An interview with British Wool

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Following the launch of our beautifully textured British wool fabric, Yoredale, we wanted to provide an insight into the rich history of one of our home country's greatest natural resources. We caught up with Haldi Kranich-Wood, Product Manager at British Wool, to talk us through the unique benefits of our isle’s naturally sustainable fibre, the heritage behind the wool industry and the role the British Wool organisation plays in getting the product from farmer to manufacturers like Camira.

Can you tell us a little about the history of British wool? How has the industry changed over the years?

It is believed that spinning and weaving in Britain developed around 1900BC. The native sheep at that time were descended from a small, long-legged breed, developed from the wild sheep of Northern Europe.
The Britons had already established a wool industry when the Romans invaded in 55BC, bringing with them sheep that were larger and had finer, white wool. Later when the Vikings arrived they brought their own breeds of black-faced, horned sheep, which became ancestors of today`s Blackface, Swaledale and Herdwick. From these three groups of primitive breeds began to evolve the many diverse breeds and crosses which make the British wool clip so unique.
Cloth making was widespread by the 12th century and considerable revenue was made from exports of both wool and cloth. Until the 18th century, wool quality was the main criteria used in any breeding decisions. It was only after the industrial revolution, when British agriculture had to produce more food to meet the demands of the growing industrial communities, that breeding for meat took preference. The process of improving and refining British sheep breeds to meet consumer’s changing tastes and preferences has continued and wool has become a by-product, although breeding for both need not conflict.
Today the UK has the most varied wool clip in the world.

There’s been some controversy in the past over the ethics of producing wool in terms of the impact it has on the sheep, how do you feel about those concerns?

Sheep have grazed in Britain, providing wool – one of our greatest natural resources – for thousands of years. Sheep are part of the land and have evolved, not to just survive, but to thrive in these local conditions.  
Due to the geographical location of the UK, we get 4 distinct seasons. Mountain ranges and ocean currents also influence our weather, so there is much differentiation across our small country. The changing weather has been a constant companion to British sheep and they have adjusted to it over many generations. Sheep living on the harsh hills and mountains grow thicker, more robust wool, while sheep in the lowland areas are more likely to have softer wool. The wide variation in fleece and the suitability of certain breeds to certain areas is a phenomenon unique to British sheep breeds.
The UK farming industry is unique, and classed as non-intensive in global terms. The average UK sheep farm size is small, with around 300 - 350 sheep per farm, compared to farm sizes around the world, with 4000 - 5000 sheep per farm and sometimes up to 10,000 sheep per farm.
Our sheep live outside, often on open hills or moorland.  Each flock is hefted to the land, meaning that they have a lifelong knowledge of their grazing patch that has been passed from ewe to lamb.
The sheep are gathered and handled only 2-3 times in the year, to support the lambing time and shearing.
Sheep have evolved to be dependent on humans to remove their wool so shearing practice is an essential part of animal welfare.

What is the purpose of British Wool today? How has it evolved since its foundation?
Today British Wool is owned by approximately 40,000 sheep farmers. Our responsibility is to collect, grade, market and sell British wool on behalf of our producers to the international wool textile industry. Today sheep farmers receive the actual market value for their wool. Until 1992 they received a guaranteed price, set by the government.
The shepherds crook logo trademark was established in 1972, and is still used today to signify products which use genuine and verified levels of British wool. This gives consumers confidence that they are purchasing a product of provenance and quality, designed to last for years to come.
Wool auction sales are held on a fortnightly basis at British Wool’s Bradford Head Office and the auction – once open-cry – is now fully computerized, offering a fully transparent picture on the sale as it progresses. An average sale will currently offer about 1.5 million kilos of British Wool, and all wool is sold in greasy (prewashed stage) in unified graded lots.

Yoredale is woven using certified British wool, how do you go about sourcing, grading and supplying the material to companies such as Camira?

British Wool plays an essential role at the very start of the wool product journey. We collect the wool from our registered farmers, hand grade each fleece in our 11 grading depots across the UK and then sell it (in its natural greasy state) at our auctions in Bradford.
The grading process is highly skilled and specialized and it takes a minimum of 3 years to learn to become a wool grader. Every single fleece is individually hand graded for its characteristics such as length, strength, color and uniformity of staple. The grading process allows us to sort our whole wool clip into unified qualities that we can auction on to the wool industry looking to use British Wool in specific products.
What do you think the future holds for British wool? 
Over the past few years we have seen a definite increase in interest from consumers about the provenance of wool products, including its environmental and sustainable features.  This gives us a great opportunity to tell the story of the pure heritage and natural benefits of British wool, also emphasizing the host of other benefits British wool provides in different products.