From sheep to needles

Well, hello there. Woollydaze here. Nice of you to pop by. This post is sponsored by the British Wool Marketing Board, because it’s thanks to them that I managed a whole night away from Little Woollydaze and Littlest Woollydaze. Yes, the first child-free night in eight months was spent in…. wait for it… Bradford. I can’t claim that we got more sleep than we do when listening out for two little ones because we were sleeping right next to the M62, but hey, we were officially Child Free. (Despite the fact that both children had chicken pox, and for that I owe my parents-in-law a huge THANK YOU.)

So, to backtrack slightly, a few weeks ago Mr Woollydaze suggested that we might have a day away from home that involved wool. As you can imagine, I was completely up for it. He’s a member of the Cotswold Sheep Group, a marketing group through which we sell our lambs, and they were arranging a trip to visit the BWMB. I wasn’t expecting to be the token female in a group of Gloucestershire farmers, but that’s how it was.  But it was just fine, because they were all charming, and passionate about what they do. Great company for a fascinating day out.

We started at ‘Wool House’, the aptly named headquarters of the BWMB. In the next few weeks they’re moving to office space at their depot on the other side of the city so sadly this quirky building will no longer be part of the story. We watched a wool auction in progress, which was a completely different experience to what I expected. A typical farming auction would involve mud, wax jackets, flat caps, incomprehensible speech, and the twitching of a finger to decide it all. A wool auction is much cleaner, although just as fast. Imagine a modern classroom with a computer on each desk and an interactive whiteboard at the front of the room. Each number of each lot was displayed on the screen in turn and the buyers put in bids within the two second time limit, with the auctioneers at the front of the room indicating when the reserve had been met and therefore the bids were being accepted. It was like watching the last few seconds of a bid on eBay over and over again.

From there we went to the grading depot, where the scale of what the BWMB achieves became apparent. As farmers who produce wool, we knew that each fleece was individually graded. But you don’t really understand that that actually means until you see a wool sack just like the ones you sew up on shearing day being opened and each fleece being inspected. Apparently it takes five years to complete an apprenticeship as a grader. There are over 70 different grades depending the characteristics of the wool like staple length and strength. At this point the fleeces are packaged according to grade and the packages have a sample taken from the centre to be sent for testing. This gives information like the microns (how fine the wool is), the sundry dry yield (how much wool will be left after processing) and the colour, and this is the published in the auction catalogue before a sale.

Our next stop was the Haworth Scouring Company plant, where the raw fleeces are transformed into wool. The fleeces are put through eight big baths to clean them. It’s at this stage that the wool is blended if a blend is required, e.g. adding merino. By the end of the baths the wool is noticeably whiter; the fleeces are then put through a big dryer. At this point, most of the wool is packaged to be further processed elsewhere. Some, however, is carded and combed on-site, and by the time this is complete the wool is recognisable as something a spinner would use.

The management at this scouring plant work hard to ensure their operation is as environmentally friendly as possible. As wool producers, it was interesting to discuss how the drugs we use on the sheep can affect the processing of the fleece.

The tour of what happens to the sheep fleeces post producer was fascinating, but one element of the day that I particularly enjoyed was the language that is used. The words seem weighed down with history: staple; sliver; tops; noil; worsted; roving. Some of the words I use when talking about wool, but it’s not always used in quite the same way. In this instance wool that had been carded was called roving, and this is what’s called the ‘woollen spun’ – or what will be used for making carpets. British wool has a reputation for being durable and a large percentage goes into making carpets. The wool is noticeable rougher because the fibres haven’t been aligned. The ‘worsted spun’ wool that is used for knitwear is also put through the combing process, which smoothes it out further. This is what I would call a roving, but in this context was called a top.

From a producer’s point of view, the visit was good PR for the BWMB. A few short years ago wool was making 34p per fleece, far below the cost of shearing the sheep. The predicted prices for this year are an average of £3 per fleece, which means that a farmer might make a profit on his wool. This increase is due mainly to an increase in demand for wool from China. The labour-intensive processing by the BWMB is designed to add value so that wool buyers can get exactly what they want at auction. Whilst at times the system can feel clunky and that the producers are not in control, the efforts of the BWMB add a huge amount of value to a niche product that the individual farmers would not be able to market effectively on their own.

There is so much more I could say about the visit, but I’ll stop there for now. No doubt what I saw and learned will inform future blog posts. I can feel the next topic brewing already so, with luck, you won’t have to wait so long for the following instalment.

The visit has already been reported in a couple of places on the internet, so if you want more information or to see more photos you can check out:

The British Wool Marketing Board website

The Cotswold Sheep Group website blog

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