Ask the Expert: John Taylor, Technical Conversion Team Leader

We spoke to John Taylor, Technical Conversion Team Leader and 8th generation member of the Hainsworth family, about his roles and responsibilities during the working day.

When did you start working at AW Hainsworth?

I started at AW Hainsworth in May 2018, when I was working in Wet Finishing, and after 6 months I began my apprenticeship, in which I worked across all the operational roles around the mill from start to finish. I think I’m the first one to have done the Hainsworth apprenticeship scheme in this way. The scheme finished about 6 months ago and now I’m in the Warehouse, leading the Technical Conversion team.

How would you explain what Technical Conversion does?

To put it simply, Technical Conversion is responsible for taking finished rolls of fabric and turning them into complete products. This is mostly for our Technical Felt customers, so we make washers for musical instruments and other wool felt items for industrial applications. We produce a wide range of products – mostly washers and strips of felt for use in pianos but we also make things like plate dividers, which are cloth discs used in yacht kitchens to stop the crockery from rattling. It involves a lot of chopping and splitting and stamping – that’s the crux of it!

Due to the highly technical nature of the products we work on, we’re probably the fussiest team when it comes to the GSM (Grams per Square Metre) and thickness of our cloth. Some of our customers require a 0.05-millimetre tolerance on the finished cloth, so we really do need it to be perfect. Wool is a tricky fibre. It’s not like a man-made material like steel, which is more predictable – fibres grow differently depending on all kinds of conditions. It can even boil down to how happy the sheep were when they were growing the fleece! Working with wool successfully requires a level of skill and material knowledge that we’ve built up over the centuries as a business, which is how we’re able to work with the fibre to achieve such a high technical performance.

What does a typical day at work look like for you?

First off, I have a quick glance at my emails. Then I have a word with the rest of my team and get up to speed with what they’re working on and what still needs to be done. Then I begin working on customer orders. What this involves can be very particular depending on the customer. For example, if Steinway pianos have placed an order I have to start by deciphering the quantities, as they’re American and use different measurement systems. For every customer, I have to select a roll of fabric that’s appropriate for the end use and check things like thickness, and send back to be re-pressed if necessary. Then I make up a job sheet and pass it onto a colleague to convert. If we’re very busy I’ll be running the machinery myself, so the washer punch or the slitter, and compiling orders and completing the packing list. Every stage of the order needs close attention – something like product labelling might sound very trivial, but different customers will want their labels doing in different formats.

We’re currently a very small team, so a decent amount of my time is spent just fulfilling the orders and getting them out. I always start the day with a game plan in my head, but as with any job role urgent tasks come up and you end up having to prioritise.

Of the products you work with in Technical Conversion, are there any you find particularly interesting?

The product I appreciate the most is a felt called a 1046 white centre, which is used as a bushing cloth in piano keys. It’s a really dense cloth that is dyed brilliant red except for its bright white centre. In the olden days this type of cloth was dyed using cochineal from a beetle’s shell, and the cloth is so dense that the dye couldn’t penetrate all the way to the middle, leaving it undyed. Even though modern dyes are able to penetrate the cloth and dye it red all the way through, customers like the white centre because it represents tradition. (It’s rumoured that the cloth has a white centre because it helps you to tell when the fabric is worn through and needs to be replaced, but there’s no truth to that at all!) The 1046 white centre is my favourite to look at and to handle – there’s no other cloth like it.

Is there any advice you would give to someone who might be about to undergo an apprenticeship?

Just get stuck in! Especially if your apprenticeship scheme is a similar structure to mine – just appreciate the brilliant opportunity you have to see every stage of the production cycle and get to know everyone. It gives you a really good appreciation of the work that goes into making the cloth. You can get a really good idea of the scale of the operation and think more critically about certain things.

What’s the best thing about working at AW Hainsworth?

It’s a cliché to say so, but it’s the people! Before I started working here I was a self-employed gardener, so most of the time I was working alone and there was no one to have a bit of craic with at the end of the day. It’s great to be able to have a bit of a banter with other people while you work, it helps to keep you motivated. I also enjoy the variety of tasks, and there’s still a lot to learn so it keeps my mind stimulated.

And finally, what else interests you outside of work?

I’m big on cycling, and I used to be really into trampolining until I fell through my trampoline! I also do a bit of gaming, your classic MMORPG stuff. I have a decent balance of hobbies outside of work – it keeps me happy anyway!