Farm diversification: reinventing wool

In 2008 the outlook was bleak for wool producers. Shearing costs far outweighed fleece prices as clip values plummeted to 33p/kg – the lowest average annual price in the past decade. Farmers resorted to burning fleeces to limit their losses.

Three years later, and the picture couldn’t have been more different. Average clip values had quadrupled to a 25-year high of £1.24/kg by 2011 and producers were enjoying a significant increase in returns. Consumers were falling back in love with wool.

“In the past few years there has been a growing trend towards natural, sustainable fibres, which has placed British wool in a favourable position with consumers,” said Tony Oakland-Smith, head of marketing at the British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB).

“There has been an increased demand for wool products right across the spectrum from the innovative to the traditional, vintage appeal.”

We spoke to three entrepreneurs who are leading this revival with their clever, functional and fun uses for wool – proof there’s life in the old fibre yet.

As with most commodity markets, the future is uncertain and the next few auctions between now and the run-up to Christmas will be crucial for sheep farmers.

“In recent months the wool market has slowed down, with lower clearances and reduced prices,” said Mark Powell, chief wool marketing officer at BWMB.

“Traditionally, the autumn months see an improvement in the market, due to a limited global supply of wool at this time. The next few sales will give a better indication of the market situation, enabling us to obtain more accurate projections of payments to producers in 2013.”

Every hand-knitted scarf or jumper is arguably a work of art, certainly to those of us who haven’t mastered a pair of knitting needles. But artist Shauna Richardson has taken the art of working with wool to a whole to new level.

Born in Northern Ireland and raised in Leicestershire, Shauna has made her name on the international art scene with a unique collection of life-size animal sculptures, made from crocheted mohair.

Shauna describes her collection as “taxidermy meets crochet” and her choice of material was no accident.

“Wool is an extremely versatile medium, and one that lends itself perfectly to sculpture,” says Shauna. “It is familiarly seen in crochet, and tradition is something I am playing with in the ‘Crochetdermy’ collection. Wool has also proved ideal to achieve the ‘real’ look I am after. On all levels, really, it’s an ideal fit.”

Shauna uses a very basic crochet stitch to create her masterpieces, changing the direction of the stitch to highlight the anatomy of each individual animal.

Stag head made of wool

“It is very much a freestyle approach,” she explains. “There’s no plan or pattern.”

Shauna uses anything from 200g to 2,000g of wool in any one Crochetdermy piece – a typical amount of mohair would be 1,000g – and sourcing the precise shades she needs is one of the hardest parts of the process.

“It’s always a tortuous, worldwide search,” she says. “The Lionheart project was a bit different, though – for this I was exploring the textile heritage of the East Midlands and it was important I used locally sourced wool. I ended up using 36 miles of Swaledale.”

Lionheart is a culmination of two years’ work, which has seen Shauna single-handedly creating the largest crochet sculpture in the world. Three giant crocheted lions have been housed in a mobile, glass, taxidermy-style case and have been touring the UK throughout 2012, including stints at the Natural History Museum and Chatsworth House.

Despite using age-old techniques on an age-old material, Shauna says her creations sit very happily in the world of modern art.

“The pieces are designed to be highly accessible and they do seem to appeal to people from all walks of life, young and old. Witnessing reactions is always a surprise and a delightful part of the process.”

It turns out that wool art is saleable, too. Shauna takes commissions for one-of-a-kind pieces via her website, and her designs have been bought for collections all over the world.

A novel diversification in Wales is helping farmer-turned-entrepreneur Roger Payne get a better night’s sleep – in more ways than one.

Not only is the rapidly growing enterprise turning over a six-figure sum, easing his once-considerable financial worries, but the all-wool duvet on which his business is based helps him achieve the deep sleep he believes we all need.

Roger, who with his wife Lesley has farmed sheep and cattle at the 60-acre Gilfach Goch, Llanbedr, Gwynedd, for the past 15 years, is something of a diversification expert.

“We started off by relying on the farming and an adventure activities business, then added a small, self-catering holiday enterprise. We had hoped this would replace the adventure business, but the barn conversion cost more than we thought. We needed another idea if we were ever to slow down.”

Baavet duvet

The eureka moment came three years ago. “It was 4 May – a date now fixed in the mind,” says Roger. “I said to Lesley, ‘Why don’t we do something with wool – perhaps we could reinvent the blanket?’ And, after a lot of hard work, that’s exactly what we’ve done.”

Lesley quickly came up with the name – Baavet. Within weeks they were analysing the competition from Down Under, which showed the idea was sound, and began looking to develop the business.

“At the start we hoped we could get a manufacturing company to make the duvets, leaving us to do the marketing and distribution. Thanks to help from the BWMB, Roger and Lesley eventually met David Edge of Whiteford Felt and Fillings, who has a carding mill in Huddersfield. “He helped us develop the product,” says Roger.

The result is the first and only wool duvet production line in the UK, which produces 30m rolls of quilt. This is sent to Roger and Lesley’s industrial unit in Harlech, where it is made into duvets of all shapes and sizes for people and pets.

The wool, currently about 20t a year, is mostly sourced locally from Lleyn sheep and the Rhug Estate at Corwen. The rest is bought through a registered wool merchant. Marketing has been entirely internet-based. “We used our considerable experience from our previous diversifications and my son is also a social media expert, which has helped no end.”

The aim now is to add wholesale and retail outlets, but the show circuit is also taking off. “People need to be informed of the benefits. Unlike polyester or feathers, wool is not an insulator but a natural thermostat – you never get overly hot or cold.

“It is also hypoallergenic, and resistant to dust mites. It promotes the really deep sleep that our body needs to repair itself from the daily stresses and to ward off illness.”

Baavets are providing a premium outlet for locally sourced wool. If the business expands as hoped, it could give a lot more farmers a better night’s sleep, says Roger.

A modern twist on a 300-year-old idea could see many more people opt for what could be the ultimate green send-off – being buried or cremated in a coffin made of wool.

Almost 350 years ago, an Act of Parliament decreed that everyone had to be buried in a woollen shroud to boost support for the English wool industry.

Unfortunately for English flockmasters, the law was repealed in 1814. But family-owned textile firm Hainsworth hopes to rekindle at least some of that demand with its novel Natural Legacy woollen coffins.

Wool coffin

The concept was born after a marketing student, who was employed to look at various products manufactured at the mill, stumbled across the 1667 Act, says company director Adam Hainsworth.

“We championed the idea and the concept of the woollen coffin was brought to the market. We patented the idea and created the Natural Legacy brand, which was launched in August 2009.

“We manufacture from the raw wool to the finished handmade article all on site at our factory in Yorkshire. This includes the preparation of the yarn, weaving, milling and finishing.”

It takes three sheep fleeces to make each coffin, he says. “We have sold about 1,500 coffins in the past calendar year, an average 120 a month. We have an optimistic target to grow our share to at least 1% of the market and see no reason why this cannot happen given the take-up of the product to date.”

In the UK, that target could account for 5,000 coffins. Given that there are estimated to be 10 times that number of eco-burials each year and the figure is growing, it could prove to be a conservative aim.

Sheep farmers will be hoping so. As well as the three fleeces, each full-sized coffin consists of recycled cardboard inners and an organic cotton lining.

“We settled on a blend of Dorset Horn and UK Downs breeds,” says Adam. “This has the microns, fibre lengths and crimps suitable for the felting properties needed for coffins.”

The result is a softer design, which is more comforting for the family and suitable for cremation and burial, he believes. “Our coffins are fully biodegradable and, of course, are made from sustainable, renewable resources.”

Thanks to the combined efforts of Hainsworth and its marketing partner JC Atkinson, one of the UK’s largest coffin makers, Co-operative Funeralcare, now offers woollen coffins, boosting the profile and sales of the Natural Legacy brand.

Hainsworth is now exporting to Australia and New Zealand, potentially strong markets given the countries’ links with wool, says Adam. “We have also sold into Europe and interest is growing.”