Stansborough Experience closes

Last updated 12:36 31/08/2010
LOOMING CRISIS: The tourism side of the Stansborough operation has closed but the Eldridges, from left, Kiri, Cheryl and Barry, are fighting to save six century-old looms that are the backbone of their textile export operation.

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Tough times and the downturn in visitor numbers has forced the closure of one of the Hutt's few tourist attractions, Experience Stansborough.

Parent company Stansborough Fibres continues, but under direct threat are the weaving looms, more than 100 years old, from the old Petone Woollen Mills.

Company founders Cheryl and Barry Eldridge say unless they can find smaller and less expensive premises, several of the six looms  probably the only ones of their kind still working in the world  will have to be scrapped.

"That would be a crying shame," says Mr Eldridge, who with Richard Graham maintains and operates the 3.5 tonne looms imported from York, England, early last century.

Blankets, throws and other textiles made on the old machines to Cheryl Eldridge's design sell in upmarket stores around the world.

"These looms are part of New Zealand's heritage and culture," Mr Eldridge says. "At one time just about every town had a woollen mill, and they've all gone. The weaving industry in New Zealand is almost non-existent; we're one of the last doing it in the traditional way."

Stansborough's story goes back nearly 20 years, when the Eldridges started intensive stock management at their farm in the Wairarapa and resurrected the original breed of sheep that goes back to Viking times.

The natural grey fleece, valued for its strength by the Vikings to make sails for their ships, also has superb lustre, length and softness.

A number of the sheep were brought to New Zealand from Denmark in the 1970s. Cheryl Eldridge recognised the potential and, with careful breeding, the couple have built up a flock of 1000 "Stansborough Greys", now a recognised sheep breed and unique in the world.

The Eldridges secured buyers for their eco-produced woven worsted fabrics in stores in the United States and Britain, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Liberty and Donna Karan.

A real boost came when Peter Jackson's team ordered more than 1000 metres of cloth for making the hobbits' Elven cloaks for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The company has gone on to supply cloth to the BBC production of Kidnapped, and films including two Narnia episodes Water Horse and 30 Days of Night. They hope to get repeat business when The Hobbit gets the nod.

Five years ago, the Eldridges swapped their 250sq.m. offices in Nelson St, Petone, for a building five times that size on Hutt Park Rd in Seaview.

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At Experience Stansborough, thousands of overseas and local visitors have stepped through the doors of Narnia's wardrobe and the flakes of a snow machine for a tour of the clanking operation of the old looms, and an explanation of the process from "off the sheep's back through to finished product".

Tourists loved to perch on pelt-covered sawhorses to watch a video about the Stansborough Grey flock and farm. An attached retail shop was also successful.

The tours have now been stopped, and Mrs Eldridge has had to cancel two visits by cruise ship passengers already booked for next summer. The store will close after a sale this month.

The couple have been forced to lay-off two staff members, leaving just them, daughter and general manager Kiri Eldridge, and Mr Graham to try to keep the textile-making side of the operation going.

Mr Eldridge says it was a rocky start at the Seaview premises.

Fit-out costs were more than expected at $150,000, and they were plagued by repeated flooding. The opening was delayed and they lost the first summer of trading and anticipated revenue of another $180,000.

Visitor numbers were sustainable until a year ago, when the world caught the United States financial market's cold.

The last three months have been particularly bad, and the irony is that Hutt City Council showed its support just six months ago by putting in improved signage to Stansborough Experience at several places in the city.

is that nteThe expenses associated with setting up the visitor operation sapped all of the Eldridges' capital, and they no longer have money for Mrs Eldridge to go overseas to pitch her latest designs to buyers.

She says demand for Stansborough's products is proven. She flew to Australia last year and the response from buyers was extremely positive.

She has agents in the US and Canada and the Seaview looms are making product to send over, but says the agents are "working blind" without her to lead promotional forays to stores and buyers.

International textiles magazine Twist has just done a double page spread on Stansborough.

Mrs Eldridge says there is strong potential to sell to a new wave of architects and interior designers around the world who cater to wealthy clients insisting on natural, environmentally-produced accessories.

Stansborough throws and blankets are in most of New Zealand's upmarket lodges. The Eldridges say they have had buyer interest from as far afield as Mongolia.

As well as closing the shop, the Eldridges will also be leaving the big Seaview building, as its rent is too expensive for the reduced operation. They are scouring the Hutt Valley and beyond for cheaper premises.

They will fight to keep all six looms operational, not only because their future growth potential depends on it, but because the looms are part of New Zealand's history.

Mrs Eldridge says an email the couple sent to customers has elicited responses from around the world along the lines of "You can't close; you can't let this happen".

The Eldridges feel it is the same story for many enterprising small businesses, "the backbone of New Zealand's economy". There is limited help to access capital for growth  even for companies with a proven record of sales.

Mr Eldridge says TradeNZ does not seem interested in anyone not achieving at least $2 million in sales.

The wool industry cannot seem to back its winners either.

The Eldridges fear they could go out of business at a time that a taskforce led by Prince Charles is about to launch a worldwide campaign pushing natural wool over synthetic fibres.

But if the looms at Seaview clatter their last, the business the Eldridge family has poured their passion and money into for 20 years is also washed up.

A "massive garage sale" of fabrics is on this Saturday at 100 Hutt Park Rd, from 8am till 3pm.

The loss of Stansborough Experience as a tourism destination is a blow to the city, says David Hancock, the city council's visitor development manager.

And he said it would be a tragedy if the company also loses the old Petone Woollen Mill looms because the Eldridges can't find alternative, cheaper premises.

"It's not just the business, it's all those heritage values wrapped up in it. There's a great story there and it's too important to lose," Mr Hancock said.

Council business liaison officer Nicholas Lucas is helping scout for other suitable premises for Stansborough.

While visitor numbers to the Hutt may be down, feedback Mr Hancock is getting is that operators offering special and discount packages are still getting a good response. The Eastbourne collective of operators, including Van Helden Gallery, East by West ferry, the Days Bay Boatshed and the 5-star Qualmark Guthrie Cottage "are gaining great numbers", he says.

Positively Wellington Tourism's $2 million marketing campaign to lure Australians is also having a strong response.

PWT, which Hutt City Council helps fund, is delighted with the 14 per cent increases in Australians visiting Wellington in June and July. The national averages were 7.5 per cent and 1.7 per cent respectively, with Auckland and Christchurch experiencing a drop.

- Hutt News

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