The remarkable story of wool

When I moved to New Zealand with my family and decided I wanted to design a woollen throw and start my own business, it was quite an intuitive decision. As you grow older in life, you find yourself more and more relying on your instincts, I suppose. My knowledge on wool was quite limited, I just knew I loved the material and always had a fascination for this white gold. So while still waiting for the ship container with our belongings, living in a temporary housing solution with someone else’s furniture, I started my research. When I say research, I do not mean just behind my laptop at night, when my kids were finally asleep, but also out in the field, meeting people in Hawke’s Bay who were involved in wool one way or another. It was an adventure, taking me into the heart of the wool industry. 

The wool brokers

Wool brokers are the ones who buy the wool from the farmers, determine the quality, segment various types and qualities and auction it to the respective buyers. I visited PGG Wrightson in Pandora, as so it happens we were staying in an apartment opposite their premises. Cedric, one of the senior experts there, showed me around and taught me how you can test the quality of wool. He would roll plucks of unwashed wool between his fingers, or hold it between both thumbs and index fingers and pull, and the ease with which the wool would give helped him determine what category it belonged to. 

White, whiter, whitest…

Then there is colour that plays a role in determining the value of the wool. Wool that was shorn from the top and sides of the sheep usually is whiter and has less dirt than the bottom parts around the belly. During the scouring process most of the dirt is washed out of the wool, but some colour variation will always remain. The whiter, cleaner parts can be used for any wool project whereas the darker bits will usually require dyeing. 

Just a trim?

Per sheer, around 5 kg of wool comes of one sheep, depending on the breed, the size and the regularity of sheering. Some farmers sheer their sheep once a year, often this happens around springtime, but farmers have their own schedules and will most likely try to sheer the ewes (the female sheep) before lambing. An adult sheep can handle a frost quite well, even if shorn, whereas lambs do not have the same resilience and protective coat yet. Other farmers sheer their sheep twice, or even three times a year. This happens in a specifically designed shearing shed, where they can sheer up to 3,000 sheep per day having a good team of shearers. 

Most sheep are shorn using special blade shears, so the wool is cut manually. There are machine shears as well, power driven ones, but these are typically not used by professional shearers. Not only do shearers often operate in places where there is no access to electricity, the heat and weight of the motors is too bothersome for the shearer working a full workday. 

Nothing wasted

After the wool has been shorn off and sorted, it needs to be washed at a special scouring facility. Here, the wool is fed through huge, rolling washing ‘lanes’ where an ecological soap solution washes out the dirt. The water is pumped back up to be reused and the lanolin (grease) that comes off the wool is caught separately as this is often an ingredient for crèmes and cosmetic products. It is an amazingly efficient and environmentally friendly process to watch.

After the wool has been cleaned, it is packed in wool bales. Powerful compressing equipment (wool press) pushes large quantities of wool into this square cubicle. One bale of wool holds approximately 330 kg of wool and has the ideal measurements for transport or shipping (although I would not try and lift them myself). This compressing and packing into a bale is often done by the wool scourer, but also by other parties in the wool process.

Twist to the plot…

After washing and packing the wool, the bales will usually go to the respective spinners to make the yarn of the desired quality. There are still those who spin wool the old-fashioned way using the old spinning wheel, but most commercial spinning is done with highly sophisticated equipment, and in all honesty, the refined outcome they can achieve is just not something you could achieve manually. Nevertheless, spinning has a rich history in it’s own right. During my research period I got my hands on several books on wool and the wool process, one of which was ‘Yarn works – How to spin, dye and knit your own yarn’ by W.J.Johnson. A wonderful quote I wrote down in my notebook: 

“Gandhi saw the rich culture of Indian fibre spinning as a means to celebrate the peasant class and bring India away from British industrial oppression. He also spun every evening for its rhythm, music, poetry, romance and spiritual solace.”

I just loved the notion that Gandhi found spinning a spiritually binding activity and more people have made similar references about their hobby spinning. There is something truly captivating about this bundle of fluffy wool that is gradually being twisted into a fine yarn. Speaking of fine yarns – there is a huge range of possible finishes when it comes to woollen yarns. Not only determined by the type and grade of wool used, but also the actual spinning process can be split up into two main categories: woollen spun versus worsted spun. Woollen spinning usually requires a shorter wool fibre and this is then carded (opened up) before spinning. The end result of this wool yarn is a fluffier one. The second option for spinning wool is through worsted spinning. Worsted spinning means a longer wool fibre is needed and these are then combed in one direction, to align the fibres. The worsted spun yarn has a smoother, finer result. A yarn is spun, so literally twisted, to maintain its shape. The WPI (Wraps per Inch) or TPI (Twists per Inch) are other characteristics of any yarn, as are the plies used (the amount of strands twisted). 

New friendships

After spinning, the wool yarns can be brought to a knitter or weaver to create the desired finished product. The limited edition merino woollen blankets that the Artful Sheep creates, are hand-designed, then this design is woven into the throw using the finest merino yarn. After all my research I found a weaver who could create the type of designs I wanted to create, leaving the surface silky and smooth to the touch and maximising the impact of the designs. For a year, I met with wool scourers, spinners, weavers and otherwise wool-affiliated people in New Zealand (some became quite close friends) before I launched the Artful Sheep. It has lead to a unique, exclusive product, made right here in New Zealand. 

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