How much do you know about the wool industry and British wool? I visited the Wool BnB during Wool Week 2016 to find out more
This week I paid a visit to the Wool BnB – a house where everything is made entirely of wool, set up to mark UK Wool Week 2016. Wool Week is the brainchild of the Campaign for Wool, which was launched by HRH The Prince of Wales in 2010 to educate consumers about the benefits of wool and to promote wool-rich products. Whilst there I chatted to Bridgette Kelly of the British Wool Marketing Board.
The house hosting the Wool BnB is located in North London and is packed with every conceivable item made from wool, right down to a knitted breakfast! I spotted many products in the house made in the UK, including blankets by Melin Tregwynt and Scarlet & Argent, throws by Wallace Sewell, accessories by Johnstons of Elgin and Hilary Grant, knitwear by John Smedley, cushions from Bronte by Moons, mattresses by Vispring, lampshades by Melanie Porter and carpets by Brintons.
Whilst in the house I had the pleasure of chatting to Bridgette Kelly from the British Wool Marketing Board. I was keen to find out more from Bridgette about the uses of British Wool, hoping to dispel the myth that the fleece from our homegrown breeds was unsuitable for anything other than carpets. Here’s what she told me:
“British wool is usually what we call ‘strong’ as it has quite a high micron. The best use of it is often for interior textiles, such as carpets, rugs and upholstery fabrics, but it’s also well-known for being used in tweed. It depends on which breed the wool comes from and where that breed is located. The Northern & Scottish breeds which produce the coarser yarn are used for tweed and interior textiles, whereas the download breeds in Devon and Dorset produce a much softer wool and this is often used my hand spinners to produce yarn for clothing. The finest wool produced in the UK is from the Blue Faced Leicester.
Weather and the geographical location of the flock also influence wool in terms of its quality and micron. For instance, if you are a Welsh mountain sheep your fleece is going to be strong and robust as it has responded to the harsh weather, whereas sheep on the Lowlands don’t need quite such strong fleece, so it is softer and finer and used for blankets and fabrics.”
I also wanted to know how much British wool stays in the UK, and what percentage was exported. It appears that this is not an easy formula to calculate, as Bridgette explains:
“There is not a simple answer to this question because of how wool is sold in the UK.
The wools from a region will be collected from farmers and will go for grading. It is graded first by hand and eye and then put into a ‘type’. It is the types that are sold at auction – there are about 130 types of wool. The merchants that buy the wool fortnightly at auctions in Bradford will buy a ‘type’. Although the bidding is now done by a computerised system, they still have to physically go to the auction and bid.
In terms of how much goes where, when merchants buy it they buy it in large volumes, which is why the wool marketing board exists. You can’t buy a commercial quantity at the farm gates.
The merchants trade the wool all over the world. Between fifty and sixty percent goes to China, a market that has grown considerably over the last four or five years. The rest is bought by other countries, including the UK. But because of many processes involved in getting wool from fleece to finished product, such as scouring (cleaning), spinning and weaving, very little British wool stays in the UK for the entire supply chain. It may be scoured and spun in China but then return back to the UK for weaving. At that point it is difficult to know what percentage of the wool included within the product has come from a British flock.
Some companies, such as Cherchbi who use the Herdwick wool, are now choosing to buy from a certain flock and keep the whole supply chain in the UK. We’re also seeing more British wool being used for bed fillings and bedding now too.”
10 facts about British wool
- Britain is one of the largest wool producers in the world, yielding nearly 22,000 tonnes per year
- Farmers receive up to £1.50 per kilo for their wool, a 300% increase on the price paid back in 2009
- There is only one farmer in the UK that produces Merino wool (a type of very fine fibre used for clothing). She is Lesley Prior of Bowmont UK
- There are 45,000 sheep farmers in the UK
- 34 million sheep reside in the British Isles
- Britain has more than 60 different breeds of sheep, 25 of which are rare breeds. That’s more than any other country in the world
- There are only two wool scourers left in the UK
- The British Wool Show is held yearly in Yorkshire and displays the products made by the many cottage industries and craft workers that produce wool products here
- It takes at least ten processes to get wool from sheep to cloth. They are shearing, grading, auction, scouring, carding, combing, spinning, weaving, dyeing and finishing
- Companies such as Cherchbi, Romney Marsh Wool and Izzy Lane commit to using British wool from flock to finished product ensuring a truly 100% British wool product.
“British Wool is not a fast fibre, it is a slow production” concluded Bridgette. All the more reason to invest in it I say.