The UK Wool Context¶
By Sanne Visser, Centre for Circular Design, London.
The Circular WOOL UK event¶
On 15 June 2022, Centre for Circular Design – a Shemakes Transfer Lab - hosted the online ‘Circular Wool UK’ symposium in collaboration with World Circular Textiles Day 2050. This online event aimed to explore the UK wool sector through the lens of current design research, by inviting people from across industry, academia and the public sector to share their approach and experiences. The goal was to understand what role design research can play within creating a circular wool industry for the UK by 2050.
Take a look at the event here
From this rich and diverse session, we learnt that the UK wool industry, whilst gaining new interest recently, has been a declining industry for decades, with much of the wool still being underutilised and undervalued. The designers, researchers and makers demonstrated that there is great potential in this industry - with craft, technology and interdisciplinary collaboration as key themes throughout.
The sessions started off with Dr. Zoe Fletcher giving us a brief overview of the unique wool ‘palette’ the UK offers, counting 60 different pure breed sheep, and thousands of cross breeds. Key industry players - Doppelhaus and Harris Tweed - told us about the intricate technologies needed to make woven and felted fabrics; collaboration is vital to such developments.
Researchers from De Montfort’s Textile Engineering and Materials (TEAM) Research Group, including Dr. Clare Lerpiniere and Dr. Angela Davis, showed us multi-modal research approaches for exploring the potential of sustainable wool for innovation. These included archival material investigations of historical wool artefacts, technologically-driven laboratory testing and textiles engineering including the use of enzymatic and bacterial dyes, and theoretical approaches to wool as a communal, human resource with multiple stakeholders. Later in the session we heard from early career researchers, designers and makers - Saumya Singh and Jennifer Drantell - showing us a more hands-on approach through the use of crafts and ancient knowledge; working from different locales including India and Mongolia.
Meg Piri from Fashion Roundtable told us more about their recent pilot study and newly launched programme for building a greater understanding of how localising the supply chain could build more resilient rural economies in the UK. The last session of the day included a presentation by Dr. Lynn Wilson from Sustainable Fashion Scotland, highlighting the importance of consumer behaviour around wool, and how we can become ‘prosumers’ instead of consumers.
MAPPING THE LOCAL ECOSYSTEM¶
The UK wool industry dates far back in time and has played a dominant role in the textile industry up until the industrial revolution. Since the industrial revolution and in line with the rise of cheaper alternative fibres, like cotton and polyester, the UK, alongside other countries worldwide, has seen a decline the use of wool. That said, it is noticeable that there is a regained interest in using wool, after speaking to different people in industry and academia, including designers, researchers and wool processors.
60 different breeds
To take a closer look into the current UK context of wool, the country has 33 million sheep, around 45.000 sheep farmers, 60 different (pure) breeds, producing 70.5000 tonnes of wool each year, and of this 50% stays within UK borders. The other 50% is exported to other countries, including Europe and China (Innovate UK, 2022).
According to the National Sheep Association (NSA), current British Wool is applied into different applications in a variety of industries. Around 50% is applied in carpets, 25% inknitwear, 14% in cloth, 7% in bedding and 2% in other products (NSA, 2022).
As stated on NSA’s website: “Sheep have been farmed in the UK since the Roman times and are a traditional and important part of our modern environment, economy and rural society.” Furthermore they mention its economical value: “… the value of production was around £1.3 billion in 2020. With around 150,000 jobs across sheep farms and associated industries, employment in the sheep industry is worth approximately £290 million to the economy.”
There are a few leading industry players that shape the reuse and processing of British wool, two of which are British Wool and Haworth Scouring and combing. British Wool collects, grades and sells British wool from 35.000 farmers from across the UK. Haworth scouring is one of the largest scouring plants in the world, located in Bradford, just like British Wool. It is noted from different designers and researchers working with wool in the UK that farmers get little value for their wool, averaging to around £1 per kilogram of sheep’s fleece.
On the website of British Wool it is explained how the grading process is being done and what the criteria are “Within each style of wool, fleeces are graded by quality with judgements made across a range of characteristics. These characteristics include:
Whether the wool comes from a Hogg or a Ewe
- Staple strength
- Grey fibre
- First / Second shear
In total British Wool produces almost 120 grades of fleece wool. Each of these are identified with a grade number and short description. British Wool also produces Organic and Winter Shorn variants of these fleece grades where appropriate” (British Wool, 2022).
This grading systems means that not all the breeds stay together in the final yarn or end product but is blended according to these different variables. Whilst there is a clear infrastructure in place for this material, it means that this is centralised approach and less in the hands of the farmers or other local (and smaller) stakeholders.
Local wool characteristics and typology¶
British Wool works with 120 different breeds, including pure and cross breeds. There are other researchers in the UK that have investigated pure British wool breeds only, and emphasize the importance of the breeds and its own characteristics. According to Dr. Zoe Fletcher, the UK has 72 pure breeds of sheep. She highlights that not all wool is the same: “..all 72 pure breeds have different characteristics. Some may be similar in type, but the heritage and journey of the breeds are so entwined with the geographical landscape that each breed has left a different 'footprint' on their development over the years. In the present economic model wool is primarily a by-product of the meat industry. It has insufficient monetary value to encourage change from the current centralised system set up in an era of nationalised industries, in which global wool is viewed as a commodity without much distinction of type. There is potential to add value to British wool by celebrating individual breed variations, in terms of both physical characteristics, and their associations with local heritage’’ (Fletcher, 2022).
CCD Wool Projects¶
The archive of projects at the Centre for Circular Design shows there has been several engagements working with wool. During the Wool Mondays as part of Shemakes, CCD presented an overview of past and current projects undertaken by (associated) researchers from CCD and the wider UAL network.
- Dr. Cathryn Hall – Design for Recycling
- Dr. Laetita Forst – Bio-layer
- Sanne Visser – Human Hair vs. Wool
- Prof. Rebecca Earley – No Wash Top
- Emmeline Child – Wool Scarf & Jacket
- Dr Bridget Harvey – repair with wool
- Prof. Kate Goldsworthy – laser cutting wool
- Justine Lee - Knitted History
- Fiona Daly - North Atlantic Native Wool Fibreshed
- Saumya Singh - Rani & Reine
Key actors and active locations in the field (in alphabetical order)¶
British Wool is the UK’s largest organisation collecting, sorting and grading wool from 35.000 farmers. British Wool has drop off facilities across the whole country and a handful of grading facilities, with the largest one in Bradford. www.britishwool.org.uk
By Laxtons is a specialist yarn and spinning manufacturer based in Yorkshire. weblink
Campaign for Wool is an organisation to raise awareness amongst consumers about the unique, natural, renewable and biodegradable benefits offered by the fibre. weblink
Circular Economy Innovation Network is a network launched in 2022 initiated by UKRI KTN, which aims to create stronger, more collaborative, and resilient industries working together to achieve net zero through circular innovation. Wool is one of the three material sectors that are in focus within this new network (other two include aluminium and chemicals). weblink
Doppelhaus is a company producing sustainable non-woven textiles for the fashion industry called Cloudwool. weblink
Fibreshed is an organisation in the South West of England. Fibreshed is building a community of fibre and dye growers, processors, makers and manufacturers. weblink
Harris Tweed is a family run business producing wool tweed fabric handwoven made form 100% pure wool. weblink
Haworth Scouring is the largest modern, and environmentally responsible scouring facility in the world, based in Bradford. Alongside scouring facilities, Haworth does the production of wool combing at the same location. weblink
H.Dawson is an international wool supplier working with a wide range of different types of wool, a fourth generation family run business. They are based in Shipley, Yorkshire. weblink
HD Wool Apparel Insulation is the innovations division of H. Dawson Wool, international wool suppliers. Working with brands including The North Face, Finisterre and Purdey. weblink
Iinouiio is a company recycling fibres from wool based in Yorkshire. weblink
NexGen produces wool tree shelters, shrub shelters, vole guards made with a mix of british wool, a biodegradable polyol made from ethically sourced cashew nutshell liquid and castor oil. weblink
Solidwool is a company producing composite materials made from wool and bio-resin for furniture applications. weblink
The Wool Library is an organisation launched in 2022, by Zoe Fletcher and Maria Zeb Benjamin, which aims to introduce new knowledge and a diverse ecosystem of curated partners. Pulling on shared experience and understanding, they work as a collective to nurture a regenerative wool economy. weblink
The Woolist is set up by Dr. Zoe Fletcher, providing a database of the 72 pure sheep breeds found in the UK, accommodating with detailed information and materials samples. weblink
West Yorkshire Spinners is a spinning manufacturer in Keighley, West Yorkshire. weblink
Woolcool is a sustainable manufacturing company producing 100 % felted sheep’s wool for the use of insulated packaging. weblink
Woolkeepers is a quality assuarance platform that groups farmers together by fibre quality, breed, animal welfare perspective, as well as farm & land assurance, in order to provide traceable wool. They work with 600 different farms. weblink
Woolyknit is a UK retailer for British certified wool based in Wart Mill, Saddleworth, UK. weblink
Fletcher, Z. (2022) The Woollist. [online] Accessed via : weblink
National Sheep Association (2022) [online] Accessed via : weblink
Innovate UK (2022) Circular Economy Network Launch Wool British Wool (2022) [online] Accessed via: weblink