The Welsh Wool Sector in Crisis: Why Urgent Government Support is Needed

As seen in Fashion Roundtable

Historically in Wales, the woollen industry was considered to be one of the most prominent sectors. In less than a century, however, the bustling network of 217 mills spread across Wales has drastically diminished to just 8 mills. Wool is particularly versatile, and the Welsh mills craft a number of items — from flannel shirts, to tapestry blankets, bedspreads and rugs — utilising traditional, artisan skills. The natural fibre is also renowned for being both thermal and moisture-wicking; breathable; anti-bacterial; renewable and biodegradable. Due to its unique structure, it is also perfect for bedding, carpets and insulation; and is used frequently in the hospitality sector.

Despite its myriad benefits and uses, the last five years have seen a decline in demand. The closure of the global markets due to Covid restrictions, saw auction prices fall from around £1 per kilo pre-Covid to just 50p. Back in June 2020, the Farmers Union called for urgent government support as the significant drop in demand left around a third of wool stock unsold. For many, the costs of shearing the sheep, packing and shipping the fleeces has far outweighed their financial return. This has meant that the wool has either been composted, or in some cases burned.

Clare Johns, runs her own label, and utilises wool from her flock of rare Ryland and Shetland sheep in the Pembrokeshire valley. This wool is then made into luxury tweed and herringbone woven fabrics, in Cardiganshire, Wales and later into her own designs.

“There are no incentives at the moment for farmers,” she says, “By the time famers have hired shearers and paid their fee and packaged the fleeces, they’re not even covering costs.”

The majority of farmers sell their wool through British Wool, which was set up in the 1950’s by the government, at a time when wool was in high-demand and valued for its virtuous properties. Owing to its business structure, the industry wasn’t entitled to any financial support which meant farmers were unable to claim against the impacts of Covid like other industries. Janet Finch-Saunders MS, Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Energy and Rural Affairs, plighted a Welsh Wool Pledge in the Senedd in September last year, calling for more support for farmers by acting quickly to develop the wool insulation market further.

Although Clare supports this, it is her feeling that Welsh wool should stand alone as a luxury fabric within the fashion industry.

Clare feels one of the biggest draw-cards to using Welsh wool is that it’s inherently sustainable. “You can trace my products from farm-to-hanger and the whole process happens in the UK using Welsh wool,” she says.

What labels like Clare’s show is how we can keep the whole process from farm-to-hanger local. There are still a number of women in her local area who worked at the mills before they were closed. They have the skills and time to pass this knowledge on, so they’re kept alive. From a Brexit standpoint, this is particularly compelling as this is a sustainable, luxury product that can be produced entirely in this country. This would guarantee fair prices for farmers, much-needed work for the local communities and financial return to the economy. Gareth Jones, Head of Producer Marketing at British Wool weighs in, “there’s a massive opportunity,” he says, “we’re lucky to have a fantastic product and the infrastructure within the UK to localise this … and at consumer level, people do want to support sheep farmers and to invest in something that is grown here in the UK.”

Essentially what this comes down to is the need for urgent governmental support. In a small agricultural community like Wales, there is rich tradition and knowledge woven through these communities. Small rural mills have worked with local farming communities since the early 20th century. With the right governmental funding and support, we could increase local communities' economic, social and environmental resilience — all while investing in an important natural resource. Finally, from a consumer standpoint, there is a noticeable shift in people wanting to support locally produced items and it is my hope that the consumer trend continues to flock towards sustainable products like these that are made to last.