For the Terroir collection, I wanted to showcase small yarn companies, the beautiful people behind them and local initiatives to promote natural yarns. Fonty is a bit different from the other companies that I chose because it’s a bit bigger, way older, and it is also a spinning mill which work is really important in the promotion of local natural yarn in France, so that’s why I wanted to introduce them to you!
I knitted their yarn Fado to create the Gothique Fleuri Scarf. It’s a yarn that is 100% ecological, made locally, undyed, from fleeces of Arles and Portuguese merino sheeps raised locally. It’s really soft and round and gives amazing textures, so I took this opportunity to create some intricate textures on this scarf!
Benoît de Larouziere, the owner of Fonty, has agreed to answer some questions in an interview that you can read below. I learned so much in it about this yarn company and spinning mill, its unique skills, jobs and their projects. I hope that you will find it as inspiring as I did!
Can you share a few words about you and tell us how you came to be the owner of Fonty?
I was working as a manager in the aeronautics industry, and since 2016 I was looking for a business to take over with a few simple requirements: A small team, unique and traditional skills, beautiful products, a dimension that is industrial and artisanal and a project that could also give more meaning to my work. And if possible, an environmental project with social and ethical implications. All these criteria lead me to search for an EPV “Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant” (Living Heritage Company). In early 2017, I stumbled by chance on the Fonty mill.
The 90s and 2000s had been very difficult for the mill. In 2006, after 2 successive bankrupcies, it was put back on track with a small team and a limited collection. Its owner, a professional spinner, was over 70 years old and looking to step down and retire.
Everything happened really fast, 1st visit at the end of January, definitive transfer at the end of May. And Fonty got the EPV label in mid-2017.
Since then, we’ve been trying, with the team, to work on all aspects of the company: Organizing the team and workshops, hiring to make sure that the skills are taught and carried over, rehabilitating the industrial tools, developing new yarns, updating the collections and colors, rebranding, putting a new website in place, an instagram account, marketing, commercial development, looking for new markets…
Can you tell us the story behind this very special yarn that is FADO?
FADO is a yarn that is 100% ecological, natural, without any chemical treatment, undyed, made exclusively from fleeces of 2 emblematic breeds of merinos sheeps. The Arles Merinos, naturally white, raised in the Crau plain in Provence and black merinos from Portugal, naturally dark-brown, raised in the Alentejo province in south Portugal.
The result is really amazing, by varying the mix of the two fleeces, Fonty manages to obtain colorways going from white (660) to dark brown (664) with 3 different browns in the middle, light (661), medium (662), and deep (663).
When FADO was first produced, in the early 2010s, it was a project in collaboration with LAINAMAC, to develop the wool industry in the Massif Central region while reducing the environmental impact caused by the transport of fleeces. For FADO, the idea was: Why not raise the merino sheeps from Portugal right here in Creuse, France? That’s how a sponsorship system was born, you could sponsor the settlement of one dark merino sheep from Portugal in Creuse and Fonty would give you each year, in exchange, some FADO yarn made with its fleece.
8 years later, the sponsorship system was closed, but the same mindset remains and show how much environmental issues are at the heart of Fonty’s projects. There are other projects like this currently happening.
There are more and more small natural yarn companies in France and the Filature du Rougnat has a big role in bringing lots of them to life. How do you see your role in this promotion of the local yarn industry in France?
Fonty, « La Filature de Rougnat » is one of 4 or 5 last spinning mill still in activity in France. Compared to the yarn industry in the world, our production capacity is very limited and our costs higher than in heavily industrialized countries (China, Turkey, Eastern Europe), but our chance is to be a spinners and dyers, which makes us completely independant. We can produce small series, which are too big to be produced by a small artisan in their own studio, too small to be accepted by bigger industrial mills.
At the same time, downstream of the wool industry there is a big development happening since the last few years around the creation of beautiful yarns with beautiful colors, and a concern of sustainability and ecological transparency, of social action, making small batches and highlighting the history behind the product. With the development of social medias, a lot of brands were born to offer original creations. But it’s true that with the near extinction of all the yarn industry in France, apart from a few mini mills, upstream of the industry, everything relies on a few survivors like Fonty.
With our double skillset of spinning and dyeing, and our specialization on natural, high quality yarn, made in France, we cover 4 activities:
Making and distributing yarns from the Fonty collection, which is sold through our network of partnering local yarn stores, in direct sales at our factory store, or on our website and at a few festivals.
Making yarn for artisans using wool (Aubusson tapestry makers, high quality rugs makers, weavers, creators, dyers). We have a very important role in this industry that almost nobody can do anymore in France. We make and dye yarns on demand, following what the artisans ask from us. We also put a yarn and color library at disposal, along with our dyeing lab. With this activity we are at the central point of new creations around yarn.
Making yarns for other yarn brands, for professionnal of the wool industry made in France. These yarn brands, industrial knitters, weaving, textile and fashion industries are looking for ecological, sustainable and transparent natural yarns made in France.
Making yarn for local farmers using their own fleeces. Farmers are developing this activity of selling their own yarn, and the transformation into yarn and dyeing are made by a few rare spinning mill still in activity in France, including Fonty. This activity is very unprofitable but it’s our contribution to the survival of the local yarn industry in France.
You have unique skills recognized by the EPV label. But how does the everyday life of a spinning mill look like? What are the jobs and skills of the people working there? In a few words, what are the different steps of production of your yarn?
The EPV label is awarded by the French department of economy. It recognizes how precious, exceptionnal and fragile the skills that we keep using at the Fonty spinning mill are. When I visited the mill for the first time back in 2017, this label wasn’t awarded yet but I knew that this company deserved it. When we did the application, it was immediately approved by the commision. It’s not only the skills, the company also displays the history of local textile industry. The industrial site is completely rural. With an ancient watermill from the Middle Ages, it’s in the middle of the hills of the Haute Vallée du Cher, at more than 500m high, by a fish-filled river which water was used to wash and dye but also as the energy for all the machinery. Today, the 8000m2 of industrial space are filled with equipment which dates back to the 30s for the oldest, 80s for the newest.
There are 4 main jobs in a team of 22:
The dyeing, based on the skills of 4 dyers. For me, it’s the most precious thing of this company. More than 200.000 samples of yarn with a little formula. And the ability to make basically any color on any yarn. The dyeing workshop contains about 30 dyeing tanks of all sizes and allows to make about as many batches at once.
The spinning, which goes from mixing the raw materials, carding, spinning, twisting, swifting, winding… The team is made of about 13 people, men and women.
The maintenance, which is crucial for us. Our equipment is old, dates back before there were electronics. So even if most of their manufacturers have disappeared, everything can be fixed because it’s all mechanical, electrical or boilermaking. For the last 2 years, a compagnon (craftsman), with a part-time side-kick, are fixing and maintaining all the equipment.
The commercial and administrative side, which is the same for all small businesses, from accounting to taking orders, organising production and stocks, human ressources, communication, creating new yarns and colors…
At the intersection of the agricultural world, the small industry, the small local business, Fonty has been living the deep mutations and transformations that these 3 industries have experienced in the last 30 years. Our job now is to maintin the unique skillset, to share it to future generations, but also to adapt it to today’s world, to support each other through the difficulties of the local yarn industry in France and all its actors, and to find new viable modus operandis for tomorrow.
We’re far from done, our economy is still very fragile, but we are trying to lay the foundations that will allow this little human community and its unique skillset to have a future. The growing interest of more and more people around these products that have a beautiful history and paradoxically the globalization of communication through the web and social medias are probably a sign that we have a chance to get there!