Founded in 1934, Ashford Handicrafts is a family-owned New Zealand brand that specialises in manufacturing spinning wheels and weaving looms for crafting. Here, director James Ashford discusses re-entering a business he grew up working in, and how it’s using emerging technology to facilitate innovation in the crafting category. Inside Retail: Tell me about Ashford Handicrafts? How is the business currently performing? James Ashford: Ashford Handicrafts is the world’s leading manufa
manufacturer of spinning wheels, weaving looms, and other textile craft equipment. My grandfather, Walter Ashford, founded the business back in 1934 and over time the company has gone from strength to strength. Our products are sold in over 40 countries, and we have a dealer network of over 1,000 retail stores globally. Since our establishment, we have manufactured over 900,000 spinning wheels and weaving looms. We have seen interest in spinning and weaving increase in recent years – as there is a renewed focus on sustainability and traceability of textiles. IR: Can you discuss the demand for spinning wheels and weaving looms at the moment? Is it popular among a particular demographic, and is demand and interest growing over time? JA: We manufacture and supply a large spectrum of products in the wool craft space. Someone might start with our felting kits and then they discover rigid heddle weaving. That might eventually progress onto multi-shaft weaving or spinning their own yarn on our wheels. Then continue into processing their own wool using our carding equipment and dyes. It can get quite addictive. We publish an annual magazine that features articles from our customers all around the world. It’s such a thrill to see how our products are being used to make creative and beautiful textiles. We have a surprisingly broad customer demographic. Social media (Pinterest) and new marketplaces (Etsy) have given new exposure to the joys of spinning and weaving to the next generation. IR: Can you discuss the manufacturing and production process? Does it all occur locally, and how specialised is this work? JA: The vast majority of our products are manufactured by us here in Ashburton. We use the finest beech hardwood sourced from sustainably managed forestry with FSC/PEFC certification. We have a modern plant that utilises the latest woodworking machinery including eight CNC machines, an automatic lathe and optimising saw – operated by our team of skilled craftspeople. We also have a small woollen mill in Milton (just south of Dunedin) that produces our Merino and Corriedale wool fibre. We manufacture to stock, so our retailers are able to order today, and have it shipped on the same day. IR: I’m interested in your background, and personal reflections, as the third generation in a family business. How involved were you growing up, and do you think you’re more passionate or invested because of this personal connection? Does this create additional pressure in terms of the longevity of the business? JA: The family business was a large part of my childhood. I remember working in the packing room during school holidays and travelling with Mum and Dad to craft fairs and retailers across New Zealand. We also had a steady stream of international customers who came to visit and stay with us in Ashburton. After high-school I studied Computer Science at Canterbury University and worked as a software developer. In 2015, my husband and I decided the time was right to move from New York City back to Ashburton and grasp the opportunity to work and ultimately take over the family business. I know that my grandfather Walter would be extremely proud of where his business has advanced and that his legacy continues into the third generation. IR: How is Ashford Handicrafts taking on global markets? How is the business growing and performing internationally? JA: Working with FedEx has been the fire power behind our global expansion. FedEx has a global footprint that is undeniable with strong services currently connecting Christchurch to Melbourne and Sydney via Auckland which really supports our business objectives. We’re operating and selling our products globally with approximately 90 per cent of our products being exported. The United States, Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, and Europe are our primary export markets. Thanks to our continued expansion, the business is now employing over 45 people. IR: Can you discuss future plans in terms of global expansion? Which markets have you identified as opportunities for future growth? JA: There are fantastic opportunities for international growth, and we would like to be in every yarn store in the world. Due to our reputation for quality products and long history, we often get approached directly to supply new retailers. Recently, we started supplying our first retailer in Indonesia. IR: How are spinning wheels and weaving looms evolving? Are there new products coming out, and is emerging technology a big factor in terms of production and design? JA: Our customers are the best source of inspiration – sharing their ideas and suggestions on new products or improvements. Spinning and weaving has been around since the dawn of textiles, yet there are always new improvements and innovations that we can make. Technology has also enabled us to develop new products – including our electronic spinning wheels, electric drum carder and ball winder. IR: Can you discuss future plans for the business? What’s planned for Ashford Handicrafts over the next 12-24 months? JA: We are going to continue to invest in research and development of new products and improvements to our existing range. We also plan to attend a number of trade shows including the Australian Sheep and Wool Show and Wonder Wool Wales to showcase our latest products to potential customers.