The British wool industry is making a comeback, thanks in part to the efforts of top design houses such as Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith.
Wool is back. A sustainable, renewable and eco-friendly fabric, spun wool has become the coveted textile of choice for fashion designers around the world, and has swamped the London, Milan, Paris and New York Fashion weeks with knitwear so finely manufactured it resembles silk.Good news for the UK, as it is British-manufactured wool that is most in demand, thanks to the efforts of a select few design houses to raise the status of the nation’s product as part of the Campaign for Wool. Fronted by the Prince of Wales and supported by the likes of Dame Vivienne Westwood, Burberry, Sir Paul Smith, Topshop and an assortment of fine British suit makers, the campaign has created a global community of sheep farmers, retailers, designers, manufacturers and consumers aiming to highlight the versatility of the wool in fashion, furnishings and everyday life.
“As a fashion designer I’ve had a very close relationship with wool,” says Westwood, founder and owner of her own world-famous couture fashion house. “Wool is incredibly versatile. What I delighted in was how it had been used for all the uniforms for the British Empire. I treat it as a joke now, and parody it if I ever refer to it. Every kind of cloth was woven for a purpose, to be useful in certain situations where a uniform was necessary, for example hunting foxes, going to the North Pole, opening Parliament, going to school. I have used wool a lot in my designs.”
Westwood’s preference for the fibre meant that when she began as a fashion designer over 30 years ago, she succeeded in reintroducing into fashion the idea of fine knitwear, in direct contrast to the outdated concept that wool was an inflexible and redundant textile in high fashion.
“I was supposed to be producing for a very important knitwear company in Italy, so I said, we’ve got to start off with this fine knitwear. But they didn’t even have the machinery and the Italian lady was astonished and she said to me, “Well, why do you want fine knitwear when you can have thick knitwear?” She just didn’t understand the point. I did find an English company to do this, though. Everybody loves this fine knitwear. It’s so light, so comfortable.”
This difficulty in sourcing a European manufacturer of fine wool was the perfect catalyst for the regeneration of the wool manufacturing industry in Saltaire in Yorkshire, famous for its part in the UK’s wool manufacturing heyday.
Giving up on the East
Laxtons, based near Saltaire, is one such mill to reap the benefits of this revival. Recently, the reluctant decision was made by fifth-generation family member James Laxton to close the factory due to waning demand for its niche-finish product, worsted wool. The bespoke manufacturing plant could not compete on price with manufacturing outfits based in Asia, with their low labour costs and larger output levels, so the company instead turned its attention to finding an Asian provider to manufacture its niche product to a high standard. That aim was never achieved, and Laxton recently opted to reopen the plant.
“Fortunately, the likes of China don’t have the level of expertise in a niche market that we can offer here in Britain, so I reopened the factory during probably the biggest recession to be seen in my lifetime,” says Laxton, “I looked to the Middle East for dual-role machines that could perform two types of spinning at once. In the end I found a machine builder in Italy that could produce one type of finish, and the process could be interchanged to adapt as the fashions changed. It was very important to me to keep the traditional aspect of worsted spinning alive while exploring new automation technology.”
Does he think the fickle nature of the fashion business is what shapes the industrial side of the sector, or do the limitations in manufacturing the fabrics shape and influence what designers can do, rather that what they want to do?
“I think it’s a bit of both,” says Laxton. “I think new technological innovation is driven by consumer request, but that there is limitation to their design, dependent on what we are able to produce.”
Peter Ackroyd of Woolmark is equally enthusiastic about the fabric’s successful comeback. Woolmark, an organisation primarily promoting the use of the wool of Australian Merino sheep - a breed that provides much of the raw material for British-manufactured wool - earlier this year sponsored an experimental student-led wool design project called Yorkshire Wool Archives, with the support of fashion house Burberry. The project aimed to rethink and rework classic wool designer pieces using new manufacturing techniques and textile technologies, including metallic wool and an innovative fabric with the appearance of silk but the durability of wool.
He believes that the market preference for quick, cheap wool products, such as that exported from the textile factories of China, is beginning to wane due to a readjusting of consumer conscience.
“People want to know that the wool products they buy are locally manufactured, sustainable and biodegradable,” says Ackroyd. “They want to know where their wool has come from and that the quality is unsurpassable; these are not things that can always be verified in other regional markets.”
Ackroyd cites this consumer conscience as one of the biggest drivers of increased demand for British manufactured wool, leading to a significant rise in the British manufacturing market this year alone.
One of Woolmark’s most prominent campaigns is the promotion of wool as a flexible and innovative material, in an effort to steer the fabric away from its dated image of cardigans and cable-knit jumpers. The organisation promotes a wool-based innovation called Cool Wool; a line of high-performance sportswear manufactured from wool. Often associated with impermeable, warmer garments, Woolmark is using Cool Wool as a tool to demonstrate how wool can be used in unusual applications such as cooling sportswear, simply by being manufactured differently.
The light merino fabric wicks away excess sweat during exercise and does not absorb the smell of stale sweat like many of its synthetic counterparts. This, coupled with its ability to keep the athlete both warm and cool, makes this breathable fibre perfect for outdoor pursuits such as mountain climbing.
Abraham Moon is another plant enjoying the boom of the wool revival, although they have enjoyed continuous manufacturing output since their conception in 1837. Abraham Moon’s wool mills, also based in the Saltaire area, have been manufacturing wool and fabric for the likes of Burberry, Paul Smith, Dolce & Gabanna and Ralph Lauren for over 175 years. The factory has seen the revolution of wool manufacturing rise and fall over the last century, with most of its hand-operated looms replaced by automated versions - a trend that the majority of sectors in the manufacturing industry have yielded to.
The wool manufacturing process
Wool manufacturing is a complex process, and has percolated through years of tradition strengthened by emerging technologies.
Raw wool arrives at the mill from a variety of different sources depending on the grade and finish of the final garment; the soil and climate of a country largely determines the type of sheep and wool quality produced. Finer wools used in fine knitwear and jersey-like fabrics tend to be sourced from Merino sheep in Australia. A medium-weight wool produced mostly by crossbreeds is used predominantly in knitting wool, more hard-wearing clothing and fine furnishings.
Those coarse breeds found in the highlands of Scotland and mountainous regions of England produce the wool that is most appropriate for tweed suits and carpets. As part of a recent British Wool campaign manufacturers have been experimenting with this wool to create fabrics that are suitable for fashion clothing, creating a product that is locally sourced as well as being organic, biodegrade and sustainable.
The raw material then goes through a process called ‘top making’, which prepares the wool prior to spinning. The top maker blends various farm lots to meet specifications from particular clients before the ‘greasy’ or unprepared wool is cleaned > < using a variety of automated procedures. First it is scoured to remove salt, dirt and grease, and then a carding process removes the vegetable matter from the wool. A three-stage operation called ‘gilling’ then follows, which aligns the wool fibres before they are combed to remove tangles and shorter fibres.
The prepared wool can then be spun into yarn, twisted and drawn together to create a long yarn. This can be carried out in a variety of ways, including doubling up the strength by folding in two fibres. Worsted yarns tend to have a smooth finish that is often used in tailored wool suits. Woollen spinning by contrast creates a bulkier yarn used in thick woollen knit garments.
When the yarn has been spun, the plain wool is loaded onto huge reels for dyeing. Bespoke colours are achieved by selecting block colours and blending them together in a vast blending room. Dyeing can damage wool, and much research is been done into how to protect the wool during this process. For example researchers are experimenting with temperature and the length of time during dyeing, and which chemicals can effectively block the damaging reactions. Automation has been a key to the growth of wool manufacturing, and is used frequently in yarn dyeing, with some plants fully automating the dyeing process.
The final part of manufacture is a process to stop shrinking and improve the overall handle of the yarn; intensive washing and steaming is reserved for the bulkier woollen yarns whereas worsted wool is only lightly steamed to give it a softer finish.
The finished wool is then ready to be knitted together. Warp knitting, full fashioned, versatile flat knitting and circular knitting tend to be the most popular depending on the type of garment to be manufactured. Weaving, using automated looms with accompanying control systems, is a process linking warp and weft yarns together for strength. Different patterns can be manipulated in the fabric depending on the position of the weft and warp.
The final stage is called making up, where the woven pattern is pieced and sewn together to create a garment. This stage must avoid distortions in the fabric including spirality, unwanted surface fibres and surface wrinkling. The sustainable, biodegrade and pure organic garment is then inspected autonomously via a vision-inspection system.
For Westwood and her allies, the benefits of using wool are becoming more apparent as the public preference for the fabric snowballs.
“In these days when we are threatened by encroaching climate change, which may be unstoppable unless we do something about it quickly, wool is a very sustainable fabric,” says Westwood. “I do believe that because it is such a luxury fabric that its status will increase. People will not want man-made fibres anymore and luxury will be seen in the great traditional, natural, fibres.” *