As you cast your perfectly proportioned size 14 PMD to that fish of a lifetime, if you buy your flies, it’s not likely that you’re giving much thought to where your fly actually came from, I certainly never use to. However, if you’re using a Fulling Mill fly, allow me to share what I learned from a recent visit to the factory where they are tied.
The first thing that needs to be remembered is that of all the flies tied in this world to fool fish, every single one is tied by hand, even in today’s modern world, there is still no machine, mold or magic contraption that can make a fly.
Fulling Mill flies are tied by our sister company Unwin Flies in the town of Kericho an exciting 5 hr drive NW of Kenya’s capital Nairobi. Our flies have been tied here since Andrew Unwin first established the business in the 1930s.
Kericho sits at an elevation of 7,100 ft and is famous for its tea plantations. Unilever is the largest employer in the region with 12,000 full time and 5,000 part-time employees to work its 8,700-hectare estate. A short stroll from the plantation entrance sits the Unwin operation, a smart compound surrounded by whitewashed walls. Within the walls, well-manicured gardens are shaded by mature avocado trees (fresh avocados being a nice perk of a visit). The factory its self is divided into two long buildings each opening on to a central sunny paved courtyard. The main buildings are high ceilinged airy affairs with large windows letting in lots of light. 4 large tying bays are the engine of the operation supported by a materials store, inspection station, packaging area, admin offices and a health clinic for the employees.
Unwin employs 250 tiers and supporting staff. Since the 30’s Unwin’s policy has been to provide jobs to hard-working locals in an environment that fosters individual growth and good wages. Today a tier will earn up to 3 times minimum wage and is supported with a matching pension plan and on-site health care. A typical day starts at 7:30 in the morning, breaks for lunch at noon and resumes in the afternoon at 1:30pm and goes through till 5pm. The 4 bays are named Spey, Itchen, Wye, and Test (all after famous British rivers). Each bay has tiers of similar abilities. So, for example, Spey is the work home to our top tiers, responsible for turning out our more complicated patterns. Wye is where we tie our simpler patterns and new tiers enter the company.
A tier will be issued a work order from the store, this will contain a master pattern and enough materials and hooks to tie between 60 and 180 flies of a given pattern. Normally this will keep a tier busy for about 2 days, enough time to be sure of constancy but not too long so that a tier gets bored of a particular pattern. As they tie, each finished fly is placed into a blue tray. When 24 or 60 of a pattern are in the tray they are taken off to quality control for inspection before being packaged in preparation for shipping. Each bay will house around 50 tiers with a supervisor in each to provide assistance and keep an eye on quality during the tying process. All supervisors are expert tiers themselves. Tiers are paid a standard minimum wage and then piece work above and beyond that based on how many flies they tie that pass inspection.
Each tier’s work space is a well-lit area with a vice and the basic tying tools applicable to the type of flies being tied. Music and cell phone tv shows are popular background noise and laughter resonates around the halls. At the end of the day, a tier will place all their tools and personal odds and ends into their own storage box for safekeeping overnight. Walking the tying bays, I found a jovial, fun-loving crew of tiers that is close to a 50/50 mix of men and women. The average tier has been with Unwin’s for approximately 10 years and some are now approaching 25 years with the company.
From walking the halls, I found a real sense of community and great pride in the quality of the work being carried out. As a fanatical tier myself I was expecting to be able to pick a few things apart or give a fly a thumbs down. Yet as I watched tier after tier and inspected fly after fly at close range I was blown away by the consistency and accuracy of what I saw being produced, be it a size 24 midge or big articulated streamer.
Don’t let the life cycle of the fly distract you next time you chase a big fish but be assured if it’s a Fulling Mill fly it’s well tied and more than up to the job – getting the fly to the fish however is all on you.