Last horsehair loom in UK faces closure

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The Independent Online
A LOOM at John Boyd Textiles takes one day to weave just a metre of fabric.

But patience is a virtue the Somerset-based company has had plenty of time to acquire: the patented looms were installed in its Castle Cary mill in 1872 and have been running ever since.

What makes their product so special is that John Boyd is one of the world's two surviving horsehair fabric factories (the other is in Paris) and if these machines are destroyed their ingenious mechanism, which plucks one hair at a time from a tail to weave as weft into the fabric, will be lost for ever.

On-site workshops have staved off this fate for more than 100 years but now the future of the factory lies in the hand of the estate of the recently deceased owner of the mill, which has applied for a renewal of planning permission to turn the building into homes when the current lease runs out in five years.

A decision is to be made next month, but, according to Anna Smith, the managing director, if the looms are moved there is a high risk they will collapse.

Without suitable alternative accommodation in Castle Cary (the floors need to be wooden to absorb the movement of the looms and the room needs to be long enough for the operating line shaft), she will lose her highly skilled workforce.

Although impressive, it is not just the pedigree of the company that merits its survival. Horsehair is a durable and attractive upholstery fabric. Letters of support to counter the planning application have come from, among others, the V&A, English Heritage, the National Trust, the Royal Commission for Historic Monuments, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Peabody Museum in Boston, which use the fabric to restore chairs and sofas first covered in the Georgian and Victorian heydays of horsehair.

It is also used to weave modern fabrics. As well as palaces in Britain and on the Continent, the company has supplied fabric for hotels such as Blakes and The Hempel, the Peninsula in Manila, and the Adlon in Berlin, the last putting in an order that took four months to complete, with the looms operating 12 hours a day.

What makes the fabric expensive is not only the labour-intensive production, but the difficulty of getting hold of tails, especially white ones. "The hair must come from live animals," Ms Smith said. "The same thing happens when you take wool from dead sheep: it loses its strength and vitality and won't take colour." Once cropped, the tails will grow back to their original length in three or four years.