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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!