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May 27, 2022 4 min read

The behemoths of the wool industry, who collect, sort and sell over 80% of UK wool. We visited them in Newtown at their second biggest depot to see the process and chat to Andrew Hogley, CEO of British Wool.

On an unseasonably rainy May morning, Sally, Andy and I packed up the car and headed some fifty miles north of the farm to visit British Wool in Newtown. Most of the depots hold an open day at least once a year, and if you ever get the opportunity, it’s well worth a visit for any fibre lover.

Whilst we don’t buy the wool for any of our yarns through British Wool, we’ve worked with them for years in sourcing wool for commission production and consultation clients, and they’re definitely the “big players” in wool sales in Britain.

The first thing that always strikes me about any visit to these sorts of places is quite simply the scale of them. Handling between 4 and 5 million kilograms of wool every year, the Newtown depot is the second biggest in the British Wool network.

Two British Wool graders handle white wool fleece at Newtown Depot

Grading at British Wool is a highly skilled process, and requires a five year apprenticeship to qualify. Each grader will handle hundreds of thousands of fleeces each season, and separate them into one of around 120 individual grades.

A bucket full of wooden pegs, used for closing wool sheets
A stack of British Wool sheets in the foreground, with the vast expanse of the Newtown British Wool depot in the background

Each of the incoming wool sheets (sacks) is pinned closed with these delightful wooden pegs. I’ve heard that there’s only one remaining maker of these in Wales, so the skill of making them may die out - let’s hope not! The sheets weigh around 60kg when full, and arrive all through the season - the summer months get extremely busy in the intake shed!

Wool fleece piles high in a full skep, or tub used to store wool before baling at British Wool

The grader empties the shorn fleeces out of these sheets onto the grading table. Each fleece is individually handled, and then after a few quick seconds of checking, they’ll throw the rolled up fleece into one of the skeps (tubs) that surround their grading table, each one a different and distinct grade.

These skeps sit patiently in rows until there are 8-10 of a particular grade before being pressed into bales weighing around 350kg. British Wool’s new traceability scheme will mean that every skep gets a unique QR code, and every bale will be traceable from the farms that grow the wool through to the packed bale.

A large bale press using for pressing wool into bales of 350kg or more at British Wool Newtown

These behemoth presses squeeze the wool tightly into bales, each of a particular type and grade. These giants were fairly quiet today, but at full capacity they’re non stop all day every day to process the 4-5 million kg each year.

A British Wool bale sits on the core sampling machine ready for testing

Once packed and labelled, the bales head over to the core sampler. This clever machine pierces each bale and sucks out a small sample for testing. These core samples are sealed and sent up to the Wool Testing Authority in Caernarfon, a wool laboratory that tests each lot for fibre diameter, yield, colour, brightness and vegetable matter.

The wool store at British Wool, Newtown showing rows of wool bales stacked high

Finally, the bales are stacked high in the storage shed. Right now, the shed is about as empty as it ever is, as British Wool have just completed the 2021 season, and 2022 wool is just starting to filter in from the early shear farms.

A tuft of Welsh Mountain wool, graded and ready for pressing into bales

Whilst in Newtown, I also got the chance to catch up with Andrew Hogley, CEO of British Wool. Andrew took over as CEO last year, having been with British Wool for around 5 years, right in the middle of one of the trickiest times in British Wool’s long history, with global wool prices in a monumental slump - even in the context of decades of low prices.

British Wool is facing a change in the industry, catering more and more to smaller independent producers alongside the enormous wool broker groups that dominate the buying and selling.

“Over the last few years we’ve worked hard to make British wool accessible to a wider range of customers. Our two largest customers are the owners of the UK scouring plants but we now also have a good range of smaller buyers accessing British Wool through the auction. This helps our members to get a better price.”

-Andrew Hogley, British Wool CEO

Andrew gave some insight into the new traceability scheme, which will allow each bale to be traced back to the individual farms that grew the wool using an innovative system of QR codes for total tracking of every fibre!

“The traceability scheme will enable buyers to source wool that can be traced back to individual farms within our member network, adding a premium to their price, and providing more provenance to the finished goods”

-Andrew Hogley, British Wool CEO

It was also great to hear positive news coming from British Wool as we as an industry adjust to the hangover of lockdowns and travel restrictions - wool prices are steadily on the rise, with some lots (including organic!) providing significant premiums back to members. A large part of this has been due to building a strategy around elevating the British Wool brand, and acknowledging the historic strength of our sheep and wool industries.

“British Wool has the highest animal welfare standards of any wool on the market today – our members farm to the highest standards”

-Andrew Hogley, British Wool CEO

We always love getting out into the wool world - what would you like to see next?

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