A Bradford Adventure I: the BWMB and the North of England Wools Depot

It’s been a long time. I have excuses and reasons, primarily that I began blogging to record my adventures in fibre, but it turned into a way to record walks and hikes and my interest in the history of the British landscape and the people who live in it. Sadly we’ve had fewer walks this year and so I spent my time outdoors enjoying being outdoors rather than documenting the experience. The same with SOAR this year: even if it’s a tiny digital camera lens, it distances the photographer from the experience and I wanted to live in the moment, rather than objectively recording it.

I had such a good day out yesterday that I’ve been inspired to blog about it.  Wearing her Campaign For Wool hat, some months ago Lesley Prior asked for artisan wool-worker volunteers to train as speakers for the Campaign. I volunteered, and on Monday afternoon Alison of Yarnscape and I drove up to Bradford for the British Wool Marketing Board (hereafter BWMB)/Campaign for Wool Artisan Training Day. No photos of the journey, as I was driving and it was dark and I was navigating from memorised info to a place I’ve never been before. The Campanile Hotel on the Euroway Estate was clean and cheap, but I doubt anyone enjoyed the entertainment provided by a brief fire alarm at 0226 on Tuesday morning. Although the rather cheeky letter slipped under the door pointing out that we should be reassured, as it proved the alarm system was working properly made me chuckle. Very briefly.

Conveniently, the Campanile is virtually next door to the BWMB Wool House offices, where by 0930 roughly 13 of us had assembled for a brief coffee in a room displaying some of the best of British wool. OK, 70% of UK wool is used in carpets (and I can now tell you why, in possibly exhausting detail), but the yarns and woven goods were much more immediately interesting to handspinners and weavers. The swatches from Ardanalish Isle of Mull Weavers were lovely enough to make me wonder whether I could wear tweed with aplomb (I’ll probably settle for not looking silly). The BWMB website is full of information (if perhaps less than inviting to casual visitors), but the people are warm and welcoming, funny and absolutely passionate about British wool. We were well-met and well-matched!
Everyone piled into mini-vans and headed for the North of England Wools Depot. We didn’t have time to appreciate the size of the building until we were in it, donning our hi-vis vests. It’s immense. It has to be: 90% of the wool clip arrives between June and September, but it’s held, graded at the rate of 150,000kg/165 US tons per week and released to market gradually throughout the year to ensure the price remains relatively level, which benefits both producers and purchasers in the long term. If my scribbled notes are accurate, the Depot is currently holding 700-800,000kgs of wool (that’s 772-882 US tons), and the same again is stored at Carlisle waiting for grading. To put that in better perspective, total UK wool production in 2010 was 28 million kg, about 31,000 US tons… and that’s about 3% of world production. And THAT is why The Campaign For Wool is an international campaign… but more of that in another post.

The white mattress-like things at left are ‘sheets’ full of ungraded wool. The BWMB supply the sheets, producers fill them for collection or deliver them to intermediate centres, which compact them for efficient transport before the BWMB trucks bring them to the depot for grading. The orange plastic bales each contain c. 400kg of graded wool… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Above, an overview of the grading area. To the right is a sheet of fleece hanging above the table on which the grader (chap in the white shirt) is working.

The grading area in more detail. You can see the frames holding individual wool sheets, the tables and the graders working. It takes 5 years to train as a grader: they grab a fleece, classify it by breed, assess it according to the grades for that breed (the grades vary from breed to breed), then throw it into the appropriate skep (bin), all in a lot less than 30 seconds/fleece. It’s important to note that they’re not looking for the same things as a handspinner, because industrial wool producers aren’t handspinners. Fineness, presence or absence of coloured fibres and kemp, dirt content (dirty fleece is termed ‘arable’ and worth much less than clean because it loses so much weight in processing) are much more significant than breed, for example. Skeps of graded fleece are weighed on the floor scale visible behind our guide, Chris, then wheeled into the queues for the bale compactors. Fearsome beasts these, and unsurprisingly noisy.

With apologies for the disembodied heads… Chris is very proud indeed of their new double compactor, which is faster and more efficient than the old single compactor. You may just be able to see that full skeps are being tipped onto a conveyor belt feeding them into a vertical shaft; when the shaft is full, a ram compresses the shaft-full to about 1/3 height, a relatively small package…

(This is a freshly-compacted bale on the single compactor), the plastic wrappers are pulled down, and wire links used to tie the bale. Then the ram rises and the fleeces exhibit the famous springiness of English wool as they try to rise to their original bulk! They’re then stacked with others of their grade.

Note the circular hole visible in some bales. This is the sign that they’ve been sampled:

This machine takes core samples (you can see a scatter of circular patches on the floor) from bales to assess uniformity of fibre quality, dirt content, grease content, and here my notes are indecipherable due to cramp – it’s a long, long time since I took notes by hand like this! The bales are stored here until they’re sold at auction, and can be held free of charge for up to four weeks after purchase; longer storage is chargeable. Over 70% of the wool goes overseas for processing and manufacture; currently demand is high in China, 15 container-loads per week, which is why wool prices are rising. Which is why the amount of wool produced each year in the UK is rising: good news after decades of decline. This year they’re expecting 29 million kgs and, if demand continues at this level, they hope for >30 million kgs in the near future.

Along with facts and figures we had time for many other questions. For example, they don’t have any problem with moth, probably because it’s too cold and the wool is passing through relatively quickly. The bales sit longer, but they are largely protected by plastic and are so dense that moth larvae could make little impact anywhere but the surface. In case you’re wondering, they’re very pleased with the quality of the finish of their new concrete floor, but by the end of the processing season the lanolin leaves it as slippery as a dance floor, so they have to have it thoroughly cleaned for safety reasons. The graders no longer succumb to Wool Sorters’ Disease aka anthrax, and a detailed medical study shows they’re in no danger from pesticides used on fleece.

To finish, here’s a poor photo of a North of England Wools truck.

 Although it’s clearly promoting British Wool, the trucks are not always loaded with fleece – for maximum efficiency, they take haulage contracts for other goods when travelling to the depots to collect fleece. So when you see one of these trucks it might be full of tiles, but they’re still advertising British Wool. I like that.

Stay tuned for Part II, the delightful Martin Curtis and his Haworth Scouring Company!


4 thoughts on “A Bradford Adventure I: the BWMB and the North of England Wools Depot

  1. Caroline M

    I shall wait with baited breath. Don't let it be months, the suspense might kill me.

    The only thing I write long hand these days is a shopping list, my note-taking days are long in the past so I suspect that I'd cramp up very quickly.


  2. Sara

    Fun! Wish I could get my hands on that carpet wool, although for undying cuteness, I am considering becoming a dedicated Herdwick slut.

    Await more to come :D! But no pressure, rest that tired hand :)


  3. Freyalyn

    Fascinating, and only just down the road from me! Thank you for such an informative and educational, and INTERESTING post, and for taking the time to make all the notes and photos. I really appreciate it.



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