Vintage hand-operated looms heartbeat of P.E.I. wool sweater shop

A closer look at how old technology is working for Northern Watters Knitwear in P.E.I., which uses vintage hand-operated looms to make its popular woolen sweaters.

'It's not like new machinery that lasts five years'

'There are absolutely no power plugs,' says Bill Watters. 'They're totally manual.' (Pat Martel/CBC)

It's not often that a company brags about being 100 years behind the times — but Northern Watters Knitwear in downtown Charlottetown wouldn't have it any other way.

The business, which opened in 2007, uses vintage mechanical looms its staff operate by hand.

They're so close to being handmade — that's the purpose of the antique looms.— Bill Watters

"There are absolutely no power plugs," said co-owner Bill Watters. "They're totally manual."

The store looks much like other craft boutiques, but as customers move toward the back they can hear clattering coming from a small back room where four workers are knitting wool into sweaters — the way it was done a century ago.   

The vintage looms are the heartbeat of the business and care is taken to ensure they keep running. Staff has been taught how to maintain them.

"We take the looms apart once a year — every needle comes out," said Watters, noting there are more than 200 needles in each machine.

'It'll last a lifetime'

The looms are more than 50 years old, Watters said. 

Operators at Northern Watters slide a handle back and forth to weave the wool together. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"It's not like new machinery that lasts five years — if you keep it clean and well-oiled, it'll last a lifetime," Watters said.

The machines are literally irreplaceable, since the factory where they were made by Dubied of Switzerland was torn down decades ago, Watters said. He has taken the opportunity to collect several of the machines over the years to use for spare parts.

The yarn comes prepared on combs, Watters said. Operators feed the yarn through the necessary lines on the machine and swipe a hand-carriage back and forth — like an old-fashioned manual typewriter. 

'It's 129 boxes, a total of 2.8 tonnes of wool,' says Watters, holding wool from his first shipment of the season from the U.K. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Besides sweaters, staff knit scarves, hats and shawls on the machines. 

Master knitter Wanda Watters teaches each new employee the ropes. She know the machines better than anyone else — she worked for their previous owner, Great Northern Knitters, for 19 years. The company was originally called British Woolen Knitters, established in P.E.I. in the 1970s. 

'So close to being handmade'

The company could replace the looms with automated machines that can quickly access custom patterns and run off thousands of sweaters — but it won't.

Northern Watters sells 1,500 to 2,00 sweaters a year. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"We decided to stay the way we are which makes it very unique," Watters said. "They're so close to being handmade — that's the purpose of the antique looms."

Using the old technology seems to be paying off — the company sells from 1,500 to 2,000 sweaters per year, Watters said. Customers tell him they want the sweaters because they are nostalgic for home-style knitting. 

"We've become quite famous throughout the world," Watters said.

British wool best for the job

Although Prince Edward Island produces good wool yarn, Northern Watters doesn't use it, preferring instead to use British wool.

'The consistency, the diameter is more controllable with the British wool,' says Watters. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"The consistency of our wool here on the Island or anywhere in North America is affected by climate," said Watters.

The British Isles have relatively stable temperatures compared to Canada's cold winters and warm summers, he explains, which can lead to inconsistencies in the wool and the yarn. British yarn is simply more consistently the same size, and therefore easier to work with. 

"These machines were, of course, built in Europe and designed around those kind of climates so that's the best wool that we can find that works best for us," Watters said. 

'You have to learn all of them'

Two employees knitting on the machines each usually turn out about five or six sweaters per day, depending on the style.

'It's a fun job," says Chris McInnis. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Running the machines takes skill, Watters said — it takes six to eight months for most knitters to become efficient, he said.

"We run about 37 different style of sweaters so it's just not one style that you get real good at —  you have to learn all of them."

Northern Watters even does custom work.

"We did one last year, the guy wanted one colour for the front, he wanted one colour for the sleeve, and then one colour for the other sleeve, and then a different colour for the collar," said Chris McInnis, who has worked at the company for four years.

'I can't compete'

The wool sweaters each cost $200 to $300, but Watters makes no apologies for the price.

'It's so close to that hand-made sweater from the grandmother type of thing,'says Watters. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"Local box-store sweaters, I can't compete with the automated machines, there's just no way," he said. 

"People coming in that do buy our sweaters, they'll say, 'Finally, I've got a real wool sweater.'"  

This past winter was busier than usual, as the company prepared stock for its new store in Halifax. Watters said he is ready to meet the demand — he has two full extra looms and could hire more people if needed.

Hanh Do adds the final touch to the sweaters by sewing on labels using an electric sewing machine. (Pat Martel/CBC)

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About the Author

Pat Martel

Pat Martel has worked with CBC P.E.I. for three decades, mostly with Island Morning — from a writer-broadcaster to a producer. This year, Pat joined the web team with an eye to create great video. Pat also runs an adult coed soccer league in Stratford. He always welcomes great story ideas that are visually appealing. pat.martel@cbc.ca