Understanding processing of British wool


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Friday 7th August 2015

The British Wool Marketing Board is a not-for-profit farmers’ cooperative organisation started in 1950 and governed by Act of Parliament. Any sheep farmer can register and may have any number of sheep (when set up the minimum was four sheep, nowadays there is no minimum).  The Board arranges the grading and sale of wool on behalf of farmers to the worldwide market.


untitled-13-18Bales of wool as they arrive from the farm or smaller depot, waiting to be sorted in the arrival area of the depot


The 1905 London Colonial Wool Sales Auction – many famous local names represented there – two Gaunts from Sunny Bank Mills, a Hainsworth, these are families that are still in the business. I didn’t have time to read all of them!

The Bradford Branch of the WSD Guild visited the Bradford Depot to find out what the Board does today. Our host was Tim Booth. There are some 200 employees in total across the country; there are some additional seasonal work for peak collection time over the summer. Tim is part of the small Marketing Team. The main focus of the UK arm of the Campaign for Wool focuses on interior uses for wool ie carpets, and furnishing fabrics. The Australian arm focuses on fashion/clothing.


There are 11 grading depots nationwide and many more intermediate depots for farmers to drop off fleeces. The Shetland Islands are not part of the scheme, but Shetland wool from the mainland of the British Isles is processed through BWMB. The Bradford depot comprises a modern office area with auction room, meeting room and processing warehouse.

Flocks in the UK are typically of 350 sheep with different breeds represented on the same farm. A farmer with a flock of this size can expect 800kg of fleece. Many flocks are much smaller. Only 5% of British wool come from large commercial farms. The average price for a fleece is about £1.50/kg, but a Herdwick fleece may only give 20p/kg because of the quality of the wool and the dark colour which is not useful for many market purposes and may be used just for insulation. A top quality fleece may yield £5-6/kg, for finest quality white wool, but a saleable quantity of the same quality of fleece is needed to make the wool commercially viable, hence the Board exists to get the best value for farmers from the wool submitted by combining fleeces to make commercial lots and ensuring year round supply; summer shearing could mean that the market is flooded at certain times of the year so part of its role is to ensure that the market has a steady supply through the year. untitled-17-14
Wool arrives at the Bradford depot from the farm or a distribution depot, into the open delivery area of the warehouse.

During the first stage of grading all farms’ fleeces are identified so that payment can be made according to the number and quality of the fleeces that come in. This means 15 million fleeces are individually handled and graded. After initial grading the farmer’s graded fleeces are recorded so that payment can be made later. After this point there is no traceability because fleeces are combined by grade and not by farm or breed.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the visit was understanding more of the grading process.

Graders not only have the softest hands because they handle every fleece that comes into the facility but are also highly skilled, completing a 5 year apprenticeship which ensures they are able to distinguish 156 grades of wool. They will each grade 5.5 million kg/year. Colour, breed, quality of fleece, staple length, cleanliness; all are factors which will influence the grade. They can also tell the condition of the sheep from the fleece; a ewe under stress from lambing may have some weakness in the middle of the staple.  Similarly, the staple can be affected by illness or changes in the weather conditions. Graders quickly evaluate the quality of fleece and then put them into skeps which are numbered.


Neil explains grading


The lower the number the better the grade of wool


A second year staple, showing where the fleece was cut last year

A first year fleece (shearling) – with uncut points at the end of the staples


A low grade upland fleece – despite its hairy characteristic which means it will not take up dye well it will be suitable for beige or neutral carpets

Filled skeps are taken to the baling area. When 8 skeps of the same grade are ready, they are baled.



The baling machine compresses the fleeces into copper bound bales weighing 400kg.


The next phase is for the bale to be lab tested. A machine draws a test core from each bale and yield, micron value, colour are all assessed. Colour is graded using Red,(X) Green (Y), and Blue (Z). A desirable white wool will have a high Y figure and a low Y minus Z figure. (I think I’ve got that right, but happy to be corrected!)

Once the lab test results are back, the bale can be included in an auction lot, which will usually be of 24 bales. So, any one got room for 9600kg of fleece? The BWMB used to have capacity to sell in smaller lots but as they have limited staffing resources and that was an uneconomic part of the business they no longer offer that service. British wool will typically yield 68-70% from the fleece.

Trying out bidding for some bales….

Auctions are therefore held for merchants who can purchase and then ship their bales to the scouring mill – the nearest is 2 miles away. The other UK scouring mill is in Dewsbury. The Bradford mill has a capacity of 1 million kg/WEEK, Dewsbury can process 750,000kg/week. Bradford produces 30 million kg/YEAR of raw fleeces for processing. Merchants may pay 35p/kg for scouring because of the quantities they are able to put through the mill.
Currently, 30% of production is sold in the grease to China who process it for their high end home market.
Qualities of British wool? High quality and high yield. The good news is that the demand for wool has improved; farmers may not be aware of the value of their fleeces. Some think it’s not worth processing them, but registrations have increased this year so that is a good sign. Advice for any farmers you know? Trim your fleeces to eliminate Vegetable Matter (VM) and that will improve the grade of your fleece.

This was such an interesting visit and we’ve been offered the opportunity of seeing a scouring mill when they’re back from holiday and it can be arranged. Should be more fun to come!


Festival Shawl

A couple of people asked for this pattern so here it is!  It’s a quick knit and good use of a decorative yarn…. http://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/festival-shawl-5


The wool I used is Blue Faced Leicester and it was dyed in two stages.  First I kettle dyed the yarn in lemon yellow then hand painted the colours over the top.  I made 300g only in this colour way but I can make similar colour blends.  Please ask if you would like some, or if you’d just like the shawl I can make that too.  It’s currently available in Fabrication Crafts in Leeds City Centre.

Bassanio cowl

Steve was The Merchant in a production of The Merchant of Venice a few of years ago for Theatre of the Dales and the actors all looked amazing in the super costumes produced by the Scarborough College of Art (they’re probably called East Yorks College of Art and Design?)as part of their final year theatre design work.

Tudor inspiration

Tudor inspiration

I thought of these designs with their wonderful textures and Tudor opulence when I came across this lovely Aran design


And so I made this neck warmer/cowl and that’s why it’s got this name!  You can download the pattern from my Ravelry page:








Coreopsis, indigo and onion skin on Merino wool

Coreopsis and indigo on Merino wool and onion skin on chunky bouclé wool

Okay, so I’ve slipped into the internet black hole lately; too much Ravelry, Facebook and Craftsy.  I have been dyeing though and making.  Lots of hats, some fingerless mittens and …..


I tried a couple of these for the shop and they flew away quickly, so I made some more.  Sewing all the pieces together takes longer than the knitting.  There are 13 different bits in the assembly.  Miss Mouse’s wings sometimes got quite large, and her tutu has been different colours.  Hand dyed wool for the tutu of course!  They were on sale for £15.  When I put a couple on display with a conical knitted ‘tree’ a few trees sold as well.  One went abroad as a lightweight version of the seasonal conifer for someone on holiday. Next, comes Valentines Day so I’m trying something on the same mousy theme but a different design.  I might try a couple of designs out.


What do you think?

Logo – go!



So here is the logo I’ve chosen for my products.

Yorkshire – it’s a beautiful place and some of the dyestuffs are  from here.

To dye for – for non English speakers: it’s an expression that means it’s so lovely you could die. Often said about delicious food.  A bit like ‘See Rome and die’.  And I’m dyeing for Yorkshire and beyond!

Heritage Dyeing Project


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The Armley Mills (Industrial) Museum in Leeds is the home of Benjamin Gott’s former wool textile mill.  Founded in the late 18th Century, Gott became the owner around 1812 (ish) and all processing of wool fibres was taking place on this site together with his other mill.  We know that dyeing and weaving of pieces of wool took place there but the exact date when dyeing started is still to be confirmed.  However, we do know that Leeds in the early 19th century was the home of the wool trade and there were dozens of mills along the river in an astonishingly short stretch.

hand painted signs by community gardeners

hand painted signs by community gardeners

The Assistant Curator at the museum has wanted to diversify the Museum from a home to the industrial machinery, for which it is justifiably well known, so that other aspects of the Industrial Age’s influences are acknowledged and to encourage a wider audience for the resources available there.  One of the areas for research is the dye house.  A research project last year established that dyeing did take place on this site and now a group of us are developing our knowledge of the Mill and its history to find out what was dyed and produced there.

Coreopsis flowers produce yellow dye

Coreopsis flowers produce yellow dye

Some years ago, a group of spinners set up a regular meeting in the museum and started a dye garden planting typical plants that our forefathers would have used and although it is unlikely that the garden planted then would have been used for anything other than the workers’ benefit, a community project has developed this year and we now have some lovely examples of traditional dye plants growing in this little green corner.  Some of the lovely spinning and garments they make are on sale in the Museum.

Madder - one of the earliest dye plants

Madder – one of the oldest traditional dye plants

Last week the BBC came to film for a series of programmes about gardens around the UK that are used by communities for different purposes.  They stayed all day and filmed both the gardening and a dyeing session with Debbie Tomkies of DT Crafts and Design.  We demonstrated dyeing with flowers, leaves and roots.  Coreopsis, woad and madder.

BBC film crew with Biela the coordinator from the Hyde Park Source community group

BBC film crew with Biela the coordinator from the Hyde Park Source community group

Result - pink blue and yellow

Here are our results on the improvised washing line!  Pink – madder, blue – woad and yellow from Coreopsis flowers.




Summer time and the dyeing is…..


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Coreopsis, indigo and onion skin on Merino wool

Coreopsis, indigo and onion skin on Merino wool

How do you choose colours for a project?  I’ve become more and more interested in colour and I decided to use this space to note down the things I know and new things I find out about colour and dyeing.

The woolly skeins in the picture are from a couple of dyeing sessions earlier this summer.  I collected onion skins at the supermarket and after soaking for a couple of days in a bucket of water, I had enough dye for miles of yarn.  It provided a rich nutty, warm ginger colour and the dyeing was easy.

Coreopsis flowers provided the apricot colour.  The flowers came from the Armley Mills Industrial Museum dye garden.  I had about 20 flower heads and after soaking for a couple of days and heating gently with the wool the flowers gave up a lovely yellow colour.  I dyed a full hank of 100g of wool and a piece of white silk, which I took out and then  used an alkali modifier to change the pH of the dye bath which resulted in the lovely apricot shade.

Ah, and the indigo.  Hours of fun dipping yarn in the smelly vat of greeny yellow and then watching the magic as the blue develops when you pull it out.  The colour develops like a photograph in the dark room.  It can keep developing in colour for several days.

Am I starting in the middle of the story?  Of course.