themselves with the shire horses that form part of the Working Horse section. I was shown to a side door by a stable hand and told to ring the bell. A few minutes later I was greeted by an amiable man who took me to a rickety cargo lift that rattled its way up several floor. He welcomed me and seemed bemused that I was interested in alpaca. He explained that he was a lecturer in silk before retiring to work in the museum. Such are the talents that lie hidden around Bradford, a town with such a rich history in fleece and fibre processing.

He led me to a room full of books and boxes and of course Mr Eugene Nicholson. I introduced myself and asked to see the sample book. I really started to feel quite nervous as Mr Nicholson had built up this moment through our previous telephone conversations. I was under no illusion that this was to be a privilege.

From the top of a pile of cardboard boxes he produced a particularly unremarkable beige box. He placed this on a table and took off the lid. The contents covered with sheets of white tissue. The tissue was gently removed to reveal an old and tattered leather bound book. The front was beautifully tooled and engraved. The book before me was the pinnacle of years of work by Sir Titus Salt. He had spent many years perfecting the right mix of fibre to obtain the material contained in these samples.

I cautiously opened the book, afraid to damage it further than the toll the previous 153 years. The contents of this book are breathtaking. The inside cover has Sir Titus Salts family crest with the alpaca taking pride of place atop a shield and below the quotation “Quid Non Deo Juvante”( What (can we) not (do) with God’s aid). The first thing that captures you is the freshness and brilliance of the colours. Then the material itself, it is almost like pure silk to feel. Each piece of cloth about 8 inches by 6 inches is perfect and unblemished. An occasional sheet has a number embossed in the corner probably for catalogue or pattern reference. Each piece of cloth is manufactured to exacting standards as a result of years of experimentation. Combining a cotton and alpaca mix with alpaca weft and cotton warp.

There were yellows, shocking pinks, pastels dark and light, royal blues, light blues and some colours I couldn’t begin to describe. Some sheets had a variety of colours yet each sheet retained the same quality of production. A quality I have never seen in any modern alpaca material before. It was light, smooth and the type of material from which high quality garments would be made. Shirts, blouses, suits and other high fashion clothing.

My point is this; we need to be able to produce this quality again. Without the right quality of fibre then it is an impossibility. Whosoever achieves this, whoever is able to reproduce this sample book in all its colours and quality has won. This book is the winning post. It is the start and the finish line.

If there is a winning post there must be a prize. That prize will be to take the British alpaca fleece industry from where it is today and put it squarely on the international export stage. There will always be a place for cottage industry spinners and mini mills but the industry will need more than that to be a sustainable success. Britain has done it before and we should be able to do it again. It was achieved before any other country in the world by a man who did so much to revolutionise working practices in Britain, Sir Titus Salt.

There are a couple of footnotes to my story. One is that the sample book bindings are starting to come apart. The book is in need of restoration and the museum does not have the funds. Mr Nicholson tells me that should anyone which to contribute to the restoration of this important  part of our history will be recognised when the book is displayed in the future. It would seem sacrilege to loose this sample book or let it deteriorate further. Should anyone wish to contribute please contact Eugene Nicholson at the Bradford Industrial Museum for further information.

Secondly, my friend, who first put me on to this story, insists that the room he helped to empty at Salts Mill contained many more sample books. He believes that some were even earlier than this last known copy. If you know of any such sample books then the museum would love to hear from you. They are part of the alpaca industry history and deserve a public airing for the benefit of  aspiring alpaca fibre and material producers.

Lastly, during my investigation into this book and Sir Titus Salt I discovered a curious and coincidental piece of information. It is thought that Sir Titus Salt owned alpacas 150 years ago and kept them on his land around his home in a place known as Crow Nest Park, Brighouse, West Yorkshire. The mansion and the alpacas are long gone and have been replaced with a golf club. The club house is about 500 yards form where I live now. So, before I even knew a thing about alpacas they had always been on my doorstep, historically speaking.

© Shaun Daniel, County Alpacas. October 2006

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