November 1, 2010

Wool - has it a future? Prince Charles to the rescue!

By Dr Clive Dalton

‘Farmer Prince Charles’ and ‘Farmer King George III’
Prince Charles was once reported as saying that King George III (‘Farmer George’) was a favourite ancestor and he had done a lot of research on him. George III was famous for promoting English textile prosperity by bringing in superfine Spanish Merinos (by fair means and foul), from where he spread them to Australia and North America.

See H.B. Carter (

So we should not be surprised to see that Prince Charles is determined to help the struggling British wool industry. ‘Good on him’ is our Kiwi response.

A canny lad
For those of us living in the far reaches of the former British Empire, and who still recognise the Queen as our Head of State (for how much longer we're not sure), and who are very concerned about the future of sheep and wool, we currently think that Prince Charles is a ‘good joker’ because he's trying to do something about promoting British wool! His favourite ancestor would have been proud of him.

In Northumbrian terms he’s a ‘canny lad’, and although he’s had his ups and doons in recent years, his actions over trying to save British wool has been well noted in New Zealand – and we are all behind his actions.

He and I share the same birthday (Nov 14), which is also the day the tups are set away to the hill in the North Tyne. And his other great quality (in Northumbrian eyes) is that he’s the patron of the Border Stick Dressers’ Association, and was instrumental in getting the daft EU regulation to incinerate all rams’ horns and heeds (because of BSE) hoyed oot.

His concern for wool
The Prince’s concern for British wool drove our NZ Minister of Agriculture (Mr David Carter) to call in for a cup of tea and a bit crack with him at Balmoral in Scotland on a recent trip to `Europe. They talked about the UK's 'Campaign for Wool' of which the Prince is patron.

The press release said:
'The Prince of Wales is a champion of the efforts of Commonwealth farmers to grow wool and restore profitability to the sector, and this was a significant opportunity to discuss increasing the demand for wool, recognising its qualities as a naturally renewable and sustainable product' Mr Carter said.

He also said that the Prince's campaign mirrors the New Zealand government's efforts to get our strong wool industry back on track. His Royal Highness is a passionate advocate for wool and was keen to hear of NZ efforts to ensure consumers understand the benefits of this wonderful and sustainable fibre'.

NZ Minister of Agriculture (David Carter) and the
Prince of Walesat Balmoral
(Both wearing wool!)

If the Prince can do anything to help the noble fibre keep a foothold in the world’s textile industry, then he deserves to be made King straight away and he’d be welcome to come and live in New Zealand and commute from here to do the rest of his Commonwealth shepherding.

Killed by synthetic fibres
The death of wool as a textile fibre started the day a chemist drew a strand out from a chemical brew in a test tube in the late 1940s - 1950s, and nylon was born. The rest is history, and their massive research and development by international companies like Dupont and ICI has never stopped, first mimicking the unique qualities of wool, and then improving on them.

Wool never had a chance, and many believe it’s a waste of time trying to compete with the massive multinationals in the synthetic fibre business. Wool currently only occupies 1.5% of the textile fibre market.

But thankfully, there are believers like Prince Charles, supported by wool growers in Australia, New Zealand, South America and South Africa to name just a few.

It’s all about price, and clothing, carpets and furnishings made from synthetic fibres will always be cheaper, especially when mass-produced in countries where labour costs are low. Sheep farmers have to find customers who will pay for the benefits (real or perceived) of wearing and walking on ‘natural fibres’; sadly there are not a lot left in the world.

Wool and fashion
Sheep farmers and wool enthusiasts live in hope that in the weird world of ‘fashion’, among the outrageous rags that appear on walking skeletons wobbling their way down catwalks, some designer will feature the magic of wool! It happens now and again, but like everything in the fashion world, it's always short lived.

We all used to hope that another ‘oil shock’ would increase the price of synthetic fibres, which are all born as fossil fuels, and allow natural fibres a comeback. It never happened; it just made the chemists and manufacturers smarter and more efficient.

The carpet industry is the main end-user of the world’s coarse wools (fibre diameter above 30 microns), such as those grown in New Zealand from our Romney sheep. These are in direct contrast to the fine wools from Merino sheep and their crosses which are used for high quality clothing (fibre diameter around 20 microns).

Before the advent of synthetic fibres, the best thing that could happen to wool was to have a war in a cold climate. We Northumbrian Daft Laddies on farms in the 1950s well remember wearing the WWII ex-army tunics, trousers and especially the greatcoats, which were certainly warm but weighed a ton. Modern armies wear synthetic fibres regardless of the climate they work in.

The Korean war was the last such event when wool was King again, and it's said that Australian wool growers were buying Rolls Royce cars as farm vehicles to use up the money. The ‘Rollers’ were very reliable and there was plenty of room in the back for the dogs and a few sick sheep. You got a pound Sterling for a pound of wool in New Zealand at that time.

Wool marketing shambles

The start of wool's journey - newly-shorn coarse wool
Border Leicester ram fleece.

History has shown some awful examples of bad marketing, resulting in stockpiles of wool around the world, and especially in Australia and New Zealand where governments bought the wool at auction to keep the price up. They then had to hold it for years, releasing it on to the market in dribs and drabs to get their money back. They will never do this again. Farmers will have to meet the market.

The overseas buyers knew where all the wool was, so they only bought what they wanted, and didn’t have the cost of buying forward and storing it, as happens when prices are volatile and in short supply. Wool is a bulky product so needs space and cost to store.

Countries pulled out of international marketing organisations like the International Wool Secretariat (IWS) with the “Woolmark” as it’s famous world-recognised logo. For a while nothing bad happened, but now the years without promotion of wool have come to account. Wool has no international image any more.

The best example of this is the recent campaign by New Zealand farmers to inform American architects (by bringing them here to show them wool being grown and harvested), and that it’s ideal for carpeting high-rise buildings. Wool doesn't burn like synthetic fibres and this basic fact had been missing from their building codes. Hopefully they have now got the message.

Costs from sheep to shop

Costs of production have killed wool and they seem set to continue. Here are a few reasons:
  • Wool varies enormously over the sheep’s body, so has to be sorted by hand, and the easiest place to do this is when it first comes off the sheep on the shearing board.
  • A wool fibre varies along its diameter with the feeding level of the sheep. This can cause 'tenderness' or 'wool break' and in the worst cases (and see in primitive breeds), the woll breaks and is shed.
  • The finest of all wool fibres are described as 'hunger-fine' wools, grown when sheep were suffering starvation. These wools can be around 10 microns in diameter and individual fibres are hard to see with the naked eye.
  • The skill of ‘wool handling’ (along with shearing) has improved out of sight in recent decades, as a result of local and international competitions around the world.
  • The return from the wool harvested in most countries over the last few years, has hardly covered the costs of shearing and handling.
Research continues to take the human effort out of shearing.
Robotics and chemical defleecing are still being worked on.
(Ian McMillan in veterens' demonstration shearing)

  • As wool grows on the sheep in the wide-open spaces of the world, all sorts of things can get mixed up in the fleece, which in processing stage have to be removed. Plant material and weed seeds are the best examples.
Plant material in belly wool - costly to remove
  • Classic examples are the New Zealand ‘Bidibid’ (Acaena inermis) and the Australian Bathurst Bur (Xanthimum spinosum) and the Scottish heather (Caluna vulgaris). New Zealand Bidibid travelled with wool to the mills in southern Scotland, then down the Tweed into the North Sea on to the Farne Islands where it is a hazard to young fledgling seabirds.
  • Wool is a bulky product and there’s a limit on how it can be compressed for transport around the world. Cheap transport moves slowly and there has been talk recently of using wind power to move ships carrying wool – back to the old ‘Clipper’ days to avoid the cost and carbon footprint of power by fossil fuels.

Wool pressed into bales in the woolshed after being trucked to the merchant.
For export these are 'double dumped' - two pressed into the space taken up by one bale

  • Weight and bulk can be reduced by scouring (washing) in the country of origin, and this also has the advantage of leaving the pollution behind.
  • Farmers are also directed not to dip sheep for at least 60 days before shearing to avoid pollution during scouring.
  • The wool handling chain is better now that 30 years ago but it’s still full of fragmentation with too many people competing and ‘clipping tickets’ as the wool moves from farm to processor. Wool goes from the farm to a merchant who may sort it further (more than in the woolshed), and then it’s shipped to mills across the world.
  • Then there’s all the handling at the processor’s end to get it to the clothing or carpet manufacturer. It’s just goes on and on with more ticket clipping on the way.
NZ Wool merchant sorting wool purchased direct from farmers.
This is labour intensive and costly.
From here it is baled and shipped to
processors around the world

Old direct marketing
It’s amazing now to remember the days when the North Tyne fells were alive with sheep before the forests banished them.


The late Willie Robson told of when their family were at Willow Bog, they sent their wool direct to Otterburn Mill to be made into tweed to cloth the family. What a wonderful example of direct marketing! Small offcuts were even used to ‘breek the hoggs’ – washing them after every season so nowt was wasted.

Ignorance & complacency
Tar branding
For generations, the marking of sheep to record their farm of origin was done with tar. It was totally weatherproof and had a very long life on the wool. The trouble was it couldn’t be scoured out and small specks of it could do enormous damage to textile machinery. It took the British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB) around half a century to get farmers to appreciate this and take action.

I remember going to Henry Bell’s wool store in Hexham while a student at Kings College in the 1950s and getting 'the tar message' from the wool classer who was sorting wool from farms that had just been packed into bales with no preparation done on the farm,other than rolling the fleece. Tar branding had a long slow death and it was the financial penalty that drove it.

Bloom dipping
When I was a Daft Laddie on North Tyne farms in the 1950s, we ‘larned’ the art of ‘blooming sheep’ for sale and show, and the practice must have gone on for many decades before that. In the early days farmers used the natural earths and peat before modern’ pigments were available, heavily promoted by ‘the dip man’ or the Northern Farmers rep when he called to get the yearly order.

I remember as students at Kings College going to the famous Border Leicester stud at Rock in the north of Northumberland and seeing tups being prepared for the Kelso sale. They varied in hue from bright orange through yellow to pink. I felt sorry for the tups – they themselves must have felt stupid entering the sale ring. There was never any logic in the practice, but fashion is fashion and defies logic.

I used to joke about what a yowe on heat must have thought when she looked around to see a bright yellow or orange creature creeping up on her from behind!

Helen Brown’s Tarset blog ( "" gives a very clear explanation of the reasons for blooming sheep in UK.

I cannot believe that it still goes on, and that the buyers of sheep are so daft as to see value in it. Sheep farmers wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t financial benefit. Apparently it's all about making sheep look 'even' and 'healthy'.

Sheep at a local show illustrating the modern range of fashionable colours
(Photo by kind permission of Helen Brown).

The poor yellow sheep in this pen looks embarrassed! The bloomed ones will probably think the white one is odd! Apparently brown is the most popular choice at present.

Blooming sheep has been on the hit list of the BWMB for decades but from what Helen Brown says – it’s had little effect. Farmers clearly don’t understand that the dying of wool fibres should be decided by the textile manufacturer, and not by the shepherd! You can’t make contaminated wool lighter – you can only make it darker.

Herdwick sheep - their natural colour. Popular for home crafts.

Bloom dipping reached New Zealand and was used sporadically till the 1950s. But it died a rapid death when price penalties made farmers appreciate the costs it was adding to marketing and processing. Financial penalties are they way to fix things, and clearly price differentials have never had any effect in UK.

First job for Prince Charles

So there’s the first job for Prince Charles – to banish bloom dipping. We sheep and wool enthusiasts in New Zealand wish him well as it looks an uphill battle.

It's easy to ask when wool is worth so little, why bother trying to prepare it better for the manufacturer? The answer to that is that if you want to sell it at all, rather than putting it into landfill, good preparation is more important than ever.

Old 'Daft Laddie' keeps his hand in
Sixty years after my first battle with a sheep to part it from its fleece, I remove the wool from a Border Leicester ram using the 'North Tyne' 'clipping' (shearing) method, where the sheep is held on its side for most of the action - especially effective for large rams. This way of clipping provides plenty of opportunity to stop and chat to fellow clippers and 'hangers on' that the event always seemed to attract - many of them with an eagle eye looking for skin cuts!

The author versus Border Leicester ram 'William'

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I have a wonderful collection of Otterburn Tweeds over 100 bolts pre 1974 and dating back to the 1920's. I also have many other quality wools from Tweed that are of the same vintage. I am looking to sell them. If you know of anyone you could direct me to I would greatly appreciate it.
    Kind regards,
    Judy Curtis