Stansborough weaves movie magic

A new immersive visitor tour at historic Stansborough Mill, near Wellington, includes some famous threads.

New Zealand is already well known for weaving magic with its movies, but one Wellington business is taking a more literal approach than most.

Stansborough, based in the Wellington suburb of Petone, has produced textiles and costumes for some of the world’s best-loved features: from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit to Narnia and Spartacus, characters and settings have been adorned with natural woollen fibres grown, spun and woven within a (hefty) stone’s throw of the capital’s city centre. 

And now the company is opening its door to visitors, allowing them a glimpse behind the scenes and the opportunity to get their hands on some of the finest woollen clothing and accessories in the world.

Open to view

Stansborough is now open daily for visitors, who are welcome to browse through the gallery and shop, and to watch the factory at work. “There’s a big window so people can see into the mill and watch the looms working,” Cheryl says. “And we have a tour every day at 2pm, which means people can actually get into the mill and get up close with the machinery - these tours do need to be pre-booked however.”

The scheduled tour starts with a trip into a recreated Narnia wardrobe with forest sounds and a DVD presentation narrated by local actor Jed Brophy, who played Nori in The Hobbit. Next it’s the gallery and shop and then the historic mill itself.

Cheryl has found that visitors are enthralled by the working warp mills and looms. “The mechanics of them are second to none,” she says. “And it’s great because it’s interesting for the guys as well. The women tend to love the shop but the guys love the machinery. We’ve had aeroplane engineers who’ve come in for a look and we just can’t get them out of the place!”

History in the making

You might think there wouldn’t be much to see in a textile factory but Stansborough is a mill with a difference. For a start most of the machines are over 100 years old – two of the six looms came from the nearby Petone Woollen Mills, which opened in 1886 and ceased operating in 1968. And the wool comes from purebred sheep descended from Viking stock. 

It’s that history that makes Stansborough special, owner Cheryl Eldridge says.

“It’s the only place people can come to in New Zealand and see artisan craftsmen still using this machinery,” she says. “In this modern world people still love to see something made the old way and here they can see the history, the end product and the movie stuff.”

Movie stuff

The “movie stuff” includes cloaks from The Lord of the Rings and Narnia as well as several other films. “We’ve done about ten,” Cheryl says. “In fact we just did one the other week – sometimes it’s just pelts, sometimes it’s felts and pelts, sometimes it’s a whole run of textiles.”

Stansborough provided over 1000 metres of wool-based textiles for LOTR with all the main characters wearing the company’s product. Costume designers looking to create a natural or historic look are especially keen on wool, Cheryl says. “It’s the way it handles and drapes – you can’t recreate that with synthetics.” 

The fabric needs to be able to cope with the harsh reality of film-making as well. “A lot of it ends up covered in blood half the time, and you think they’ve spent so much time getting it right and exact to that era and then it’s on screen for only a few seconds covered in mud.”

One recent film to benefit from the Stansborough look is the cowboy film Slow West, shot in the South Island. “I did all the Navajo blankets for the movie,” Cheryl says. “The costume designer Kirsty Cameron has done a whole range as a result which she sells under her own label.”

Ancient sheep breed

The Stansborough sheep that provide the bulk of the wool are a breed apart. The Eldridges have spent 25 years building up their flock. 

“They’re from Denmark originally,” Cheryl explains. “They date back to the Vikings, who used them to make sails for their ships. They’ve got a specific type of wool which is very lustrous.” The flock, now numbering 1200, is the only one of its kind in the world and Cheryl has worked with a veterinary embryologist to ensure the breed is kept true to type. 

Sometimes the wool, which comes in three shades of grey, is blended with merino or alpaca to meet specific requirements, and to create different, but still natural, colours. The yarn is sometimes over-dyed with more vibrant hues, but the natural fleck remains.

Stansborough’s customers aren’t limited to those in the movies – the factory shop stocks replica capes, clocks and caps for discerning LOTR fans as well as original creations, which are also available on-line. 

There’s also a steady bespoke trade, Cheryl says. “We’re just doing some heirloom throws for a Southland family in specifically Southland colours, or it could be for a [tourist] lodge, like Wharekauhau, that we’ll make specific throws, blankets and a whole range of gifts for clients.”

Getting there

Wellington is New Zealand’s capital city and Petone is Wellington’s oldest suburb. Air New Zealand flies regular international and national flights into Wellington. Petone is in the Hutt Valley on the shores of Wellington Harbour. Trains run regularly during the day between Wellington and Petone. 

The Stansborough Tour tells the ‘paddock to silver screen’ story of how a farming family went back in time to find their way into some of the world’s most successful movie productions.  

Stansborough (68 Fitzherbert St, Petone) is open Monday to Friday 9am until 4pm. Tours must be pre-booked in advance online at http://www.stansborough.co.nz/