Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Musings on Wool

As we're now into full swing on the "Campaign for Wool" and all that, (Did you all see Lesley and her Bowmont flock and the others in Savile Row? Fabulous.) I've been thinking about the current position of British wool. Now, I'm no expert. I live on a sheep farm, but it's not mine. I use wool, a LOT, and I feel I know a reasonable amount about the end product. I'm not so up on the actual production side, so I've been reading up and giving it some thought.

Something I hadn't really realised. Most British wool is considered a by-product of the meat trade. This means that most farmers are focused on issues such as carcase size and fat content of the meat, rather than wool quality or quantity. Completely understandable - the poor price of wool means the wool cheque is virtually meaningless when compared to the value of some nice fat lambs for the dinner table. Keeping this in mind, it makes the British Wool Marketing Board a bit more sensible - it's a clearing house for all that meat by-product, most of which is decidedly average quality and is sold for carpet manufacture or industrial use.

However farmers who are working towards finer quality wools, realising there is a demand there, have to de-register from the BWMB and "go it alone" - the BWMB really doesn't seem to be geared towards single-breed batches or provide a special service for the fine or unusual wools, of interest to people like me, or perhaps to companies like Rowan. They are simply a middle-man, batching up wool and flogging it to the big wool buyers. This must be hard for the farmer looking to focus more on his or her clip - they're used to having a ready-made market, and it's just not there.

Strikes me as something of a shame. We're moving toward a situation where sheep are being bred to (once more) naturally shed their fleeces to save the cost and trouble of shearing. We import tonnes of merino and other wools, either as finished product or as yarn or fibre. Something about this situation strikes me as a bit "off." Surely there's an opportunity for British growers to take a bite out of the "merino market"? Okay, British merino is always going to be a rarity, I think the Merino breed isn't suited to British conditions, but breeds such as the Bowmont or Blue-Faced Leicester can rival Merino easily. After all, there are grades in Merino, and I bet we don't see the very best stuff over here.

Of course, companies like the Natural Fibre Company, Devon Fine Fibres, Wensleydale Sheep Shop and Garthenor are pushing into this market, with single-breed and organic options now available. Even Rowan have dipped their toe in, which is great (shame they got rid of their spinning capability, hmmm?)
So why isn't the Campaign getting involved with these smaller craft producers?

Good question. They're focusing on big people like Marks and Spencer, and posh names like Gieves and Hawkes, which is understandable, but there's a whole grass-roots movement out there which could really use the help and morale boost.

Something else I have realised - most sheep farmers have no idea what a handspinner is looking for in a fleece. Not a clue. Maybe this is something we can do - if you buy direct from a farmer, get into a dialogue, if they're open to the idea. What would you like to see in a fleece? What do you hate? Most important, how much would you pay for it?

Because, if all this works, and the Campaign can get wool back where it should be, and we can get British wool into a much more viable position, and finer fleeces available...

you're going to have to pay for it. Personally, I think that's well worth it if the product is right.

(My thanks to Lesley at Devon Fine Fibres for educating me about the BWMB, and her thoughtful posts on life as a fine wool farmer are well worth reading.)

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