Revival of British Wool activities?
According to a feature of YarnFix, the varied history of British wool is adding a new chapter leading probably to a revival of British Wool
British wool is unique because, unlike many other breeds of sheep, such as merino, British fleeces tend to be much coarser and scratchier. This was once a competitive advantage, when their carpet industry was booming. But as carpet sales slumped and the fashion for hard-wood floors swept the nation, wool prices plunged.
Britain’s wool heritage stretches back centuries; the Romans were wowed by our fine wool weaving as early as 55BC. But it was in the 13th century that the industry peaked.
Raw wool became a prime export, shipped all over the world, and the material powered a domestic industrial age of textile making and carpet production. Later, however, the technological advances in clothes manufacturing, rise of synthetic materials, globalisation – the glut of imports from China and Australia – and the decline of manufacturing eroded the British wool trade.
A decade ago, wool had become viewed as a by-product and farmers began burning fleeces because it was no longer economically effective to lug them to market. This was when husband-and-wife designers Hannah and Justin Floyd decided to try to come up with a new product.
Floyd, a product designer, began mixing wool with bio-resin to create a hardy and attractive material. The result was Solidwool, a sustainable alternative to fibreglass, which is being used in products from glasses frames to chairs.
The pair approached the British Wool Marketing Board to secure the raw materials to make the composite. The BWMB was set up in the Fifties to help farmers secure a fair price for their fleeces. The Wool Board recommended that they use Herdwick wool, said Mrs Floyd.
The grey, blue Herdwick wool with its white guard hairs made the perfect raw material. The coarseness is a strength and it looks beautiful, almost fluffy until you touch it and it’s smooth.
Plymouth University tested the material and found it to be stronger than all the other natural composites, including hemp.
It was made commercially available in February and there are already dozens of partnerships in the works, from Derbyshire-based Blok Knives, which uses it in some of its hand-made knife handles, to the cold water surf brand Finisterre, which is using it for a comb to wax surfboards. They are small but growing very quickly, said Mrs Floyd.
It is inventions like these that are helping to keep the British wool industry alive, with production around 30 million kilos a year. Exports are on the rise, with finer wools being bought by Japan for futons, for example, and Wool Week, a campaign fronted in the UK by Prince Charles, will kick off on October 5, prompting major high street stores, from Harrods to Selfridges, to turn their shop fronts to wool products for the duration.
The BWMB’s marketing director, Tim Booth said that after the drop 10 years ago, they are seeing real evidence of a turnaround.
As the major sheep sale season gets in to full swing the British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB) is looking forward to meeting wool producers at a number of auction markets over the coming months.
BWMB Chairman Ian Buchanan said with auction markets and the BWMB fulfilling similar roles for the farming industry the BWMB’s attendance at autumn sheep sales is a natural way to meet wool producers. “Both the auction markets and the BWMB are focussed on obtaining the best possible price for farmers produce and on adding value wherever possible,” he explained. “The BWMB auction system is central to maximising the value of producers’ wool clip, helping ensure they receive the true market value for their product and this is no different to livestock markets.”
Buchanan said as well as providing a valuable trading outlet for farmers’, auction markets were also an important part of the social fabric of farming and a natural meeting point for farmers. “We’re committed to working with auction markets wherever possible and fully support the vital role they play in the livestock sector.
“We’re looking forward to meeting a large number of sheep farmers in the coming months and helping them understand how BWMB is working to maximise the value of their wool clip, both through the competitive auction system and also through our work with the Campaign for Wool (CfW),” he added. “The CfW has been a tremendous success from day one and has helped lift the profile of wool as a sustainable, versatile fibre well suited to the modern fashion and interior design industries.”
Meanwhile, Livestock Auctioneers Association Chairman Rod Cordingley said BWMB’s presence in auction markets over the main sheep sale season would be welcomed by both the markets and farmers. “We’re delighted to be working closely with the BWMB to help farmers get the best value from their wool and look forward to seeing their representatives in markets throughout the coming months,” he said.