Wednesday, 30 March 2016

A Visit to the British Wool Marketing Board - Part 1

An introduction to the day.
A few weeks ago I was invited to go on a Wool Processing Tour at the British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB) depot and Head Office at Bradford.  It was an opportunity I jumped at due to having mixed feelings about the board.  There were many things I wanted to get a better understanding of and answers to.  Over in our BritYarn Ravelry group we also had lots a great discussion in the run up to me going.  Many of your questions and thoughts reflected mine.  

Before I went I grouped these thoughts and questions together into themes.  I will take each one in turn in separate blogs posts over the next few weeks.  A big thank you to each and everyone of you for your input.  

This post is a summary of the day at the BWMB.   I am not sure how many parts there will be as there was a lot to take in and I want to be able to share with you as much as possible.

The day was roughly split into two. The first part around the BWMB and the work that they do.  The second, after lunch, was a visit to Haworth Scouring (owned by Curtis Wool Direct).

On the tour were people from lots of different backgrounds.  There were yarny people like myself, a journalist from BBC Radio York, two farmers and the carpet industry was also represented.  I thought this was really good as it gave different points of view and knowledge. 

After introductions around the table, Gareth Jones BWMB Producer Communications Manager gave a presentation on the work of the board including its history, lots of statistical information about the global wool market and the work the BWMB undertakes today.  Again a lot of information was talked about here which warrants a blog post of its own.  

Some thought provoking stats like British wool (by this they mean greasy wool straight from the sheep) only accounts for 2% of wool produced on the global market and globally 2.1 million tons of greasy wool is produced per annum got me thinking. Globally British wool is a very small player in the wool industry and while our sheep breeds are very special, merchants could easily survive without us.  For me, this makes it even more vital that we all do everything we can to buy British and support the British wool industry.

Gareth also explained that the BWMB is a farmers cooperative and receives no financial support from the government.  It is fully funded by the producers (the farmers whose fleece they process and sell).  The BWMB takes 1p ker kilo off the farmer to provide an end to end service (collection to selling at auction).

At the end of Gareth's presentation he explained how merchants buy wool at auction.  We then went into a live auction which was like no auction I have ever seen,  the auctions are all digital.  All bids are placed by just click of the mouse button.  It is all really, really fast!  While we were not allowed to take any photos inside the auction room for privacy reasons this little video clip shows the screen the merchants see at their desks in the auction room.  

Grading and sorting

After this we were taken to where the fleeces are graded, sorted, packed and stored.   Again this warrants a more in-depth blog post on this.

The set up at Bradford is mirrored across the 11 national depots although the Bradford depot is the largest.   Every single fleece in the country that comes into a depot is hand graded.  This was something I didn't appreciate before my visit.  The grading and sorting is undertaken by a skilled Wool Grader who has undertaken a 5 year apprenticeship.  It takes a grader around 5 - 6 seconds to grade each fleece.  

We were shown where the fleeces enter the BWMB from either sub depots or farmer drop offs.  The fleeces are packed in sheets (big white bags similar to what you might use to store things under your bed but a lot bigger).  A sheet is emptied out to a table, graded and then sorted into the blue containers (skeps) you can see in the photo.  It is after this point that they are no longer farm specific but grade (and sometimes breed specific).  Once sufficient skeps of the same grade (8) have been gathered they are then compressed into green bales.  Everything here is uniformed by size to maximise storage in the warehouses.  The green bales are auctioned in roughly 8000 - 9000kg lots! Like I said getting your head around the sheer volumes was really hard.

The BWMB part of the day was rounded off by a talk from Tim Booth BWMB Marketing Manager.  It is at this point I had to keep reminding myself that the carpet industry dominate the British Wool industry (55% of British wool goes into the making of carpets).  So a lot of the marketing around British wool is influenced by this.   

I hope that this first post has helped share some of what I saw and learnt during my tour.  Look out for more posts about my day over the coming weeks.



  1. How fascinating - I shall greatlly look forward to the rest of your posts on this. (The Marketing Board is twenty minutes away from us, I really ought to visit one day)

    1. Hoping to get part two written this week, there was just so much to take in it is hard to know where to start!