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The Family Behind the Wheel: Meet the Poads of Majacraft

by EBlack on January 19, 2013

Publishers Note: This week,  we have quite a treat. I was able to snag an interview with a family that has dedicated their lives to enabling fiber artists around the world to do their work. The Poad family of Majacraft is a dynamic group, artfully crafting beautiful looms, wheels, and many fiber accessories that have placed them in the upper echelon of their industry. They have literally re-invented the wheel by developing innovative mechanics that have improved and expanded the way many of us approach our art. The Poads say, “Majacraft is committed to helping you spin your dreams,” and I can say after using my Majacraft for years… dreams do come true!   Andrew Poad kindly agreed to speak on behalf of the family.
Spin Artiste (SA): Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to meet with me today. Since I know you’re an active group, I’ll get right to it! We know that Majacraft is a family owned and operated business — tell us who in the family is involved and their respective roles.

"Minty Mohair"

Andrew Poad (AP): The Poad family owns Majacraft. Owen and Glynis (the parents) and sons Robert and Andrew are both involved. We all have the opportunity to offer thought on the overall direction of Majacraft. Owen has directorial input and handles promotional activities with Glynis. He is semi-retired (well deserved by now) so has reduced involvement in the workshop but still comes in and does odd jobs to help keep things flowing. Glynis is involved with the packing and administrative type stuff. She also does promotional/travel work with Owen as mentioned above.

Rob and Andrew are primarily involved in the manufacturing work.  This also includes product development but we both have lots of other little responsibilities that are mostly about “keeping the ship sailing”. We handle the
web site, graphic design, advertising, CAD work, camp and adventure organisation all internally.
There are lots of other interesting little connections in what is quite a tight group.  Andrew’s wife Toni comes in and does administrative work on some days (including having his children playing in the factory – with lots of safety care of course – as they are home schooled). Rob’s daughter Hope comes in and helps him out from time to time too. The other people who are part of Majacraft are a mix of friends and acquaintances who have probably by osmosis joined in with creating Majacraft products.
SA: Wow, Majacraft really is a family affair. What are the rewards and challenges for you as a group, being in a family business?
AP: The most challenging part of being in a family business is the family history and patterns that whether intended to or not, seem to creep in to the relating. Where it is
sometimes easier to be a little more patient or graceful with others, it seems (to me at least anyway) necessary to take care not to be less patient with family members.
However, there are many rewards in working with family members. Any business successes can directly benefit to those most important to oneself. There is also the aspect of knowing
each other very well and being able to work with each other’s strengths.
I guess summing this up is that family orientated businesses are just like any other, there are challenges and opportunities but the flavour is slightly different.
SA: It sounds like you all have found the perfect balance of family relationship and business. I’m sure getting to this point in your company was not easy, but it seems like the strengths of many have brought success. What is your basic philosophy in how you approach your business?
AP: There are two parts to this answer.
As for internally, we wish to create a work environment that people enjoy being in. One where they are valued and are fairly rewarded for their efforts.
We endeavour to support New Zealand businesses as much as we can which often makes developing products quite challenging. We like to offer things for as an affordable price
as possible but sometimes the only way to achieve this is to use cheaper inputs that our country’s manufacturing cannot even compete with – hence taking away jobs from the
people around us. This can create quite a dilemma but we do our best to make the ethical choices and offer our community a “fair day’s wage for a fair day’s labour”.
We are also very aware of environmental issues and one of the things we do that supports this is to work with a local furniture manufacturer where some of our wooden components are made using shorter pieces that are unsuitable for their products, thus reducing waste of a valuable timber resource. We also recycle packaging where possible and many of our customers have told us that they peruse the newspapers that we use for wrapping and filling!
As for externally, the basic philosophy behind Majacraft is this:
“We want to help people feel good about themselves.”
The way we do this is by building tools that help people achieve difficult things with ease so that they can experience the feeling of ‘I made that and I think it is great’.
All the other ‘stuff’ we do is orientated around achieving this goal.
SA: Well, with products as spectacular as yours, I can say making a “great”  piece on a Majacraft is always possible. How did Majacraft start and how has the company and brand evolved?
AP: Majacraft was started in the 1980’s by a gentleman called John Arlott. He was a spinner and an engineer and was asked to build a spinning wheel for a friend who had had a double hip
replacement. His brief was to make a wheel that would give both legs a gentle exercise. The double treadle spinning wheel was born!
The Poad’s purchased the business in 1996 with another couple who went on to other ventures in 2001. Since then we have continued to strive for excellence and innovation in product design, manufacture and customer service.
SA:  Spin Artiste has interviewed over 60 fiber artists since we started and we’ve had a fair number who own and love their Aura wheel, including myself. Majacraft was
really out in front of the curve in terms of listening to those spinners in the spinning community who were seeking a wheel that could handle art/textured/expressive yarn
techniques. What was it that made you decide to take the company in that direction?
AP: We have always been interested in new ways of doing things. Several years ago (probably about 5 or 6 now by my reckoning), an American spinner called Therese
Cruz purchased a Little Gem from a show and was keen to be able to spin using new techniques she had picked up from an amazing teacher who called herself
PluckyFluff.
We developed the Wild Flyer which had large yarn guides and would work on all our scotch tension wheels. This was our introduction to this kind of spinning.
The age demographic for those interested in art yarn styles of spinning is in general lower than what is traditionally associated with spinning so while we were delighted in seeing the amazing creativity people were putting out, we also viewed it as an investment in the future of spinning and fibre art.
As I mentioned earlier, we have a desire to create tools that help people to achieve what they want, whether it is using the High Speed Head to spin a lot of lace weight yarn quickly, or an Aura to include plastic dolls in their spinning (have seen that done!) then we will do our best to offer tools our customers want.
As a little addendum to the comment about listening to spinners, there is sometimes a sense that we are isolated or a larger enterprise than what we actually are. We are only eight really down to earth people working in Owen and Glynis’ converted shed on their family farm. We love hearing back from spinners (and weavers now) and while we might not have the resources to get on to what people are asking for straight away, we are definitely listening.
SA: I would love to know more about the evolution of the Aura Wheel. Can you tell us about the design process?
AP: I mentioned Therese Cruz previously and the seeds she put into Majacraft with the impetus to build the Wild Flyer. At the time, we actually approached PluckyFluff/Lexi Boeger to see if she would test it out for us which she did on a really old Majacraft wheel she had access to. When we hinted at the possibility of doing anything further with her, she politely declined. We secretly hoped to be able to arrange some sort of partnership with her but this did not look like it was going to happen.
Glynis kept in contact with her from time to time and quite a few years later, Lexi actually contacted us and talked about the possibility of developing either an accessory or a wheel to help her spin with greater ease.
We predicted a bit of what we thought she would require and came up with the seeds of the double drive over morning tea one day. Lexi sent us an excellent document with ideas for the things she hoped to be able to do and so over the next 6-12 months we started building the Aura. We drew together ideas from different projects we had worked on earlier and put them all together into the Aura. Because
of the geographical separation, it was obviously not easy to call Lexi over to see how things were going so we set up a private channel on YouTube where we created progress videos to show where the wheel was up to and get feedback on. These have been released in the last 12 months, so anybody can see them now (click here).
As for the actual design, we tend to mix getting into the workshop and creating practical prototypes with developing designs in CAD.
Interestingly, it was during this time when we were thinking about art yarns and ways to work with them that we had the seeds of ideas for the dynamic heddle loom and that it could be a way for people to get textured yarns into their warp. You can see that idea has been floating around for a while as well!
SA: Now that the wheel has been in use for several years, what has surprised you about how spinners are using it, versus your original vision?
AP: This is a tricky question! I guess the primary feature of the Aura is the very precise control the spinner has over the relationship between the bobbin and flyer – this is a roundabout way of saying the tensioning system. We endeavour to make our tools not “one trick ponies”, but have them be as good as possible at as many aspects as possible – while each having particular strengths. I guess I am not surprised at how people are using the Aura because it was designed to be a general purpose wheel with a particular aptitude for creative yarns.
What does surprise me – in fact regularly blows me away – is the creativity of people. I often get goose bumps when we have pictures or samples of work sent to us that is simply
stunning and I can get to say, in a very small way, that I had a tiny part in helping that to happen. I think my guilty pleasure of living a little vicariously is coming through there.
SA: I say, never have a guilty pleasure.  You do deserve a pat of the back for being a part of so many artists’ creative processes; embrace it! In terms of the overall wheel line, what is your strategy in terms of what wheels you have in the line now?
AP:  We like to think of each of our wheels as having a personality or purpose or even identity – the Little Gem is for portability, the Rose is a traditional design, the Pioneer for getting
started and so on. The identity is trying to meet specific needs that our customers have. We are always open to refining and making the best products we can. So for the existing
wheels, we might make subtle changes here and there where it was going to offer value but only within the framework of being able to meet the customer need more clearly – or
make the wheel identity even stronger.
This is not to say there might not be other wheel ideas we could be working on to meet needs. We do try to take care with how much we do as it is easy to spread ourselves
very thinly – particularly if we start getting above five or six different wheel designs.
We quite enjoy offering custom wheels or limited edition wheels (we ran a special limited edition run of Roses recently that sold out in about two weeks) but again, they can take a
lot more time to do so we need to be careful with our resources. Plus we definitely do not want to devalue limited edition wheels for our customers by churning out a new bunch
every quarter.
SA: You also recently launched a new loom product. Tell us about the vision and design process for this innovative loom.
AP: Seeds for the loom started during the development of the Aura. We were thinking about art yarns and had recently purchased a laser engraver. The combination of these two things opened up the possibility of building a loom.
We are not experienced weavers and this has positives and negatives for us. It means there is a lot of learning to be done but we also have the benefit of not knowing ‘what cannot be done’. We very much have a clean slate to begin with.
The ideas that were important in the loom were to be able to put anything into the warp, to be able to weave anywhere and for the weaving to be easy and enjoyable. I think we have done very well achieving these in retrospect.
Here is a little aside:   For Majacraft, the biggest stumbling block to new products is to do with process. How can we make a consistent, quality product for an affordable price? The
loom sat in development for a long time because we had process stumbling blocks that we couldn’t find a solution for. We have another prototype product that we built nearly two years ago. It is out in the world at this very moment and others have told us it will blow people away but again is held up by process (this will hopefully be resolved in February next year!)
So, back to the loom —  The people at Majacraft have the skill of being open to ideas and linking them into what we do. The laser engraver was an example of this. The thinking was
that we might not be able to easily afford to make a very expensive reed mould but perhaps if we got some plastic, we could cut our own out using the laser. The logical progression
from this was we might then be able to cut our own ratchets and pawls (all the while saving tens of thousands of dollars which could then be passed on to our customers). We were
experimenting with magnets on the Rose bobbin carrier and I had been frustrated with how awkward the mechanism for moving the heddle around on other portable looms was.
By linking these two things, the idea of using strong magnets in the heddle mechanism that would almost put the heddle into place automatically was born. Again, I was in a local
hardware store and noticed some plastic channelling that held sheets of MDF onto walls and ceilings and realised if we found some that was thin enough, it could hold reed segments onto the heddle (this solved one of the major process problems for us).
It took much longer than we had hoped to get the loom finished but we got there in the end.  It has not been out that long but already we are seeing some amazing art work that people
are creating that would be difficult or impossible on other looms – and all on something that can be carried around in a shoulder bag! Sorry, I get rather excited by what I think can be
achieved on it and sometimes slip into advertising speak.
The main feature of our loom that we chose to call a Dynamic Heddle Loom (kudos to Mandie Chandler at “Ewe Give Me The Knits”) is the heddle and reeds. Rather than a fixed
set of reeds, we cut our own and have little segments that are about 55mm (>2”) across.  The weaver can then slide up to nine of these into the heddle at a time. The interesting bit is that they can put all the same size reeds in or if they choose, slide in some with different
DPI to add thicker or thinner elements to the warp. They can also start moving them around while they are weaving to create interesting effects (or potentially slide them right out, swap position or rotate them with the warp still on during the weaving process). There is a huge range of possibilities.
We currently have 2, 4 and 6 dent reed segments but all going to plan, should be able to produce 8, 10 and touch wood, 12 dent reed segments by about February next year.
SA: As a company that has always been one step ahead of the game, overall, what are the trends you see in the fiber art world, and where do you think
things are headed in the next few years?
AP: Connection, experimentation, social responsibility.
These are some of the trends I have noticed going on and where I think things could be heading over the next few years.
The growth of the internet and the likes of Ravelry and Facebook have hugely increased the connection between people in fibre art all around the world. People are sharing their work,
ideas, opinions, techniques and becoming more connected to one another irrespective of geography. I think this can only lead to the rapid dispersion of new developments in our area
of interest. (I do find it interesting – and I am guilty of this too – that I might know this person in Tulsa, another in Dundee and a third in Hamburg, all through the internet, yet I do not
know my neighbour’s name! So much for connected to people!)
People seem to be more open to trying new things, spinning does not always have to be thin and even. Lexi’s/Pluckyfluff’s books are a great example of this where she
has experimented with spinning shredded denim, shredded money, old cassette tape. Couple this with the connection people have through social networking and I
can see a positive future for creative fibre arts.
It could be the circles I move in (or my Facebook feed) but I am noticing more voices speaking up about supporting local communities where it is feasible (we do
this ourselves but are conscious that sometimes we have to reach further afield).  The example I can think of is a local business growing vegetables and selling them at the gate. It is likely to be cheaper and more convenient and a wider variety of choices (who doesn’t enjoy oranges in the middle of winter) to purchase from a supermarket. I can use the supermarket but the money goes to a chain store, pays a fruit or vegetable grower in a different hemisphere as little as possible and in the process sends William down the road out of business, forces him into using social
welfare and then he is in the trap of only being able to afford to shop at the cheaper supermarket. This does not help my community and in the process help me live in a prosperous and vibrant place. I think (and this is my opinion, not a judgment) that there are ethical and social responsibility issues to consider in this.
So the trend I see based on this which I am rather excited about is the possibility of growth in small etsy style businesses where people can create their own little
enterprise and charge (and more importantly be paid) a fair price for their work.
SA: For Glynis — I know you are a long-time spinner and you are active in the spinning community — can you tell us what you like to spin? Any other fiber arts related activities you like to
partake in?
GP: I love any spinning. I enjoy the fabulous freedom of art yarns, the beauty of laceweight, and all the intricacies of techniques in between. I am extremely interested in rare breeds and we
have several of these in New Zealand, most of which are Saxon merino based. I really like trying different fibres, but I guess my favourite would have to be merino.
As a former primary school teacher I am aware of how open children are to learning new things and whenever possible I love to introduce them to the wonderful world of fibre. In
January I have taken on the responsibility of teaching 150 children to spin on a spindle in a week!
As far as other fibre related activities are concerned, lack of time is my biggest problem, but I like felting, and weaving is on my horizon now with our new loom. My mother was a very
accomplished knitter and my mother-in-law a crocheter, and with their guidance and support early in my life I find both of these very relaxing and enjoyable activities.
SA: It has been great to get to know the family behind the wheel. We can’t wait to see what you all will pull out of your “Majacraft magic hat,” in years to come. One last question, what would we be surprised to learn about Majacraft?
AP: The Poad family has been heavily involved in various motorsport disciplines over much of their lives. Owen and Glynis have been NZ Champions in 4WD competitions as well as both (Glynis included) competed in Motorcycle Trials. Rob and Andrew have been NZ Champions multiple times in Motorcycle Trials in various classes. They have both represented New Zealand internationally in Motorcycle Trials.
There are uncles/brothers-in-law who have been into 4wd trials, motorcycle trials and motor racing.
They have a cousin (Stefan Merriman) who has been NZ and Australian Champion in Trials and World
Champion in Enduro.
Lots of motorsport connections!
SA:  Thank you so much, Andrew!  We look forward to hearing and seeing more from Majacraft and your family in the future.  Personally, I am very anxious to try working with the new loom and have it on my pruchase wish list!!

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