As a build-up to the big reveal of my wool, I thought you might like to know a little more about its journey and some of the people who are helping to bring this project to fruition.
The second stage of the Fleeced project happened back in November when me and Mr K joined my Dad and his partner Julia to sort the fleeces ready for delivery to the scourers so they could begin their spinning odyssey.
First job was to securely parcel them all up and get an accurate weight for the bundle. Mr K works in the rigging industry and has a lot of specialist weighing equipment that we were able to use, albeit in a slightly adhoc manner!
Once everything was weighed, it was into the van and off to Dewsbury in West Yorkshire where we would be delivering them to the scourers, Thomas Chadwick & Sons, a company who have been in business since 1864 and one of the few scourers remaining in the UK.
Chadwick’s scour 20 million kilograms of raw fleece every year and nothing prepares you for how much of it will greet you on arrival. The air is heavy with the scent of lanolin and there is bale after bale of raw fleece piled atop one another. The load in our van paled in comparison and it was only at this point it dawned on me what a massive industry wool is.
We were met by the operations manager Matt Andrews, who offered to give us an impromptu tour of the facility – needless to say I jumped at the chance!
Inside the factory building are two long production lines. The raw fleece is dropped into a hopper at one end and gradually makes its way through a series of machines before reappearing clean and dry at the other end. It takes approximately 15 minutes from dirty to clean, dry fleece. Seriously, it’s quite incredible!
Matt explained that the fleece making its way through the scouring line at that particular time was British wool, quite a rarity for them these days as the vast majority of fleeces they work on are imported from China. He also pointed out that the price of Brtish wool has risen three-fold over the past few years and whilst this is great for the farmers, it’s not so ideal for the manufacturers looking to buy fleece as their basic costs have gone up, hence the huge amount of imports. This is a massive discussion and one that I’ll save for another day.
Each bale of fleece has been compacted to make it easy and economical for transport, thus the first stage is to separate each individual bale out, opening the fleeces up so water can penetrate deep into the fibres ensuring a thorough clean. Hand spinners will be familiar with combing raw fleece to prepare it for washing and this machine does exactly the same just on a much larger scale. See how Jane Lithgow processed and spun one of the raw Hebridean fleeces in this post from December.
Once inside, giant rotating ‘claws’ very gently pull the fleeces apart before the conveyer belt begins a steep climb up to the scouring tubs. A small channel with a constantly moving belt runs underneath the separator and catches any bits of plant matter, dirt and dust that fall out as the fleeces are separated. This makes its way to another part of the factory to be recycled—nothing is thrown away at Chadwick’s and it is a truly amazing example of how 100% of a raw product can be used.
On the upper level of the line, the fleeces make their way through three separate scouring tubs, gradually becoming cleaner and cleaner with each successive bath.
I loved these machines! They are so big and cumbersome and yet operate in a very gentle way, gradually pushing the fleece through. It is very very warm up here and takes a while for to become accustomed to the lanolin rising in the steam from the tubs, but at each stage you can see the colour of the fleece getting lighter and cleaner as the dirt is washed away.
Next it’s downhill again and into the biggest tumble dryer I have ever seen! The washed and dried fleeces pop out at the other end and at this stage they are picked over by two people who pull any bits that doen’t look ‘quite right’. This could be fleece with spray dye on from the shepherd markings, or sections with large pieces of plant matter in. Again, these are not thrown away and go into sacks to be sent back to the owner along with their clean fleeces.
The freshly laundered fleece then travels along another conveyor belt into a separate building and whilst travelling around goes through several other clever machines. There’s a metal detector which will locate and pick out bits of wire fencing, staples, clips etcetera, and another section where the last bits of dust are collected from the fleece. It literally falls out of the sky and will go on to be made into natural, bio-degradable slug pellets.
The final stage is for the clean fleece to be compressed back into bales ready for delivery to the client. And that’s it. Job done. And all in less than 30 minutes.
I leave our humble pile of fleeces in the care of Matt and we head home to a fish and chip supper. All of this was done on my birthday and as we clamber back in the van to head home, I tell Mr K that it was the best birthday ever.
A big thank you to all at Thomas Chadwick’s for a truly fascinating visit and for handling my fleeces with great care. The next stage of the wool journey is well under way and I’ll be revealing a few more snippets throughout the week.