North West Wool
A sustainable partnership in a beautiful natural material
There could hardly be a more beautiful, useful or easily produced material for keeping us warm and fashionable than wool. Wool was a driving force in the industrial revolution and Great Britain became the wool capital of the world. Yet in the oil revolution that followed we abandoned our natural fibre roots as the technology “experts” convinced us that synthetic was better. Over the following decades the price of wool at the farm has dwindled to a level where it doesn’t always even cover the cost of shearing.
In the nick of time it seems we might have realised that synthetic is neither sustainable nor better. We may be seeing small signs that the tide is turning. Knitting and wool fashion are experiencing a recovery, even if much of our product is still imported. The price of raw wool in the UK is rising towards a level which may make it financially worthwhile for farmers to rear it. But the price depression has lasted so long that most UK sheep farmers had to shift their focus away from rearing and breeding quality wool to maximising meat weight. It’s time we decided to help halt the dwindling of our expertise in quality wool production.
Our story started when our good friend Kate Horner’s textile classes at a local college were discontinued and she, with partner Rosie Jackson, set up privately as Artybird Carnforth in north Lancashire, offering City & Guilds qualifications in felt making, embroidery and fashion design. My wife Maggy was lucky enough to come through one of Kate’s early cohorts to obtain her diploma in felt making. One of Kate’s radical ideas a couple of years ago was to encourage local sheep farmers to form a co-operative to add value to their traditional breeds of wool by offering it ready processed and dyed to hand crafters, such as her students. We spoke to some of those farmers about it and the idea in principle went down well but the demands of marginal hill farming leave little time for investment in learning the new skills. So in the shorter term, Maggy and I decided to explore the simpler idea of partnering with farmers to buy their traditional fleeces at a sustainable price and to process and market the wool ourselves, and we launched North West Wool.
An early problem was how to get the wool expertly processed in small quantities into a product which hand crafters can work with. Enter Halifax Spinning Mill, established by Paul Crookes a few years ago out of the remnants of the British textile industry. Paul’s mission is to help bring traditional and other breeds of wool in the UK to a welcoming and growing market of spinners, felt makers and knitters. The mill processes organically from raw fleece right through to whatever the customer requires and importantly, it is close enough for us to minimise our carbon footprint in transporting materials.
Paul lives and breathes wool. He suggests that whenever we pass a knitting shop we should go in and ask to see some wool. We would generally be shown nylon, acrylic, propylene and other synthetic yarns which are familiar to the public as wool. These plastic yarns have somehow hijacked the name of our traditional, beautiful fibre. Even experienced knitters who use real wool are usually not aware of where it comes from, what breed of sheep was involved and what superb quality wool some of our traditional British breeds produce. Asking for British, natural wool would go a long way to helping our countryside to stay in business and to reducing our carbon footprint.
North West Wool is a sustainable, environment-friendly business offering locally sourced wool from traditional breeds and quick, efficient mail order delivery and advice. On our website we showcase the farms and advise about the spinning and felting character of each type and blend. From last year’s clip we currently stock Hebridean, Jacob, Shetland, Lleyn, Cheviot, Blue-faced Leicester and North Country Mule, all in carded batts, which is ideal for hand woollen spinning and felt making. All our wool is sourced from local farms within 25 miles from home, which means North Lancashire, South Cumbria and North West Yorkshire, all traditional hill farming areas. Soon we will also be stocking knit-ready yarn, both machine and hand spun, from some of these breeds. At present all the wool is undyed and our natural colours range from white to black and beautiful shades of brown.
This year we have partnered with Saving Rare Breeds, a charity with a farm nearby who keep Boreray, Soay, North Ronaldsay, Castlemilk Moorit and Portland breeds. Together we are offering taster days in the summer on their farm to meet the sheep, appreciate what is involved in preparing the wool and have a go at spinning and making felt. Details are on the Saving Rare Breeds website.
It’s just a beginning, but we think we can make a difference.