It all began with a young man in the right place at the right time. The worldwide depression of the 1930s was not Walter Ashford’s idea of a good time for starting a business, but with purpose and determination he converted the family laundry into a tiny workshop in one of the most depressed suburbs in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Four days a week he worked making wooden fireside stools seated with seagrass. On the fifth day, with a stool on the handlebars of his bicycle, he rode the city knocking on doors and learned first hand that quality and value resulted in orders.
‘Assemble and save’
Not long after this the Ashford family moved to Rakaia, a small country town. Here Walter rented an old building and set up a small factory. He repaired furniture and began making everything from picture frames to chicken coops. Good workmanship and modest prices brought their own reward. However, Rakaia’s population of only nine hundred was hardly enough for potential growth. What he needed were customers. He gave it a lot of thought and eventually an idea came to him… he would sell his fireside stools by mail order. Wrapping up stools and posting them presented him with a second problem, the matter of bulk. Then Walter had his second bright idea. He would make the wooden parts for the stools and post them together with an instruction sheet for customers to ‘Assemble and Save’, a catch phrase that became the company’s slogan.
And so kitsets became a great success on the New Zealand scene. Because Walter was a practical man with a flair for design, his staff and production line expanded to include nursery and household furniture, utilities and toys. Walter’s greatest assets were his ability to design simple practical products and the specialized machinery to make them.
The spinning revolution
In 1940 the Home Journal magazine asked Walter to design a spinning wheel that could make knitting yarn. It had to be aesthetically pleasing, functional, robust, trouble-free and yet a simple kitset that could be posted all over New Zealand. The first model was a double drive model, but Walter soon discovered that spinners wanted to change the bobbins with ease. So with the help of his father, the Reverend Dudley Ashford, the Ashford Scotch Tension flyer was developed and a patent pending awarded for its unique design. This revolutionary idea enabled the drive belt to be left on the flyer and it was just a simple matter of releasing the Scotch Tension to remove the bobbin. Today this innovation appears on many other brands of spinning wheel.
With World War 2 upon New Zealand, Walter’s wheels were in great demand to create yarn for woollen socks and caps for our soldiers, sailors and airmen overseas. While Walter served in the Airforce, his father managed the business and with the help of a disabled foreman and a team of women, kept the factory working at top speed to produce 3,600 spinning wheels.
In 1945 Walter returned to his factory only to find that nylon, the new wonder fibre, was overtaking wool and hand spinning. It was over. For the next 20 years spinning slumbered like Sleeping Beauty. Click here to view a Spinning Wheel time-line.
Interest in wool revived
Then one day in 1965 Mrs Pamela Simcox knocked on the factory door and said, ‘Please Mr Ashford, make me 10 spinning wheels’. This was not the sort of challenge Walter wanted to take up for the second time, remembering with distaste a storeroom of wheels, which had to be discounted at the end of the war. But Pamela persisted, emphatic that wool was the only wonder fibre, cool in summer and warm in winter. At agriculture and pastoral fairs, Pamela followed the country’s expert shearers spinning up the fleeces as they fell from their blades. She was persistent. Besides, why let that expertise go to waste? And so, once again Walter Ashford was in the right place at the right time.
Starting from where he left off, he saw the need to keep in touch with spinners, and by adapting, modifying and streamlining factory procedures he produced the popular Ashford Traditional Spinning Wheel while still in the modest Rakaia premises. With little promotion, spinning groups mushroomed all over the country. Orders also began coming in from Australia, America and Europe.
A larger factory was constructed in Ashburton. Now, with plenty of space, machinery and skilled craftsmen, the manufacture of spinning wheels surged ahead. From these small beginnings Ashford has now produced over 700,000 spinning wheels and are exporting to over forty different countries.
Quality, reliability and durability
The key to success has been Ashford’s devotion to quality, reliability and durability. Only the best of materials are used. There is also a continual process of improvement and innovation in design, while retaining the aesthetic appeal of a graceful spinning wheel. The Ashford range of wheels allows spinners the ability to spin fine, bulky and novelty yarns from all types of fibre. As international spinning instructor Patsy Zawistoski says, “Spinners ask me: ‘What is your ‘go to’ wheel?’ An Ashford of course! For traveling and teaching I always use an Ashford wheel. I learned on my Ashford Traditional in 1981. Today I travel with my Ashford Joy; it packs easily, travels well, sets up in less than a minute, and carries its own bobbins. Now the Joy has an art yarn flyer with larger bobbins and a sliding yarn guide. It is the most versatile wheel I own, I teach everything on the Joy from cotton to cashmere, to thick, soft woolen yarn or highly textured bouclé.
Over the 30+ years I have owned Ashford wheels I have appreciated how Richard and his team listen to their customers and users; making changes and improvements to their already great wheels. Kudos to the thought and quality that go into Ashford products! Whether it is spinning or weaving equipment. Yes, there are a number of good wheels on the market, but my most reliable and most used wheels are Ashford. Ashford is spinning wherever you are”.
It was only natural that weaving looms followed spinning wheels. Ashford now produces a complete range of high quality textile craft equipment.
Since the beginning, the company’s philosophy is to respect nature and work ethically and sustainably. The solid wood products are made of indigenous Silver Beech timber from Forestry Stewardship Council-approved mills. A business initiative to increase recycling and reduce the use of energy, water and waste was recognised with a regional Clean Green Award.
While approximately 95% of today’s business is with hobbyists and craftspeople in the western world, Richard and Elizabeth Ashford take great pride in their connection to communities which are less well off, where their spinning wheels and other equipment are vital contributors to families’ wellbeing.
And of course, spinning and weaving are eco-friendly activities that reduce the dependence on non-renewable resources.
In 1986 Walter was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal, a fitting honour for a man who gave a lifetime’s dedication to crafts and his local community.
The family work is continued by son, Richard and his wife, Elizabeth and grandson, James Ashford and his husband David Lester, who manage the factory, the craft village in Ashburton and the woollen mill in Milton, New Zealand.