The companies innovating with British wool
Wool market turmoil on the back of the pandemic led to plummeting prices, with British Wool announcing prices down almost half on last year and a significant volume left unsold.
Faced with the costs of haulage and handling, many farmers instead decided to dispose of the wool by composting and burning it.
But some companies were doing innovative things to utilise wool and help build up the industry again in the UK.
Searching for an alternative to poly boxes to help farmers add value by selling produce directly had led to the creation of WoolCool insulated packaging.
Founder Angela Morris had been working as a consultant with the National Trust in the wake of the foot and mouth crisis to find a sustainable alternative to poly boxes for its farmers.
After coming across wool as building insulation, she had come up with a pioneering solution of using wool to keep meat cool in transit.
Managing director Josie Morris said: “She tested her solution against the poly boxes and in every test wool outperformed them.”
After returning to the day job, she received an increasing amount of enquiries and decided to set up WoolCool which is now used by many farmers sending out meat and other fresh produce. And they were also now growing in the pharmaceutical industry.
“Obviously in the pharmaceutical world they send chilled items and it also works for anything which needs to be temperature controlled,” she said.
The company used a substantial amount of British wool but also sourced some from Europe.
“We are using quite a lot of British wool,” she said.
“It is about continuity of supply. We have a second source if there was an issue. All of it is washed and scoured in the UK.”
However, she said they had looked to use more British wool in the past few months to try and help build demand.
“We have created a new market for the wool through our innovation.”
She added as a relatively new company WoolCool had been able to question the way things were done and she wanted to continue to do so to create a better supply chain for the whole industry.
“We are pushing and asking a lot of questions which have never been asked before. The industry is evolving in the background. We have to work within the supply chain to drive change,” she said.
She believed there were opportunities where wool could be utilised much better where wool would be the ‘right material for the job’ such as in insulation and more widely in fashion.
Ms Morris also called on farmers to communicate with them and others in the supply chain with new ideas.
“We are open to calls if anyone has any bright ideas. The best way to make improvements is to get everyone around the table.”
Displacing imported jute in garden twine was providing support for the Whiteface Dartmoor breed and rebuilding markets for wool could boost other native breed sheep.
Twool was now being stocked in 140 national garden centres after 10 years of hard work by founder Kim Stead.
Product provenance was important to Ms Stead, based in Dartmoor, but she said many people had paid little attention to what their twine was made of, which was mainly jute from Bangladesh.
She said it had taken concerns about the impact of plastic hitting the headlines for the product to take off, with the company also producing dog leads and had previously supplied shopping bags to Waitrose.
She said: “Garden twine is really where my heart is,” and she added one garden centre chain was now looking at exclusively selling her woollen twine.
She said they worked with a wool collector and paid ‘at least six times’ what the wool board was offering.
“It is not about squeezing every last penny. I want everybody in that chain to work like that. I do not want to sell it at £1.15 and find it on the shelf at £5.”
She added the farmers she spoke to were looking to add value and sell direct to manufacturers and there were ‘innovators’ out there.
And supporting markets for British wool could provide a boost for the UK’s native breed sheep.
Christopher Price, chief executive officer, at the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) believed there was value for commercial farmers in native breeds providing both meat and wool.
“The best way to conserve any of our native breeds is to recognise they were bred to meet a certain human need,” he said, adding supporting these markets would help preserve the breeds.
Mr Price believed with the industry facing massive change in agricultural support, the industry was going to have to focus more on niche, premium markets rather than global commodities.
“Farmers are going to have to be doing it differently,” he said.
“We need to be selling on provenance and tradition. That is going to be the way forward.
Chimney draft excluder manufacturer Chimney Sheep was cutting out the middleman and dealing directly with farmers to source Herdwick wool.
This year, the company will be collecting approximately 22 tonnes of wool. This equates to the wool from just over 20,000 sheep, 20 per cent of the Herdwick population.
Sally Phillips had previously been sourcing from British Wool but after coming across a way to moth treat their product which could only be done in Austria, moved to sourcing raw material directly three years ago.
She said she can usually pay a better price and she enjoyed having a direct line to farmers.
She added farmers seemed to prefer to work directly too, particularly with her sorting out transport as haulage to British Wool was an issue.
She said: “Especially for a business like mine that needs a particular type of wool it works for us. We can buy some of the smaller quantities.”
Ms Phillips said she had always been interested in saving energy and looking after the environment. And she came up with a ‘simple idea’ to solve heat loss from chimneys with a natural insulator in wool.
With the product being seasonal, Ms Phillips then branched out into other eco-products.
“Maybe wool has an old-fashioned image,” she said, but she believed designers and architects could use it in many modern ways.