Business

Granny skills help revival of wool industry

Women from South London knit socks for men fighting in WWII
Image caption The image of knitting has changed recently, with more young people taking it up

Skills handed down through the generations are playing an integral role in the revival of the UK wool industry.

"There has been a resurgence in hand knitting, which uses a lot of British wool," says Bill Waterhouse, at Bulmer and Lumb, a textile manufacturer in Yorkshire.

"The craft was nearly extinct five years ago, but the recession has turned it around, just as it has in North America and Scandinavia," he says.

Having been in the business for 50 years, he has seen how hand knitting booms in times of recession but struggles when people have a lot of money to spend.

It seems a paradox that people should turn in recessionary times to wool rather than far less expensive synthetic fibres.

But Mr Waterhouse says: "In times of austerity people are looking for things that will last longer. They want to keep warm and they also want to occupy themselves."

Crafted 'with love'

Image caption Some artists have taken knitting way beyond making socks and scarves

The image of thousands of grannies sitting in an armchair, knitting away furiously to save an industry, is perfectly understandable, says Rachael Matthews, who runs Prick Your Finger in Bethnal Green, east London.

"A craft takes years and years to develop so people think of old ladies because they tend to be good at it - not because they are old, but they have had to time to hone their skills," she says.

But Matthews is quick to point out that her shop is also frequented by both younger people and men.

She says: "Most people have jobs where they are part of a machine, but they never see the beginning, the middle and the end and take responsibility for the whole thing.

"With knitting, you start something, sort out the problems and finish it. There is a great sense of achievement."

The walls of her shop are adorned with colourful skeins of wool that she has spun and dyed herself.

"All the wool is sourced in the UK from small farmer producers, and a lot of fibre which would otherwise just get trashed comes from inner city farms," she says.

"My spinning wheel is exactly the same as the traditional spinning wheel you see in fairy tales," she says, but because it is electric, she does not have to use a foot pedal.

She says she spins either when serving customers who talk a lot or when she needs to relax, and she dyes her wool on a gas stove, in an enormous pan normally used for cooking rice, which she bought in Brick Lane.

Talking about the revival in knitting, she says: "The knitted look was very fashionable in the 1980s, then everything went beige and techno in the 1990s. Furthermore, knitting was associated with people who were poor, but now you are not thought weird if you sit on public transport and knit."

But knitting your own clothes is not cheap.

"People will typically pay about £50 for the wool and spend about 40-50 hours knitting a garment," she says. "But they love it and won't throw it away."

Looking East

Image caption Sheep without long woollen coats are less prone to a number of infestations and easier to care for

Mr Waterhouse says the wool industry was at its peak in the 1950s.

"Production is only 30% of what it used to be in the 1960s. Even in Australia there have been huge falls to what it was in the 1980s," says Mr Waterhouse.

About 75% of the Australian wool goes to China and while British wool production is only 10% of what Australia produces, most of it is used in the carpet industry and for hand knitting.

The advent of synthetic fibres such as nylon and polyester was a cruel blow to an industry responsible for the onset of the industrial revolution.

But with the addition of another textile plant in Poland, Bulmer and Lumb managed to survive the downturn and retain its major customer base in the Middle East, the US and Japan.

"The UK wool industry did a lot of work in developing Japan as a market in the 1970s and 1980s and our customers there have remained loyal even in recessionary times," Mr Waterhouse says.

Breeding solutions

But Mr Waterhouse sources his wool from Australia, South Africa and Uruguay, which does little to alleviate the problems faced by sheep farmers in the UK.

It was once common to see 60 breeds of sheep in the UK, bred for different qualities of wool.

But wool accounts for 80% of the cost of shepherding and although the money earned by selling wool was once sufficient to pay for the feed of the sheep, the amount they now receive for wool does not even cover the cost of shearing.

To get around that problem, Iolo Owen cross-bred sheep until he came up with one that sheds its wool naturally, produces more meat, and gives birth to a higher number of lambs.

His Easy Care sheep have become a regular feature on British farms and there is little to suggest farmers will revert to herding wool-producing sheep any time soon.

"We have these heard these stories of a resurgence in the wool trade before," he says. "Russia is buying British wool, then it isn't. China is buying British wool, then it isn't."

Fashion designers use British wool, but the bulk of it is still used for carpets and hand knitting and the return on fleece would have to increase very significantly before sheep are farmed for wool again.

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