The growing movement away from synthetic and plastic products is good news for Whanganui's Cavalier Bremworth yarn spinning plant.

Plant manager Andrew Karl says there's an increasing demand for wool carpets, especially at the high end of the market.

"There's a noticeable swing back to wool with the anti-plastic sentiment out there," Karl said.

"Wool will be the future for us, especially in the higher end market."

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Cavalier is one of only a few companies worldwide that makes felted wool carpets, using high quality yarn produced at the Whanganui plant, which has reinvented itself after some tough times.

In 1975 Cavalier's founders Tony Timpson and Grant Biel, who set up their company in Auckland 50 years ago, decided they needed to diversify into spinning plants because yarn supply was a challenge.

They needed somewhere near natural gas supply and a main trunk railway line in the North Island. They settled on Whanganui and set up Castlecliff Spinners in a joint venture with Alliance, with Cavalier eventually taking over the whole operation.

It was a significant local employer but in 2016 Cavalier announced a restructure, with the bulk of its work moving to Napier and the loss of 108 spinning jobs in Whanganui.

However, the Christchurch felting plant closed and that operation moved to Whanganui, creating 40 different jobs. It meant a loss of 68 jobs in Whanganui.

Today there are 54 staff in Whanganui, working three shifts, five days a week, at the Leamington St plant. They produce felted yarn that mostly goes into loop pile carpet, though Cavalier also has a new cut pile range.

Plant manager Andrew Karl next to the dryer which removes the moisture from the felted wool. Photo / Bevan Conley
Plant manager Andrew Karl next to the dryer which removes the moisture from the felted wool. Photo / Bevan Conley

"It's 100 per cent wool," Karl said.

"We get some fibre locally, sourced from the central North Island, but some comes from the South Island."

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The Whanganui plant processes up to 20,000kg of wool a week.

Cavalier has five wool stores in the central North Island and there are staff who buy and collect wool from suppliers. Some of the wool is sold on the open market because the company cannot use it all.

At the height of the shearing season, the wool store would be packed with bales. Photo / Bevan Conley
At the height of the shearing season, the wool store would be packed with bales. Photo / Bevan Conley

As well as bales of wool coming in from shearing sheds, lifestylers drop off small quantities of wool to the plant.

"After it's collected from the farm, the first process is to scour the wool [in Napier] then it's dyed in Napier," Karl said.

"Sometimes it's blended in Napier but we're starting to do blending here."

Blending is combining different colours from the dyed wool. The new blending plant in Whanganui was completed only last week.

Removing the rolls after the wool has been through the carding machine. Photo / Bevan Conley
Removing the rolls after the wool has been through the carding machine. Photo / Bevan Conley

Once the scouring, dying and blending has been completed, the wool goes through a carding machine that removes impurities and opens tangled wool tufts.

"Quality control is very important as carpet is so visible - if anything is wrong it's so obvious," Karl said.

"We're very proud to produce a quality product."

The semi-worsted system uses wool slivers. Photo / Bevan Conley
The semi-worsted system uses wool slivers. Photo / Bevan Conley

There are machines that bundle the fibre, twist it, create two or three-ply yarns and, almost at the end of the yarn-making process, there is the felting machine.

Yarn is combined into three-ply in this area of the plant. Photo / Bevan Conley
Yarn is combined into three-ply in this area of the plant. Photo / Bevan Conley

Most of the other machinery is imported from Europe but the felting machine, made in New Zealand, is bespoke and out of bounds for the Chronicle's photographer due to commercial sensitivity.

"The site has been here since 1975 and for the most part we continue to do what we have done since then, making woollen yarn," Karl said.

"But we have redefined ourselves as a felted yarn maker, producing chunky, luxurious yarn aimed at the high-end residential broadloom market. Felted wool retains its softness but is more durable.

"If you're making synthetic carpets, you can buy yarn from overseas from places like China and make it into carpet, but that's not creating many jobs; there's not a lot of value for New Zealand."

Whanganui's Cavalier Bremworth plant in Castlecliff