Photo by Martin Schmidli
In 2018 there were over 33 million sheep in the UK. Sadly that number has dropped dramatically, and in 2023 the figure is thought to be around 14.5 million, with about 7 million breeding ewes. The average raw wool fleece now costs an average of 34p/kilo, a slight increase on previous years but still often less than the cost to shear the sheep. The low prices can be crippling for farmers.
Wool seems to have fallen out of favour over the past 40 years with the common use of synthetic fibres in yarn and fabrics, and in fashion. Personally, I think that’s a huge shame. It doesn’t make sense to me to wear something synthetic, essentially a plastic derived from petrochemicals, when wool could be so plentiful. Agreed, some wool is coarse and not suitable for yarn and fabrics worn next to the skin, but there are British Breed wools that are soft and cosy. There is probably a use for all types of wool (yarn quality or otherwise) rather than it go to waste. For example, wool can be used to insulate homes, in packaging, in bricks to add strength, and as mulch.
Sadly, the costs of using this natural, sustainable, fire retardant material in the main stream is often prohibitive despite the very low cost of the raw materials.
British Wool yarns
As a knitter, I have used beautiful British yarns, and also tried some that turned out to be less nice. My top British wool breed yarns are:
Cotswold sheep wool is strong, and creamy coloured, ideal for socks, gloves and outer jumpers.
Ryland wool has a short ‘staple’ which makes it resilient and stretchy. It holds stitch definition well and doesn’t felt so it’s ideal for Aran cabled patterns.
Jacob sheep wool is quite springy and comes in several colours meaning it can be blended into a palette of lovely natural hues, or twisted into a tweedy yarn.
What can I do?
Think about British wool when buying yarn for your next project. British wool may have the Wool Mark which assures you of it’s quality. Ask the supplier if this type of yarn is suitable for your project. It will probably be more expensive but see it as an investment. Your hand knitted wool item will last years longer than an acrylic shop bought alternative, so for £/wear it can be great value in the long term.
When you visit yarn shows, chat to the wool producers; spinners, weavers, dyers etc and find more about their specific products. Most will be more than happy to chat!
See if there are any local wool producers in your area, or an area you are visiting and whether you can go along and meet them, browse their shop etc. All producers value your custom, even a small purchase helps.