I love the expression “everything has its season” and for wool this most definitely means the Autumn, which is currently being celebrated throughout this month in Wool Week Campaign for Wool and British Wool. After an unbearably hot summer, I think most of us were ready to welcome the Autumn, I know I certainly was. So, last month, just as the days were getting cooler, I headed up to Yorkshire to visit some of the sheep whose fleeces are used to produce the wool in my collection.
The sheep (Yorkshire Dales)
There is a real pride that the farmers feel for their flocks up here and you can understand why. Bred for their fleeces, every care is taken for the sheep’s wellbeing, they run free up on the Yorkshire moors in the freshest of air, just as they have done for centuries. Indeed, the methods the farmers use have been passed down from generation to generation. The ewes lamb outside in the fields and often have a favourite spot which they go to each year, where they feel most comfortable.
When I visited father and daughter John and Christina’s flock of Masham ewes and lambs, their coats were glistening and bouncing in the bright sunshine. You can see, even when the wool is on the sheep, that their fleeces are lovely and bouncy, creating a lightweight, but very warm wool.
The sorting (British Wool Depot, Bradford, Yorkshire)
This is where my wool officially begins its traceability journey; most of the fleeces that go into my yarn come from Yorkshire and flocks like John and Christina’s who hand deliver their fleeces (packaged into bails and sewn up by hand, as in the picture above) to the British Wool Depot in Bradford. From here, the bails are carefully marked by Dean and the team so that they can be traced back to the farmer whose sheep the fleeces came from, and who can then be paid the correct amount when the wool is sold at auction. British wool is like a co-operative, owned and funded by the sheep farmers, for the farmers so that, by pooling resources, the farmers can get a better and fairer price for their wool whilst it is expertly sorted and regulated for quality.
The fleeces are then sorted and graded by hand, by highly skilled graders who divide it by type (Fine, Medium, Cross, Lustre, Hill or Mountain, see image below) and staple (length) and quality. It is then sorted into skeps (the blue buckets that hold the wool) according to the type of fleece and its quality. This ensures that only the finest quality of Masham and Bluefaced Leicester wool is selected from the highest-grade fleeces for my yarn. Each skep is given an additional code which remains with the bail throughout the grading.
Once the bails have been sorted, graded, and packaged up the wool merchants buy the wool and get it scoured and combed to be produced into silky wool top, ready for my spinning mill (Laxtons) to use.
The scouring (Bradford, Yorkshire)
Because Yorkshire has always been a centre for wool in Britain, all of the accompanying industries, such as spinning and scouring, have traditionally been located close by. The scourers where my wool is cleaned is literally down the road from the depot where the wool has been delivered. The scourers are called Haworth and were founded in 1966. They are one of the largest, modern and environmentally responsible wool scourers in the world and one of only two in the UK. Rob is the Production Manager at Haworth and his job is to devise the “recipes” used for blending each particular batch of wool. He told me that wool from all over the world is cleaned here but they begin each week with the British wool! All the water used in the facility is recycled ensuring that the process is as environmentally responsible as possible and although it looks like a lot of water, this is only a fraction of the water used to clean and produce most other textiles.
The wool goes through a rigorous process of being washed and re-washed at varying temperatures, gradually removing the dirt that the sheep have accumulated throughout the year, not to mention bits of rope, metal and thorns which all get tangled in their fleece!
The Combing (Bradford, Yorkshire).
The last part of the scouring process is the combing which is where the wool is combed into skeins in order to be spun at the mill. You can see in the pictures above, how the natural Oatmeal yarn, used in my Harrison and Craske styles becomes a beautiful heathered colour from the mottled fleeces it originates from.
I have often wished that the pride in local craftsmanship and sense of tradition I experienced in Italy (when I lived there) might be found in the industries we have created here in the UK. I am so pleased to be able to say that I really did see this pride whilst visiting the wool industry in Yorkshire. From the sheep farmers’ love and deep understanding of their flocks, the highly skilled graders at the wool depot, to the scourers and combers with their secret recipes for blending and cleaning the wool.
In my next newsletter and Journal entry, I will be taking you on the second part of my wool’s journey to the century old mill who create innovative new blends using increasingly sustainable and traceable methods and the dye house where my bespoke “True Navy” colour is created. Every single part of this process is carried out with a sense of pride in place, tradition and in the end product.
The Craske and Harrison Ganseys and the Charlie scarf are all knitted in Nottinghamshire meaning that the cycle once the fleece has been delivered to British Wool, until the knits are delivered to my studio in Warwickshire, all happens in under 125 miles!