Mountains of fleece bales fill the British Wool depot in Bradford, and it’s hard to conceive how long it would take to grade each by hand. For the TOAST Autumn Winter collection, undyed wool sorted at the hub has been used to create a menswear and womenswear sweater. Sean Crannigan, owner of TOAST supplier Knoll Yarns in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, has bought the wool directly from British Wool, and sends it to be spun nearby at Lightowlers in Huddersfield. After being spun, the yarn is sent to Scottish knitters Harley, to be knitted into shapes created by TOAST designers, making the finished sweaters entirely UK-made.
“Each grader will get through six tonnes of wool a day, 3,000 fleeces,” says Ian Brooksbank, who manages the operation at British Wool and has been working there since 1990. “We're just not sorting the wool by breed, we also grade by the characteristics that the buyer wants,” he explains. There are over 100 different grades, which are split into six main categories of wool – “fine, medium, cross, lustre, hill and mountain.”
Ian runs his hands through a range of fleeces with different lengths and fineness on the sorting table. “This is all from one farmer,” he says. By grading the fleeces they ensure that the farmer receives the best price for the quality of each – British Wool is owned by approximately 35,000 sheep farmers in the UK, and all profits are returned to them. Some of the sorting trolleys that have cracked over the years have been repaired with twists of wool yarn, creating unexpected zigzag patterns and highlighting the versatility of the material. Each scrap of wool is reused – the sweepings from the floor will be used for products where variation in wool micron, colour and length will not matter, such as insulation.
A chalk board with a three digit number hangs above each blue sorting trolley. Each number corresponds to a specific grade, with the first digit relating to the six main categories, and the additional digits narrowing down the specifics of the quality within those. “Once the main category has been decided, there are other qualities to consider that will greatly affect the end use,” Ian says. “One thing is these grey fibres running through the wool,” he says, “which will affect how it will dye. Another is this matting of the fibres, which means it would have to go through another process. It doesn’t affect the quality of the fibre, but it affects the uniformity.”
Each grader trains for three to five years, learning beside an experienced member of the team before they start working by themselves. “My job as head grader is to keep everyone’s opinions as matched as we possibly can,” says Ian. “We want to get the best possible price for each farmer, but we also need to make sure that the customer is receiving a consistent product, and that comes from a consistent grading line.”
Lying in the picturesque Holme Valley, the next stop on our visit is family-run spinners Lightowlers, based in Meltham, a village five miles from the centre of Huddersfield. Michael Lightowlers welcomes us to the mill building, which dates from 1866. The company was established in 1960 by Michael’s father, Richard Morley, and Richard’s brother Frederick William (known as Teddy). “They were carding engineers,” says Michael. “A few mills were closing down at that time, so they decided to take it over.” He runs the business alongside second and third generation family members Mark and Peter – Adam, from the fourth generation, also plays a role in the business.
At Lightowlers, the wool is blended, carded, spun into yarn, then wound. The factory uses traditional mule spinning, a technique invented in the late 18th century which sped up production. “These machines have certainly been out of production for 40 years,” Michael says. “This one’s from the 1950s, and the manufacturer stopped making them in the ’60s.” When needed, the machines are repaired in-house, using spare parts or locally produced replacements. Michael takes a strand of yarn, securing it to the floor with his foot, spins it between his expert hands, then pulls it to show the strength. “You can see how the fibres come together, making a robust yarn.”
Words by Alice Simkins Vyce.
Photographs by India Hobson.