Welsh wool: How a once thriving industry could provide a monumental opportunity for Wales
Meg Pirie, stylist and slow-fashion advocate
If you asked someone in Wales what was the main industry associated with the country throughout its history, they might well answer coal, or perhaps even iron or slate.
But for nearly two thousand years before the industrial revolution, Wales was known primarily for its wool, which was shipped throughout the world.
Today, that industry is at its lowest ebb, and the Covid pandemic could be a fatal blow.
When the global markets closed due to Covid last year, they did so just as the wool industry was primed for its busiest couple of months.
Instead, wool prices were affected globally and auction prices fell from around £1 per kilo pre-Covid to just 50p.
This meant that by the time farmers paid shearers, packaged the fleeces and paid for delivery costs, there was little to no financial incentive — which saw fleeces either composted or burned.
The majority of farmers in the UK sell their wool through British Wool and owing to its unique business structure, which was set up by the government in the 1950’s, were unable to claim any Covid-related financial support.
As farmers have a health and safety obligation to shear their sheep, these unrealistic prices coupled with a lack of governmental support have crippled many.
The Covid pandemic itself arrived on the back of a sharp decline in demand for Welsh wool in the last five years. In less than a century, 217 mills across Wales have dwindled to just eight.
This has meant copious job losses and a concern for local communities’ economic, social and environmental resilience moving forward.
Rural mills like these have been working with local farming communities for centuries and if not protected, pose an undeniable risk to the loss of knowledge and artisan skills deeply woven through these close-knit communities.
With the focus firmly on sustainability at present, it feels particularly poignant that Welsh wool is put on the map by the government. Currently, the most widely used fabrics globally are cotton and synthetic fibres which use high levels of water and compound the microplastics issue prevalent in the fashion industry today.
Wool is both renewable and biodegradable; thermo-regulating and antibacterial and offers far higher performance and environmental credentials. It is also easy to repair and care for, adding to its longevity. In addition to fashion and textiles, its unique structure makes it perfect for bedding, carpets and insulation and is frequently used in the hospitality sector.
Agricultural Advisor, Dr Nerys Llewelyn Jones, has witnessed the decline and feels the key to transformational change within the sector comes down to urgent funding from the government.
“The cost of wool is comparable to the price 30 years ago, which makes no financial sense for farmers and continues to impact the sector,” she says. Nerys wants to see Wales processing wool in Wales, which would produce more jobs and retain and develop important skills.
“This would take advantage of and add value to a sustainable product right on our doorstep,” she adds.
“One of the key policy drivers within the Welsh government is the ‘Wellbeing of Future Generations Act’ and sustainability is a big part of that … this needs a governmental and industry-wide holistic approach to make the most of this fantastic product.”
With Brexit reshaping Wales’ agricultural industries, this feels like a monumental opportunity for the Welsh economy. And although the Welsh Government has already pledged to use Welsh wool to insulate public buildings, this feels secondary to the impact a locally-sourced and processed sustainable fibre could have within the UK’s thriving fashion industry.
The current pricing model feels particularly archaic and the government should look at re-shaping this to allow for a fair price for farmers as an urgent step. The resilience of an agricultural country like Wales depends on it.
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This is a most welcome article. Thank you Meg Pirie. It would be wonderful to expand this to examine the role of the historic small scale mixed stock hill farms which sustained the vibrant wool industry in Wales in the past. The CAP and neo-liberalist pressures from supermarkets and other retailers have completely broken the family farm in Wales. Wales produces extremely high quality agricultural outputs and these are mostly processed via multinational “sausage factory” type processors which are only interested in quantity, not quality. It is time for the Welsh government to help the farming community to completely reboot… Read more »
And superior Welsh (lamb) meals, ready to sell in special shops over the border, etc.
Value added, up-market, the way to go?
Odd isn’t that the Welsh Government employs a lot of marketing “experts” either directly or as contractors yet they rush off with unseemly haste when the big supermarkets summon them to discuss the next round of homogenised products. Big government likes talking to big corporates, they speak the same jargonised lingo, and don’t have to live with the consequences.
Thanks so much for your insight Hilton. I will certainly look into this and completely agree with you that the government needs to commit to sustaining this important sector.
I wonder how many new homes in Wales(built in the last 15 years) have woollen insulation?
first time I’ve heard a monopoly described as a “unique business structure”,
Dolgellau has the whole tapestry of the woollen industry in its buildings and rivers just crying out to be made internationally famous. A walk up the Aran is a journey back in the history of the water powered woollen industry and is absolutely fascinating. A working museum is a realistic proposition for consideration together with the history in the area of gold mining and Quakerism. Quiet Dol has so much history to offer, not least its resilience to the influence of London and Empire…rather like the rocks that part the fast flowing Aran, it is almost unchanged. Just one small… Read more »
Before we view the past too much with rose tinted spectacles, at the time Wales was renowned for its wool cloth production it was also renowned for having the worst rates of poverty in the whole of the UK. Much of the cloth being produced was slave cloth. It was the cheapest cloth on the market and was shipped to America and used to cloth slaves working the cotton plantations. There’s an exhibition in Newtown Textile Museum if you want to find out more. Conditions in a Newtown, centre of the flannel making industry, and described as the Leeds of… Read more »
Even the moon has a dark side, but seriously you are absolutely right, the poverty was terrible. If one wants to learn the full story read J. Geraint Jenkins’ The Welsh Woollen Industry. My positive spin (excuse the pun) on Dol was for our tomorrows. The circumstances of those who were dressed in this course cloth often were indeed terrible as were the laws that governed poor people in general. The beautiful estuary down which the textiles and human beings were transported remains silent on the matter, since the passing of that giant of local maritime history Lewis Lloyd. Barmouth… Read more »
Hi Katie. Thanks for the feedback and you raise some really valid points. I completely agree with your comments around the sector being chronically underfunded. With the right governmental support it would be wonderful to see finer grade products taken up by the UK’s thriving fashion industry for example.