The quality of native breed wool from indigenous sheep is determined by the conditions under which it grew. Climate (temperature and rainfall), diet and habitat all play a part.
Exmoor Horn sheep have lived on the uplands of SW England for at least 2,000 years. Although now a minority breed, they are commercial and in times gone by were the mainstay of the Exmoor economy.
Native breed wool uses
Their weather-shedding fleece was made into upholstery fabric and blankets. Also baize for billiard tables (because it felts well), and more recently, carpets. Being at the finer end of the hill wool spectrum, the Exmoor Horn Sheep Breeders’ Society thought that its qualities were under-appreciated. They felt that more could be done to highlight its virtues, hence the move into manufacturing.
Exmoor Horn wool undergoes several important processes during its transformation from fleece into robust, hard-wearing knitting wool: shearing, scouring, spinning and dyeing.
Native breed wool in history
In the UK, the wool industry is a very old one. The wealth of many abbeys was based on wool. In the late mediaeval era, there was a rise of merchants trading in the export of wool to the near continent. The increased wealth gave rise to the foundation of prosperous towns with magnificent churches.
Exeter, for example, has the oldest surviving ship canal in England. Built in the fifteenth century so that cargoes could be loaded there rather than at Topsham. By the early eighteenth century Exeter’s prosperity, due to its proximity to spinners and weavers throughout Devon, and its cloth finishing works on Exe Island, meant that cloth could easily be loaded at Exeter Quay for export to France, Spain, Holland and Portugal.
With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, technical advances meant that large-scale industrial premises (mills) housing the new machinery could speed the production of everyday items such as blankets.
Native breed wool declines
Increasing mechanisation displaced the cottage industries of spinning and weaving causing social unrest. Then the coming dominance of north of England mills, plus the effects of the Napoleonic Wars, lead to the decline of Exeter’s cloth trade. The heyday of the wool industry, centred primarily around West Yorkshire, was in the nineteenth century. Solid, substantial, beautiful industrial buildings from that era are now, sadly, empty. Abandoned and in need of a new purpose.
The expansion of manufacturing in other areas of the world and the invention of synthetic fibres have all contributed to the decline of traditional wool processing capacity in Britain. It is now cheaper to send wool all the way to China and back for scouring than it is to have it done here.
Modern practice and Native breed wool
This situation presented Exmoor Horn Wool with a dilemma. From an ethical point of view, we decided that we should support our indigenous industries. As we expect our customers to support us and our indigenous sheep.
All processing, apart from shearing obviously, could have been done abroad far more cheaply. We chose to use what remains of the expertise and immense knowledge in the British wool industry. So our fleeces were scoured in Bradford, have been spun in Devon and Yorkshire. They are dyed in Scotland and Yorkshire, knitted into socks in Leicestershire and Scotland. Finally knitted into pullovers in Nottinghamshire and Somerset.
The journey of our native breed wool
Exmoor Horn wool starts its journey to 4mm knitting needles on the back of an Exmoor Horn sheep at shearing time in the summer of each year. From May onwards, with the exception of show sheep, or the minority which are winter-shorn at housing, sheep are shorn (effectively, shaved) and relieved of their fleece which might typically weigh 3 kilogrammes. When all the fleeces from an Exmoor flock have been collected together, they are taken to our local British Wool grading depot. This is at South Molton in Devon, at the southern edge of greater Exmoor. This depot is one of 12 grading depots and around 15 intermediate depots around the UK. The nearest others being Liskeard in Cornwall or Ashford in Kent.
When the Wool Board was established in 1950, the original depot was at Wheddon Cross. It later moved to South Molton where access is easier.
Native breed wool grades
Every shorn fleece is graded individually by trained operators who serve a five year apprenticeship. Grading is by breed type rather than specific breed. So an Exmoor Horn fleece may be in the hill sheep range at 674 (no. 1) or 676 (no. 2). Or it may fall into another classification if it is of superior or inferior quality. This depends on conformity to type, colour, staple strength / length etc.
Native breed wool production quantities
In 2014, production of 674 was around 27 tonnes, and that of 676 about 18 tonnes. After packing into bales of the same grade, the bales (around a third of a tonne each), are grouped into 8 tonne lots. They are core sampled, warehoused and logged for electronic auction. The core sample is independently analysed. The details on grade, colour, micron count, and vegetable matter content attached to the lot. So buyers know the quality and properties of what they are bidding for.
We buy back our own wool
Thus the combined output of Exmoor Horn sheep farmers went through the British Wool Board system. The Exmoor Horn Wool Project bought back a tonne of 674. At this point, the wool was still “in the grease”. This is part of the national clip of 30,000 tonnes a year across 93 different grades (plus 6 of lambswool). Arising from 60 distinct breeds and innumerable crosses of sheep.
Before conversion into knitting wool, whether it be DK handknit, 4ply or any other type of yarn, this fleece has to undergo some processing, viz. scouring, spinning and dyeing, the first of which is scouring. Weaving is not currently undertaken by the Exmoor Horn Wool Company, but has a long history.