Thursday, 27 January 2011

Woolly thinking...

With my pending employment situation I was thinking of becoming a wool merchant.

I remember a school trip down to the wool yard by St. Mary’s Church. All of us (Mrs. Mathews’ class) were crocodile marched the mile or so from John Hampden so that we could take a look at the huge asbestos sheeted barns full to the brim with fluffy wool bales. The merchant himself was a fat, jolly, chap who drove a Bentley and lived in a huge stone house that was built in the sixteenth century.

Farmers from all over the county sold their wool to him. This was the wool that would go to the mills to be spun into yarn for our mum’s to knit our grey school jumpers. This was the wool that would make the sailor’s thick warm socks as they caught the cod for our cheap fish and chip suppers on a Friday night. This was the wool that made the tea cosies that my Gran popped over her teapot to keep her tea (leaves not bags) warm as she waited an hour or so for it to brew properly.

It was the early sixties and wool was still the valuable commodity it’d been for thousands of years and always would be. Everything was made from wool – cardigans, carpets, coats, slippers, caps, balaclavas, cushion covers, rugs, blankets - my dad even had woollen swimming trunks.

Yes, wool was valuable – but then someone invented synthetic fibre and in a single year (1966) the wool price dropped by 40% and has continued to drop ever since.

I hear that wool is worthless these days. My farmer friend keeps Jacob sheep and their wool is only worth a penny per kilo. On average a single sheep produces three kilos of wool per shearing, so it costs him more in electricity to shear his sheep than he makes on the wool; and of course that’s not including the time and the effort it takes. Hardly worth wrestling the sheep to the ground so that he can shear the wool away from the skin.

So wool is cheap.

So why is it so expensive?

I heard on Gardener’s Question Time this weekend that sheep’s wool pellets are being sold as slug repellent - it works apparently. The slugs don’t die, but the wool irritates the little slime bags as they move across its surface and they go elsewhere. You need a lot of pellets do a few pots, and at £10.95 for a three and a half litre tub it’s an expensive way to be slug free.

Sheep’s wool makes great loft insulation, but at £110 for twelve square metres it’s nearly eight times as expensive as man-made fibre.

You need ten balls of wool to make a medium size sweater and Merino wool costs £4.95 for a fifty gram ball, so it’ll only cost you around £50 to knit one.

Wool is cheap.

Something isn’t adding up.

Hand knitted school jumpers, cheap fish suppers, tea pots, asbestos, the wool trade – all gone or going, overtaken by change and new technologies, or too expensive and too much of a risk.

I know how that feels.

Perhaps I won’t become a wool merchant after all.


  1. It's quite frightening how an industry or skill or profession which once was thriving can can simply diappear. But sadly that has always been since the industrial revolution I guess. The key I believe is acceptance and the ability to let go of the familiar and embrace the unknown. The best of luck with this.

  2. Della Jayne Roberts commented on Facebook:

    Della wrote "Mum knitted me a woolen bikini ... and we went to visit the wool yard .... these days I love Llamas (Alpacas). I have a small knitted one - there are whole shops selling things made from their wool, books, toys .... it's endless. And their are fields of them everywhere ... they are put in with sheep to protect them from foxes etc. Little sis :O)"