OP-ED: Why this can’t be the end for Welsh woollen mills

As seen in Fashion Roundtable.

Welsh woollen mills are in trouble. When I first started writing about Welsh wool, a once thriving industry of two-hundred and seventeen mills across Wales had dwindle to eight, now five are all that remain. Last week, the BBC announced that Melin Teifi in Ceredigion is hoping to be taken on by The National Wool Museum. While many of the remaining mills are finding creative ways to keep their businesses going, there exists a fear that this is eroding part of our culture and heritage.

My house is a stone’s throw from the Carneddau mountain ranges. A short hike up and you come face to face with sheep, which feel as old as the hills themselves. Here in Wales, we have a deep connection to wool. For thousands of years, our communities have shorn sheep, washed fleeces, carded and woven. It’s just as much a part of our heritage and identity, as is the land. And it is this land which is perfect for this type of agriculture – our hills and valleys are home to some eleven-million sheep.

However, lower costs in labour and differing environmental regulations have resulted in a significant shift in processing towards China, who now buys around 30% of UK wool exports. It is likely that this will be higher-grade wool which is sold to textile manufacturers globally. Where once rural mills like these worked symbiotically with natural resources and local farming communities, the lack of localism poses an undeniable risk to the loss of knowledge and artisan skills deeply woven through these close-knit communities.

In stark contrast, the global supply chain is too fast, causing massive environmental impacts, pummelling our natural resources and affecting vulnerable communities disproportionately. As we’ve seen, over the last couple of years, there is a power in proximity. This is evident in that much of the global supply chain has been in turmoil, seeing material shortages and transportation bottlenecks, as well as a surge in concern over its carbon footprint.

From a consumer standpoint, we know there is a noticeable shift in people wanting to support sustainable and locally-produced products, particularly in a post-Covid world. More than ever, people want to know where materials come from, how products are made, their environmental impacts and whether people are treated fairly. In response, we have a collective responsibility to boost this transparency and sustainability in our supply chains.

Evidence from our ‘Cleaning up Fashion’ report suggests that supporting local jobs and communities and developing skills are essential in achieving a decarbonised economy. Therefore, from a ‘build back better’ standpoint, localising the woollen industry’s supply chain is particularly compelling. Welsh wool is a sustainable, luxury product that could be produced entirely in this country. This would guarantee fair prices for farmers, much-needed work for local communities and financial return to the economy. As it stands, by the time farmers pay shearers, package fleeces and pay for delivery costs, there is little to no financial incentive — meaning that a product which could service the luxury-fashion sector, is often burned or composted.

To this point it is also pertinent to mention that the NZ trade deal could raise further threats to the Welsh woollen industry, particularly if merino is imported at the cost of Welsh wool.

Essentially then, this comes down to the fact that by doing nothing, we’re sitting back and watching a sustainable industry, rich in culture and heritage fall into terminal decline. I read recently that the currency of choice is the capacity to care. Therefore, we need to take the long view and a far wider perspective. Are we content with an industry limited by financial sustainability or are we open to valuing localism over the industry norm of globalised supply chains? While this isn’t simple, there exists a missed opportunity to regenerate Welsh wool, requiring a level of accountability and agency and for us to act now.