Coarse British wool is overlooked by garment makers, but the environmentally-friendly material has plenty of potential.
Ask some experts for their views on British wool and they will dismiss it as suitable for carpets, upholstery, and little else. Others, however, are diehard advocates of its use in fashion, particularly for accessories and outerwear.
The UK still has a large wool textile manufacturing industry, but only a tiny proportion of the wool used to produce cloth and clothing is from sheep roaming the hills and moors of England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
Estimates put it at between 5% and 10%; the large majority is from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The reasons for this are clear: British wool has a coarse handle, on average double the number of microns - the measurement used to express the diameter of a wool fibre - found in Australian wool. Put simply, it is too brittle to work with and often too rough to be worn next to the skin.
The British Wool Marketing Board, a farmer-run organisation that works to give producers the best possible return on their fleeces, reports just 10% of the 30,000 tonnes of wool sheared each year by approximately 45,000 sheep farmers goes into knitting and 5% for ‘other uses’ such as cloth and insulation. The remaining 60% goes into carpets, and 25% is exported as greasy wool (straight from the sheep’s back, before it undergoes any processing treatments) to be made into various products, including knitwear, carpet and cloth.
In Ireland around two thirds (65%) of wool is used for textiles and 35% for carpets, according to Vincent Pierce, managing director of Laurence Pierce Wool Merchants in Rathdrum, County Wicklow. Of the wool used for textiles, around 90% is exported to China in its greasy form. Only a tiny handful of mills use Irish wool for the production of clothing.
However, there appears to be a growing demand for home-grown wool in the fashion industry. Tim Booth, marketing manager for the BWMB, says: “I started at the board about 11 years ago and about 75% of British wool went into carpet - that has dropped to 60%. It’s partly because more wool is directly exported out of the UK in its greasy form, but we’ve also found more wool is being used in knitwear and cloth. Japan is looking a lot more at British wool, because they want something a bit heavier than fine merino suits.”
Booth argues that the upside of the coarse handle of British and Irish wool is its resilience. “In the UK retailers and consumers don’t understand the fabric as well as they could - it’s smart,” he says. “Manufacturers should be promoting qualities, such as its ability to regulate temperature, its strength and its fire-retardant properties.”
The UK has 60 pure breeds and as many half breeds, so there is more opportunity for differentiation than in almost any other country, he points out.
However, Peter Ackroyd, global strategic adviser for the Woolmark Company, which promotes Australian wool, says we are highly unlikely to see a big spike in the amount of British and Irish wool used. “We’ve never really used British wools in modern apparel. The 38 to 40 companies in the UK weaving apparel fabrics will be using Australian and New Zealand wools. Everything you see in suits is nearly always Australian merino.”
Certainly, around six or seven years ago, products made from 100% British wool were rare. But some say this is beginning to change, as more brands look to source their raw materials domestically.
Adam Atkinson set up premium accessories brand Cherchbi in 2007 after he came across a farmer who discarded the fleece from his Herdwick flock - a not uncommon practice, given the majority of sheep in the UK are bred for meat and wool is seen as an unwelcome by-product - and was frustrated at what he saw as a waste of a perfectly good natural resource.
“People don’t use [Herdwick wool] because it’s a mountain sheep, the wool is very difficult to process. Spinners and weavers don’t like working with it - it’s easier and cheaper to use wool from Australia and New Zealand,” he explains. “But I was interested in whether it was possible to manufacture anything here from source right through to finished product.”
At the time in 2007, there was a perceptible shift towards sourcing more from the UK, particularly in the food industry. This spurred Atkinson on, but Cherchbi did not have an easy start. “It took three years to get going because nobody really believed in it. The spinners and weavers I contacted weren’t keen on it. They were at the tail end of the decline in British manufacturing, just keeping their heads down and doing the simplest things they could for their existing clients. The support and infrastructure wasn’t there.”
Eventually he found a spinner in Ireland, Donegal Yarns in Kilcar, Donegal, and a Welsh weaver, Melin Tregwynt in Haverfordwest, who were prepared to help. He has also since worked with another Welsh mill, Melin Teifi in Dyfed, but the challenges continued. Since 2007, the price of British wool has risen from about 10p per kilo to 40p. However, Atkinson says it is the processing cost that really hits his bottom line. “We have to pay extra to get it processed, because it’s difficult to work with. No one producing British-made goods is happy with their profit margin.”
Bigger brands are also using British wool. Three years ago, Hackett partnered with the Fox Brothers & Co mill in Wellington, Somerset, and invested in a flock of Wensleydale sheep, also in Somerset. For autumn 15 at London Collections: Men, Hackett showed a 12-piece capsule collection called Sheep, Shape and London Fashion. It included heavy outerwear such as a reversible sheepskin coat, reefer jacket, double-breasted military coat - and a three-piece suit woven from wool sheared from the Wensleydale flock.
Fox Brothers has worked with other brands to help them use British wool, including weaving the cloth for a range of autumn 13 Belgrave blazers for Jack Wills, made with wool from the brand’s own flock of Exmoor Horn sheep in Wiltshire. However, Fox Brothers designer Rosemarie Boon says: “It comes with the necessary struggles to get enough processed in time for the season. If we miss the season there’s no point, so it’s difficult to get into bulk production.”
John Walsh, managing director of the Abraham Moon & Sons mill in Guiseley, Leeds, agrees: “There’s the commercial aspect: you’re dealing with brands and retailers that have to have product in at a certain time. You have to deliver.”
But he adds it is possible to provide fabric made from British wool, if the brand or retailer understands the limitations. “We don’t use a lot of British wool, but when we do it’s a great story to tell. You have all the advantages of using wool - the warmth, temperature control, biodegradability - and it’s local as well. Fewer air miles and you’re helping British farmers.”
Despite the barriers to using more British wool in clothing manufacturing, many are optimistic that this small part of the industry can grow. The BWMB is, of course, doing what it can to encourage the use of home-grown wool, including the imminent introduction of a platinum logo that will certify makers are using 100% British wool, as well as a gold logo for those using a blend of British and other wools.
Martin Curtis owns Curtis Wool, one of the biggest buyers of UK wool at the Bradford auctions where the BWMB sells its clips, and Haworth Scouring, one of the only domestic wool scourers. He points out that, through the efforts of the Prince of Wales, Campaign for Wool and the activities of the newly formed Wool Carpet Focus Group, wool textiles are once again being promoted. He adds: “UK wool cloth is being sold around the world and consumers are finding that garments and other products made from it are extremely good value.”
So while British wool is never going to supplant finer foreign wools in UK textile manufacturing, it does have its place - and one that is growing, alongside the appetite for knowing a garment’s provenance, from start to finish.