Baaaah! Why does Britain have such good wool?

06/03/2019
by Ruth Strickley

Is it the weather? Maybe it's the geology, or the quality of the land, the way the land lies, our location on the face of the planet. Whatever the reason, Britain has long been known as the home of particularly good quality wool.

These days the nation is one of the world's biggest wool producers, generating a massive 22,000 tonnes of wool every year. There are 45,000 sheep farmers in Britain, between them looking after around 34 million sheep, which fall into 60 breeds, 25 of which are rare. But at the same time the country only has two wool scourers these days, people who clean the raw wool to remove grease, sweat and muck so it's lovely and clean. In total you have to go through ten different processes to transform wool to fabric, but despite the hassle an increasing number of people and organisations are starting to champion 100% British wool in all its beautiful glory.

Useful for a lot more than mere carpets and rugs!

Traditionally the idea is that British home grown wool is only any good for carpets. British wool is indeed very strong, with a high micron, but it's also brilliant for tweed and upholstery fabrics. There's more – a particular wool's use tends to depend on the breed it comes from, and where the sheep live.

As you can imagine because of the harsher weather, wool from northern and Scottish sheep breeds produces coarser yarns which are great for tweeds and interior textiles. The sheep living in warmer, dryer places like Dorset and Devon produce finer wool, softer stuff that's less harsh, the ideal for yarn for clothes. No wonder the UK's finest wool comes from the comparatively gentle, warm, calm landscapes where the Blue Faced Leicester breed thrives.

We've been breeding sheep in the UK since 4000BC or maybe even earlier, originally horned brown sheep like today's Soay. Preserved wool from the Bronze Age has been found, and it looks very like Soay wool. You don't spend at least six thousand years with an animal without getting to know it very well, becoming an expert in everything that keeps it happy, fit and healthy. Poorly or unhealthy sheep have poor wool. It takes experience and expertise to breed healthy sheep and keep them that way, and as a nation we've got plenty of that!

Where does British wool go?

Specialist wool merchants still trade British wool across the planet. More than half of it is sold to China, a fast-growing market that doubled between 2013 and 2015 and remains healthy. The remainder is mostly bought by other nations. Because the wool preparation process is so long and complex, comparatively little British wool stays in the UK from start to finish. It's often scoured and spun in China then sent back here to be woven.

A growing trend for wool from dedicated flocks

Cherchbi, which insists on gorgeous British Herdwick wool from a particular flock, isn't alone in its love for British wool. They also keep their entire supply chain in the UK. As Cherchbi says on its website:

" The Herdwick has a 1,000-year heritage and worthy reputation as Britain's hardiest mountain sheep. Reared primarily for it's specialty meat, the breed has EU protected food name status and appears on menus of many of the country's best restaurants. However the fleece is considered almost worthless and is sometimes burned.

Over four years and nine weave trials this low value fleece was transformed into a high quality cloth. Herdwyck No.10 is a pure wool, it's colour and texture derived from the distinctive Herdwick fleece. It is spun, woven and finished entirely in the British Isles.

The fleece originates in the Cumbrian Lake District and is spun into yarn in Kilcar, County Donegal. The spinning process is slowed giving the yarn greater strength. This is woven into cloth in Pembrokeshire, Wales. Extra picks are added into the loom creating an unusually dense weave. The tweed is sent to Galashiels in the Scottish borders where it undergoes specialist finishing. Finally, in Lancashire, the finished wool tweed is bonded to its cotton lining with a natural rubber core."

Buy British alpaca wool

We sell the most deliciously soft, gorgeous alpaca wool, 100% British from the field to our shop. If you fancy knitting something lush, it's perfect!