To many it is a surprise to hear that at a commercial level at least, sourcing Welsh wool is so difficult. Despite the worldwide recognition of Welsh tapestry and weaving, its iconic patterns and colours, and the growing value of Welsh vintage textiles, there is currently no substantial supply of real Welsh farmed wool. This is in contrast to ‘Welsh woven’ products, which are reasonably buoyant following a very difficult period in the 1980s and 1990s.
Sourcing Welsh wool in practice
There are many smallholders and farmers in Wales who hold flocks of sheep classified as rare breed* and able to supply fleece and yarn, and we list some Cambrian Mountains sources on this site. There are several spinning and weaving companies in Wales who are happy to work with quantities of around 25kg and above to produce cloth and yarn on a small scale. Almost by definition, though, supply is at a ‘cottage industry’ level of (albeit beautiful) wool to individuals and small textiles companies. For companies needing wool on a larger scale, obtaining Welsh wool with any traceable provenance is at present almost impossible.
When Suzi Park ran the first incarnation of the Textiles Technology Project (2010 – 2013), her team focused on wool and the Welsh wool market. Amongst their findings was that the lack of a commercial scouring facility in Wales was a factor in the ability of the industry to thrive. Equipment from the last processing plant in Wales of any substance was transported to Cornwall from Merthyr Tydfil in 2004**.
Into this mix must be added the the complexity of the rules governing the operations of the British Wool Marketing Board. The Board was created in 1950, in response to specific needs of the nation in a time of post-war austerity. It became essential to support farmers through a central marketing system. To this day, farmers with flocks of more than 4 adult sheep that are not of a rare breed are obliged to sell their fleece via this marketing system.
As a consequence, the notion of provenance is lost and Welsh wool joins the rest of British wool where it is graded and sold worldwide at mass electronic auctions. Lots are generally sold specified in 8 tonne blocks. The price is determined by supply and demand. Due to the relatively low price of fleece in the past few decades, the value of wool to the farmer is negligible and it’s seen as a by-product to be dealt with rather than as a valuable commodity.
Meanwhile, a wool defined as ‘British wool’ needs only to be 50% farmed in Britain by weight. The rest can legitimately be made up sources of wool worldwide.
So what’s changed?
Thanks to the support of the British Wool Marketing Board and Curtis, one of the handful of authorized buyers of British wool, we are able to entertain our project to ‘buy back’ a little of our Cambrian Mountains Wool. That they are willing to help we minnows explore the idea of buying real Welsh wool in miniscule (to them) quantities with no guarantee of any personal reward is a real privilege and we are extremely grateful for their support.
*Breeds that are exempt from the BWMB sales: Balwen, Boreray, Castlemilk Moorit, Hebridean, Leicester Longwool, Lincoln Longwool, Llanwenog, Manx Loaghtan, Norfolk Horn, North Ronaldsay, Portland, Soay, and Teeswater. Fleece from any breed of sheep can be sold directly to craftspeople, handspinners, and textile makers provided that the wool is to be processed by non-mechanical means. Source: wool directory
**Unfortunately this means that even our really Welsh wool been processed in part outside of Wales, but that is a subject for another time.
This post includes the author’s own views and do not necessarily represent those of the Cambrian Mountains Initiative or the CM Wool Group