Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Bradford Adventure part II: the Haworth Scouring and Combing Company

At the end of the Depot tour we handed back the hi-viz vests, piled into the vans and headed at some speed (we were running late) for the Haworth Scouring Plant, itself once a cashmere processing plant, passing other disused cashmere processing plants and discussing the sad, rapid decline of the industrial north. We parked outside a nondescript building, with odd scraps of fleece on the ground suggesting there was wool-processing nearby. A gate opened to reveal even more fleece on the ground:
We walked between bales of UK fleece in orange wrappers, Irish fleece in yellow wrappers, fleece from the Mediterranean in sacking and from Norway in white plastic (fleece from overseas is certified free of disease before importation), all waiting for imminent processing. LOTS of fleece in the queue to be processed and a warehouse full of bales waiting their place in the queue. And this shows why The Campaign for Wool is an international campaign: many countries produce wool and many produce much more than the UK does. Even if a purely British campaign managed to increase the price paid for wool in Britain, the UK market would be flooded by wool from elsewhere. And, after all, most of the UK clip does go into carpets, not garments sold on the high street. So The Campaign for Wool is working to increase the profile of all wool, to publicise the value of all wool everywhere because (as someone said at Bradford) "A rising tide floats all boats": raise the price everywhere and producers everywhere will benefit. Anyway, back to the tour. All the wool outside will come here:

Strapping and wrapping is removed from the bale and it's fed to the Big Green Machine on the left, which begins the process of opening the fleeces for processing. Cotted fleece (a separate grade at the Depot) goes first to the machine on the right, known as the Piranha, to be ripped open more... forcefully. The ducting from the Piranha feeds into the Green Machine, and from there all the fleece is blown through into the next room.

From this point my photos cannot do justice to the plant, let alone Martin's enthusiasm as he showed us through it! Everything is just Too Big. There are two processing lines; the huge bins to each side of us as we walk into the works contain fleece being further opened as it moves toward the washing line. If you click for bigger on the photo above, you can see a set of steps; we climbed those and then a second set to get to the point where fleece emerges ready for washing. Now, in addition to the noise and the smell of industrial quantities of wet fleece (not as pleasant as my one fleece in my kitchen), we encounter steam and heat, which is why the camera lens is fogging. My camera does have a hard life, poor thing
Here the fleece is about to be fed into the first 'bowl,' as the washing containers are called. It's a misleading name, they're actually huge tanks. Water temperature and other aspects of the line are computer-controlled so that different types of fleece can be handled with varying degrees of delicacy. The first bowl is the hottest, running without detergent at 70°C at the time of our visit, which combined with my camera temperature to yield only wonderful pictures of lens fog.
Above is one of the bowls a little further down the line (there are 8 in total); the line is moving from right to left. To give you some idea of scale, I'd guess the roller pressing excess moisture out of the fleece is 5–6' wide. We peered into the inspection hatch and saw a mechanism that looked much like rows of wide-spaced fingers propelling the fleece through the water. I didn't think to ask how much water the plant uses, but I did ask if they had difficulties meeting environmental quality regulations, and was told no, that Haworth has its own in-house water quality laboratory, bought lock, stock, barrel and specialist when another firm went under (we saw the lab later in the main building). Also, as later became clear, the dirt in the water is in fact money, so they want it out: there's truth in the saying "Where there's muck there's brass."

Here Martin is holding a handful of clean fleece. And it is clean: Haworth takes residual fatty matter down to 0.2–0.3% by weight, whereas some fleece processed in China is at 4%.

And then the driers. This perhaps gives the best idea of the length of the processing lines (there's Tim Booth of the BWMB standing at the end of the washing area, taking a photo of me taking a photo).

After the driers, a visual inspection to remove anything untoward, followed by magnets to remove anything metallic that might damage the processing equipment.

Now this was rather cool. Or rather warm, in fact. Haworth takes as much care as the BWMB to ensure uniformity in its bales. Here the dried fleece is blown in horizontal layers to fill a container roughly the size of a semi-trailer. Once it's full they unload it from the front in vertical layers, blowing it to their own baling setup:

They're very proud of their washing plant: these bales, which look just as clean as any other fleece we saw at this stage, are in fact sweepings off the road we walked down.
And here's part of the store of clean fleece ready for further processing. The gold bales on the left are fleece from the best of British, which they hope to promote for the Olympics; the blue is their 'ordinary' and the unwrapped bales go straight to their own processing plant across the yard. So we walked across the yard

where we had a fine view of the set-up to reclaim lanolin and other waste products from the wash water. The lanolin is shipped out in those black ex-orange juice barrels for a variety of purposes. The soil/muck is used in soil reclamation projects, as it's rich in plant nutrients.

Are you bored yet? We weren't. We were excited!

To the left you can just see part of the machine that opens the bales of washed fleece and anything else - tag ends of roving and so forth - ready for the drum carders. Those BIG green things on the right are industrial drum carders. Didn't look like much at this end, but
LOOK! spinning fibre! There was a swirl of excited laughter and everyone who spins tried to take meaningful pictures. Basically the sheet of fibre (it's at least 6' wide) is fed off the last drum and laid down into the big white bin. I couldn't count the big bins of fibre visible in this space, and I was so overwhelmed I forgot to even try to take a picture of them. Basically it's a giant space full of fibre like this:

Some of the roving is fed into combing machines, like this one:
And the end result is fed into even more big bins, then weighed out into 10kg bumps.

And here's the thing. Each of those bumps will cost you £4.50 - if you buy 10,000kg or more. That's not a lot of money, really, for what they are. I look at that bump and imagine sheep cared for by farmers across the world, sheared and graded by a diversity of shearers, passed from hand to truck to be shipped to the UK and ... here it is for us to admire and manufacturers to purchase: wool. It's a wonder-ful fibre. Wear it with pride!

And finally, yet more fibre. Upstairs, above the offices, past the lab, we found a room of wool.
It's the home of the Real Shetland Company! British breed fibres! Yarn! I wish we could have stayed longer... I didn't really need to eat lunch.

If you enjoyed this, Lesley's blog here gives an overview of our Big Day Out with some of the facts and figures I can't read in my notes...

And now a different but related plea. You may have read about Wovember, the campaign to celebrate the fact that real wool comes from real sheep. If not, please take the time to read that link, and Kate's 'woolly thinking' blog posts about how sloppy or actively misleading advertising may mean people buy not-wool when they thought they were buying wool. Take care to read the labels on garments you're thinking of buying and, if you feel bold, mention your concerns to someone in the shop. Hand on heart, I have sworn to do this myself.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

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!