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WORTH THEIR SALT: THE MEN WHO MADE ALPACA

Posted on December 14 2018

Motoluxe introduced Mason & Sons to the beauty of alpaca fabric 180 years after its original commercial development by British industrialist, Sir Titus Salt. The firstborn son of 9 children, his father Daniel had made his fortune from an iron foundry making armaments for the Napoleonic Wars before becoming a mill-owner. Like his father, Titus was also to prove himself a driven and obsessive man.  

Sir Titus Salt (1803-1876)

Titus worked as a wool-stapler in Wakefield before becoming a partner in his father's Bradford-based business, which he took over in 1833. Three years later, he came across some unwanted bales of alpaca wool in a Liverpool warehouse. The fibre was notoriously difficult to work with - hence its abandonment - but Titus began to experiment determinedly and after 18 months had successfully created a soft lustrous cloth. He presented a gown made from the fabric to Prince Albert for Queen Victoria, and the material became highly fashionable, creating enormous demand.

Prince Albert & Queen Victoria (c1850)

Salt became the largest employer in Bradford, but he had grave concerns regarding the health of his workforce. The town was one of the most polluted places in England. There were frequent outbreaks of cholera and typhoid, and only 30% of children born to textile workers reached the age of fifteen. This extreme level of infant and youth mortality contributed to a life expectancy for Bradford residents of just over eighteen years.

British Cholera epidemics ran from 1831-1866 

In 1851, Titus decided to move his business to nearby Saltaire, and began to build a model community. The village took 25 years to complete and included workers houses, almshouses, bathhouses, schools, churches, halls, allotments, a hospital and dentist... dramatically improving the life expectancy of his 3,500 employees. The homes were arranged in a grid pattern and assigned in strict hierarchy from top down, laying the foundations for the ambition to “go up in the world”.

 The Plan of Saltaire

Nothing went to waste in Saltaire – lanolin was sold to local soap-makers, chimney soot and lady’s urine was used in dyeing processes, and men’s urine was sold to leather tanneries. The transportation of these bodily fluids was poorly paid and could be considered a humiliating task, leading those doing the job to sometimes attempt to hoodwink others by suggesting they were carrying a more lucrative cargo (such as wine) leading to the derisory expression, “You are taking the p**s”.

Salts Mill at Saltaire

Titus Salt died at Crow Nest, Lightcliffe in 1876 - the year in which the development of Saltaire village was finally completed. Salts Mill continued to operate until 1986, by which time it had fallen into disrepair. It was subsequently purchased by Jonathan Silver, a local businessman who had previously built a successful chain of menswear stores (from where I proudly purchased my first suit, aged 17). Silver converted the mill into a retail complex and art gallery – featuring work by his close friend, Bradford-born artist David Hockney. 

 Jonathan Silver by David Hockney

Whether it be Salt’s cloth or Silver’s suits, there’s a common need to secure the supply of raw materials to create product, and in the case of Alpaca, the primary source resides in the Andean mountain ranges of South America. The Alpaca’s natural habitat has a harsh climate with extreme temperature fluctuations, but its fleece consists of hollow fibres with excellent thermal properties - light and cool in the summer, insulating and warm in winter. It is softer than wool and stronger than cashmere. It is nonabsorbent (making it waterproof) and will not ignite (making it fireproof). There are 22 natural colours running into 300 shades. Little wonder that Motoluxe utilised Alpaca to create their luxurious performance tailoring in the early 1900s.

The incredible natural colour palette of Alpaca 

The glamorous yet practical Alpaca fur fabric was originally used to make coats for both gentlemen and ladies, and shortly after the First World War it was the sight of a female artist wearing a fetching example that provided inspiration to a young Englishman. Frank W. Michell was an officer in the Royal Air Force who possessed a spirit of adventure. Intrigued by the garment he had seen, and the story of its production, Frank made plans to travel to South America and in 1922 set sail on a voyage of discovery.

  Frank W. Michell arriving in Peru (1922)

When Frank W. Michell arrived in Peru, he was captivated by the beauty and culture of the “new world” that he was exploring, falling madly in love with the Peruvian Andes, its people and its ancient traditions and imposing landscapes, where he would discover the herds of multicoloured alpacas that grazed in the plains and ravines of the mountains.

A congested runway at Arequipa Airport, Peru (c1930) 

Michell remained in South America, devoting his life to the commercial development of the Peruvian alpaca industry. He vertically integrated the processes of collecting, washing and sorting fleece, and in the 1930s, he established a classification system for the density and finesse of the fibres, which was revolutionary at the time. His achievements may not have scaled to those of Sir Titus Salt, but both men had common traits in following their dreams and vision with belief and determination. Their legacy lives on. They were the men who made alpaca.

"In life, making plans and acting upon them is important, but it is vital to dream and believe in your dreams"

Frank W. Michell


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