A shetland sheep, ready for shearing
We work directly with the farmers, we always have. Starting back in 1999 with wool from our own flock, we grew by forging relationships with farmers like Jane, Helen, Dai and Liz. Their care for the sheep that grow our wool is second to none. By working this way, we’re able to collect the fleece directly from each farm every summer after shearing and chat with the shepherds, meet the flocks, and see the conditions in which they live.
A glimpse at Haworth Scouring, where wool bubbles through the baths
Once the fibre arrives back with us, each and every fleece is hand graded by Sally, a meticulous process that can only be achieved with years of skill and dedication. Through grading and sorting, we work out the basis by which to pay each farmer, ensuring the quality meets our standards. We can also split up each breed by colour, fineness and length too, which will form the basis of the blends we create further down the line.
Once graded, the fleece is tightly packed into bales ready for storage and transport up to Yorkshire. Arriving at Haworth Scouring is a barrage of sounds, sights and smells - the wall of woolly steam hits me every time I open the door. There, I’ll call in for a chat with David the managing director about our batch, getting help from Andy in the office with the paperwork - after all, traceability of each and every batch is crucial. Their knowledge and expertise is second to none, and the transparency they showed as we started moving into bigger scale processing has always held a special place for us, when David took an entire day to show us every aspect of the scouring process, answered all our questions and took us through each stage step by step. As the wool leaves the scouring plant, it’s spotlessly clean and once again baled up ready for the next steps.
State of the art machinery combing the fibre for worsted preparation
For fibre destined for worsted spinning, it heads upstairs to the combing department at Haworth. What Simon doesn’t know about combing isn’t worth knowing. In fact, our new carder Chapman is named after Simon, as he originally helped John Arbon salvage and rebuild this old workhorse. The combing room is a flurry of noise and activity, and like all things at Haworth the scale is breathtaking, processing more fibre in matter of hours than we’d manage in a year. The process of carding, gilling and combing that happens here aligns the wool fibre and removes the shortest fibres and vegetable matter, known as noil.
Inside Laxtons, where worsted spinning happens (photo credit: Laxtons Ltd)
Continuing on the worsted process, the worsted tops head up the road to Laxtons, one of the country’s finest worsted spinners. There, Andrea and James will help us work through blends, carefully testing, sampling and improving each and every option. Laxtons are amongst the newest GOTS certified processors in the UK, and we’ve worked with them since their very first organic batch. Our Beacons, Preseli and Snowdonia ranges all leave Laxtons wound as a single ply on big cones, undyed and ready for the dyeworks.
A 19th century spinning mule at New Lanark
If the fibre is destined for woollen processing, it heads straight from scouring up north, to New Lanark in the heart of Scotland. Whenever I turn up with a trailer load of bales, Stewart and the team help me wrestle each one off - they don’t have a forklift there, and each bale could weigh 350kg, so it’s very much a team effort. Using their sensational 19th century spinning mule, the rhythmic whirr and clatter of the carriage drawing the fibre and spinning it echoes around the historic mill. Mules aren’t used by many mills these days, as they take up more space and aren’t as fast as a modern ring frame, but New Lanark keep theirs around as it’s famed for producing an even, repeatable yarn.
I’ll only briefly touch on the magic of dyeing, as we’ll dive into that properly tomorrow.
We'll also dive in to the art of finishing a yarn, with twisting, winding, rinsing and noddling still to come.