Against the grain: those pushing the boundaries in the woollen industry

As seen on Fashion Roundtable.

Source: Fibreshed. Farmer, Gala Bailey Barker with Plaw Hatch Flock.

I’ve travelled down to Harlech over the summer for a few days, and am sitting in a stone cottage in what feels like the middle of nowhere, the sun streaming in through the window. Deborah Barker who runs Southeast England Fibreshed stares back at me through the screen, a floor-to-ceiling bookcase behind her.

Fibreshed is a grassroots organisation specifically focused on place-based sovereignty and as soon as I wanted to write a piece on those pushing the boundaries within the sector, I knew I wanted to speak to Deborah. We get straight into talking about other ways of working, to which Deborah said:

“It’s about getting away from the idea of supply chains and creating local supply networks. With a network you get equal stakeholders, so you’re bringing the designer, farmer, the spinner, the weaver, everybody working together.

“One of the things I hear from farmers is that it really gives them a sense of pride when they know where their work will end up.”

This concept of a network in place of a supply chain offers an alternative, one in which costs are agreed for upfront and consequently pride is instilled back into the process. Here transparency is key. Currently there is a disconnect between what farmers are receiving for their wool and the end product whether that be knitwear or yarn. This is something which Deborah feels cannot be taught in a classroom. Deborah said:

“Stand in healthy ancient pasture and you see the sheep are actually helping to maintain the biodiversity, they have a reciprocal relationship that has evolved over thousands of years with the landscape, and are part of the whole ecosystem.”

Source: Deborah Barker. Plaw Hatch Flock plant-dyed wool.

The fact that sheep are part of a reciprocal relationship with the land is often disputed. I am reminded of a book I read recently called ‘Feral’, by George Monbiot, who suggests sheep are part of the reason that we are now facing a lack of diversity amongst species in Wales coining the term “sheepwrecked.”

However, Deborah suggests that there are certainly ways of working with the land including organic farming. When I ask her about regenerative farming, she is a little more cautious due to the amount of greenwashing around the terminology. She tells of the farmers she is working with who are at the cutting edge of regenerative farming, who are still working on long-term solutions in this direction.

Regenerative farming is the latest buzzword and much discourse surrounds this. This requires indigenous knowledge, experience and wisdom and while this is often acknowledged, Deborah says that little investment is made in this direction.

The term ‘regenerative’ also suggests it goes beyond soil health and instead looks at the entirety of the system, including the role of extraction within a capitalist society and those who are suffering and oppressed within this system. In its simplest form regenerative agriculture improves the land instead of causing harm. This ultimately leads to healthy soil with capabilities of producing high-quality food, leading to healthy communities. Deborah said:

“It's really important because a lot of our land, like Wales for example, is just not suited to arable, but we have to feed the population. So if those animals can graze that land in a way that supports nature, restoration and carbon sequestration, and convert the grass into food, that's a no brainer.

“I think it's very irresponsible for George Monbiot to suggest taking the animals out, because without the animal dung, you don't get the dung beetles and you suddenly disrupt a whole ecosystem of which they are an integral part and that's taken thousands of years to evolve.”

As we end, Deborah and I reminisce over her time in Wales. She had lived in Blaenau Ffestiniog for a number of years while her children were young. She knew of the land in Wales, had felt the culture and the language running through the place. Deborah said:

“Food and fibre sovereignty go hand in hand, and that seems really critical in times of climate crisis. I’m slightly wary about being too romantic about connecting with the land. I think there’s a place for the landscape and rural culture being an expression of the land, but I think it also has to be rooted in urban life.”

This thread of being rooted in the contemporary suggests that harnessing the provenance of Welsh wool requires a steer away from how things have always been done. Currently within the woollen industry, wool is blended at large-scale facilities into a homogenous fibre of sorts and loses its sense of place as a result.

As I seek an answer on how to retain place-based sovereignty within this process, I drive back through the Welsh countryside. As I do so, I note the lack of diversity amongst the sheep breeds who stand stark against the green, penned in by stone walls, used once at the time of the enclosure movement, steeped in local folklore and history.

Source: Amy Bateman. Zoe Fletcher and Maria Benjamin.

Celebrating diversity

Later that week, I chatted with Zoe Fletcher and Maria Benjamin, co-founders of The Wool Library, who set up their business to act as a bridge between the wool sourced from rare breeds and the makers and designers working in the sector. On the topic of diversity amongst sheep, Zoe said:

“We've got so many breeds with such amazing history that have been bred over generations for specific kinds of geographical locations. Why are we not celebrating those kinds of limited edition finite quantities? Why are we trying to peg ourselves into global uniformity when we don't need to? We should be celebrating all this diversity.”

As if in answer to this rhetorical question Maria chimed in. Maria said:

“It's all about diversity. I mean that way of making everything almost bland and without a story, that globalised idea of things being placeless is so over. And the power of place is really where we're at at the moment in terms of business development.

“If you make something placeless you almost take away responsibility, you disconnect it from a place and the damage that you're doing. So connecting it to a place gives you a sense of responsibility, and then looking at it in terms of looking after a whole community is important.”

Source: Amy Bateman. Zoe Fletcher and Maria Benjamin.

This comment suggests the waters are quickly muddied when wool is processed at scale without a degree of transparency, not only losing its sense of place but also a responsibility for how this is processed.

The current process of the wool market being geared up at scale with farming co-operative British Wool sending large amounts of wool to China for example needs unpicking. White wool is also favoured at this level, meaning that it is pushed towards a type of monoculture as scaled-up business often does.

Maria said: “I think it was farmers looking to business as the model rather than nature. And nature likes complexity and diversity and business likes uniformity, and almost like a monoculture because it's easy to work with individually.

“This doesn't work in farming because it doesn't work in nature. You have to do so much work to keep nature out of a crop field. So it’s about working with nature and how that naturally wants to work, which is having complexity and diversity. And that's built-in resilience really.” ‘Disruptor’

A potential disruptor for not only Welsh wool but British wool in general, is that of the Free Trade Agreements and the possibility of merino from Australia and New Zealand flooding the market, again washing away the hope for diversity. This is an example of a fibre that has been bred in a homogenous way, standardised and easily obtainable.

Deborah said: “You'd actually believe if you saw the advertising that buying merino from Australia or New Zealand is a bit more carbon friendly than buying it from your local farm.”

Maria suggests an alternate perspective on the potential influx. Maria said: “We already get merino in the UK, when it’s stealthy people don’t notice, there’s going to be this massive wave that’s really going to be on people’s radars. So in a way, it’s an opportunity to really push the marketing of British wool.”

Zoe agrees that while merino is suitable for performance wear, our cool and rainy climate points to the varieties of British wool as a solution. This diversity is something which can stand above merino, that’s traceable back to the farm and the narrative speaks for itself. Zoe said:

“British wool shouldn't be trying to be the next merino. We don't need some of the properties that merino actually gives us, for example the staple* length and fineness. Depending on the spin, weight and ply of the desired yarn, we don't always need the fine micron count* and that's where we can stand above it.

“It's about celebrating all that diversity through them all being able to do different jobs. “I mean, it's like an experience, isn't it? You want to pronounce it from the rooftops, because you're proud of what you're wearing, why you're wearing it and you're projecting who you want to be through those choices.”

The concept of wearing your values is nothing new, but what’s interesting is its connection to provenance. The Wool Library offers designers and makers a path to connect with specific breeds and an appropriate end use, in a fully transparent way. Here then wool is revalued with its sense of culture and knowledge intact.

We progress to talking about British Wool’s role as a potential blocker towards working in different ways, with their growth logic targeted at China. However, I am met with positivity that British Wool are currently grading The Wool Library’s wool, keeping this completely separate and holding this until The Wool Library has an appropriate end user. It is their hope that this way of working will inspire change, as a demand in particular exists for British Wool’s traceability programmes.

Zoe said: “Global commodities and working on that global scale doesn't work for a lot of the smaller breeds. So if we can find avenues for those kinds of lots that actually celebrate it, it aids all of the market, not just a few select ones.”

Maria’s husband, John Atkinson is the chair for the Rare Breed Survival Trust who are currently working with British Wool to trial rare breeds of Norfolk Horn and Portland sheep in the market. The notion being that keeping breed specific wool together, should appeal to buyers who are interested in provenance.

I admit as our conversation naturally comes to a close, that I am confused about British Wool’s role in the market. On one hand it is particularly geared up to scale with markets growing in China, and on the other is actively involved in other ways of working.

Source: Amy Bateman. Zoe Fletcher and Maria Benjamin.

A commodity issue

British Wool is a non-for-profit and was set up in the 1950s by the Westminster Government to establish a centralised process for collecting, grading, marketing and selling British wool. As a farmer’s cooperative the intention was that this formation would increase the value of wool for the benefit of around the 35,000 registered wool producers in the United Kingdom.

However, in the past this has affected Welsh farmers adversely with much research pointing to a dilution of power, particularly to those with smaller flocks, in favour of sales in England. Today the British Wool Head Office sits in Bradford in close proximity to one of only two scourers left in the country.

In a Zoom call with British Wool’s CEO, Andrew Hogley, I share my confusion about British Wool’s role in the market, particularly as it appears that larger scale growth models are working against much of the provenance narrative that others are working towards. Andrew said: “China is the world's biggest wool processor. 70% of the world's wool is processed in China. We're very lucky in the UK that we still have scouring in the UK for the first stage of that processing.

“Around 75 to 80% of UK wool is initially processed in the UK, approximately 10% of wool is sold as greasy wool to China. We have one China-focused buyer in the auction, and one buyer based in the Czech Republic.

“Some of the wool that is bought by our two big scouring plants, is exported to China after scouring for further processing. And at that point, we lose visibility, it's probably fair to say at some point in its journey 30% of the wool goes to China.”

Source: British Wool. CEO, Andrew Hogley.

When I bring up the length of the supply chain and its carbon footprint as well as the potential for social implications, Andrew offers his perspective on the environmental issues. Andrew said:

“Wool does have a fantastic sustainability story, but if you're transporting the wool to the other side of the world to bring it back, you undermine the green credentials. The other thing that’s really important from a marketing message is, if you're selling to China, you will only ever get a commodity price for the wool. They will buy it on the technical specs but they will arbitrage New Zealand wool against British wool for the cheapest price.

“Whereas if we're selling to the UK and to UK brands that care about the provenance and the traceability and the story… we're seeing that in some of the real successes that the organisation has had over the last 18 months, getting the likes of The Wool Room to commit to buying British wool.

“Harrison Spinks who want traceable British wool and Welsh mountain wool goes into their mattresses. It's getting Welsh mountain wool into a high-value product where they care that it is wool from British farms, Welsh farms, and they're actually paying a premium over and above the auction price for us to provide traceability on that wool.” Future hopes

The conversation progresses to other ways of working in a more localised way and Andrew’s hopes for British and Welsh wool in the future.

“I want to move British wool away from the commodity market. But the reality today is wool is treated as a commodity. So if you don't have those Chinese commodity buyers in your auction, then you're not delivering for your members, but I can see the potential moving forward is much greater, closer to home in terms of who's prepared to pay that higher price.

“But you can't ignore the world's biggest wool processing market and not have them as a customer.

“There is not enough wool grown in the UK to keep the two scouring plants busy. If the Irish wool, and the Norwegian wool wasn't coming into the UK, I would be worried about one of the two scouring plants not being viable.”

We touch on what British Wool is currently doing in Wales, where Newton in Wales has become the first plant to sort and grade wool with full traceability, meaning that the wool can be traced back to its original farm, with the plant in Brecon next on the list. Andrew said:

“I think given the range of wool types that we have, I want each type of British wool to get the highest value use that it possibly can.

“Frankly, if you use wool for insulation, the farmer gets no value. Insulation uses a lot of wool as a low-value product competing against a man-made alternative. Yes, we need a market for our floor sweepings, but I don't want any more wool going into insulation because I want our members to be paid for their wool.”

Source: British Wool. Sheep in a field.

It was at this point, we discussed the wool being processed instead into the high-end luxury-fashion sector. Andrew offered the analogy of wool being manufactured into a jacket by Scotland’s coveted brand, Harris Tweed, which can exceed £300. Suggesting that if wool was utilised in the luxury-fashion sector, there would be enough value in the end product that after all the processing stages and retail margins for example, farmers could also engage in a fair return.

In this regard, the Welsh Government’s ‘Welsh Wool Pledge’, was tabled back in 2020, urging for a mandatory procurement of Welsh wool as insulation as well as a development of wool in the fashion industry. While the insulation market appears to have begun in the Monmouthshire area, with a recent development of around 17 houses, this is yet to be addressed at scale. While the fashion sector seems to have completely fallen from this initial agenda.

The fact that brands are starting to come to British Wool with provenance and traceability in mind, does offer hope for change. However, this direction of change for British Wool would require a complete overhaul of how things have always been done. When asked if they were up for the challenge. Andrew said:

“I think if we get that consumer demand for Welsh wool as a brand, and a level of care for provenance of wool in their products, manufacturers will specify it. Then we can move away from a commodity price for wool to a fair return for Welsh wool farmers. And it is possible, it's hard work, but it is possible.”

Source: British Wool. Beulah Speckled-face Sheep.

My takeaway from this was that advocating for fashion as a potential solution should be on the Welsh Government's radar. When I reached out for a governmental response on the fashion sector falling from the initial agenda of the ‘Welsh Wool Pledge’, a Welsh Government spokesperson said:

“Wool is a natural resource which we are very fortunate to have in Wales, and it is important that we look at ways to maximise its potential so farmers and the wider community can benefit. We are actively looking at ways to use Welsh wool across different sectors.

“There has been considerable work with farmers and processors to look at the value of wool and the opportunities to add value to the supply chain. This includes supporting a project led by Menter Môn to help realise the potential of wool as a natural, sustainable resource—promoting opportunities and trialling innovative new products.”

While this highlight’s the government’s focus towards innovation, it could in turn decrease the price farmers receive for their wool, creating once more the cycle of a mass-produced and homogenous fibre. I think back to a conversation with a local farmer who was letting his wool rot in his coal shed, because it was cheaper than paying the petrol to the nearest processing depot.

What those in this story therefore are offering is the differing ways in which people in the industry are working with wool, from Fibreshed’s approach in creating supplier networks and The Wool Library acting as a bridge between diverse and rare breeds and designers, as a response to increase prices at raw-fibre stage.

This is fresh on my mind as I hike up the Carneddau mountain range in Llanfairfechan where I live. Welsh mountain sheep greet me along the way. Their connection to the place that is Wales is deep, but their wool is worth nothing. The rain comes in like sheets, yet the sheep don’t so much as flinch, due to their warm and waterproof fleeces.

Up there on the mountain I look down and follow the line of green until it meets the sea, Penmon Point lighthouse faint in the distance, wild Carneddau ponies to my left. This is where the true value is, in connecting the value of the provenance of Wales with consumers. A celebration of Welsh culture at its best. An origin story in the making.

A hike in the Carneddau Mountains.

A hike in the Carneddau mountains.