In a remote southwest corner of the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides, shaggy black sheep graze on amber-coloured hills. Ardalanish farm and the Isle of Mull Weavers use the wool of these native Hebridean sheep to make their distinctive tweeds. The colours of the island’s wools are natural, ranging from charcoal and chocolate brown to fawn, grey and even cream. More recently the weavers have been using natural plant dyes such as woad and madder to add a hint of colour to these earthy shades. The result is a range of warm and sustainable products that are as modern in design as they are ancient in conception.
It’s an approach that is helping Britain’s wool industry make a comeback. Wool took a back seat to man-made fibres such as rayon in the 1970s and 1980s, but designers are again embracing the fabric. Brands ranging from Paul Smith and Matthew Williamson have sent high-end woollen couture pieces down fashion week runways – and now the material is finding its way back into our homes.
Wool House, an exhibition opening at London’s Somerset House on March 13, illustrates the number of designers working with the fabric and the innovative thinking around its use. The exhibition includes work ranging from Donna Wilson’s knits and Shauna Richardson’s “crochetdermy” – life-size, crocheted animals set in traditional taxidermy poses – to interiors by designers Kit Kemp, Ashley Hicks, Josephine Ryan and Mary Fox Linton.
Although many industries have struggled to recover since the 2008 financial crisis, the wool industry is prospering. According to the British Wool Marketing Board, growing demand for the product has seen prices for British wool increase from £23 a metre in 2007 to £45 in 2011/2012. Wool exports are increasing, too, as demand for high quality natural fabrics grows across Europe, China and other parts of Asia. Almost 70 per cent of the wool textiles manufactured in the UK are now sold overseas, compared with 50 per cent 30 years ago.
“Wool is extremely popular with our customers,” says Caitlin Price, a buyer at John Lewis. “Consumers are looking for high-quality, British-made goods that are environmentally sound and responsibly sourced and they are increasingly concerned about the provenance of the products they’re purchasing.”
It’s a theme echoed by Samantha Allan, co-founder of the Shop Floor Project, an online interiors boutique. “We’ve seen a huge rise in the sales of wool products in the past 18 months,” she says. “Our hand-woven pieces are quite expensive but people are happy to pay extra for heirloom pieces, objects that will last and that have stories behind them.”
It helps that wool has such a resoundingly British story to tell. The UK has a long history of sheep rearing across its length and breadth, from the north of England across Wales and into the highlands of Scotland, as well as a weaving tradition that goes back centuries. Cloth from British looms has had an international reputation since the 14th century, and despite the industrial revolution and the 20th-century rise in popularity of man-made fibres, weavers and mills remain in operation across the country. Today, because of its hardy and durable quality, more than 90 per cent of British wool ends up in products such as carpets, upholstery, cushions and rugs.
At John Lewis, this translates into a number of products, from its top-of-the-range Natural Collection mattresses by Spink & Edgar to blankets by Welsh weavers Melin Tregwynt. Other big-name brands such as Content by Conran are also turning to the fabric. The company’s L-shaped Aspen sofa is a new release and is upholstered in charcoal and pink wool for £3,990.
The Shop Floor Project commissions weavers from across the UK to create contemporary pieces for its collection, using British wool from rare breeds and designs that reflect the British landscape. “We work with skilled traditional weavers but aim for a more contemporary feel, using colours that reflect the places in which they work: the grey of a stone wall, the vivid yellow of a rapeseed field,” says Allan. The store has commissioned weaving studio De Mont and Wright to create hand-woven blankets (£195), and sells cashmere blankets (£385) by Holly Berry, a weaver who incorporates hidden words in her designs via graphic blocks.
Along with its heritage appeal, wool is also sustainable and this, too, is contributing to its growing popularity. “The environmental credentials of what people are buying is very much part of the purchasing decision,” says John Lewis’s Caitlin Price.
Wool is farmed in a sustainable way – sheep have been grazing in the UK for centuries and are vital to maintaining the local landscape. Weaving, particularly traditional hand-weaving methods, are low impact, and using locally farmed wool also reduces the carbon footprint of a product.
Harrison Spinks is a bed manufacturer based in Beeston, West Yorkshire, in the north of England. Recently the company bought a 300-acre farm, where it now rears its own sheep to supply the wool for its mattresses. “We champion British wool not only because is it comfortable and breathable but also because it’s sustainable. Farming locally reduces carbon usage and wool is fully recyclable at the end of a product’s life,” says managing director Simon Spinks.
More designers are embracing sustainability too. Claudy Jongstra, who has created a showcase tapestry for the Wool Room show, raises her own sheep for wool and cultivates a garden in which plants serve as the dyes for colouring her pieces.
Meanwhile, weaver Emily Mackey specialises in native-breed English wools and works with UK mills to make her larger blankets. She traces her passion for the fabric to her roots. Mackey grew up in Lancashire, northwest England, and several of her products use the wool of Herdwick sheep, which have been farmed in neighbouring Cumbria since neolithic times.
“I like working with textures. Herdwick wool is hard-wearing, and I love the natural colours of it. Herdwick lambs are born chocolate-brown but, after their first shear, their wool becomes lighter. One of my cushions incorporates both colours.
“I’m drawn to my roots, to my past. My great-grandfather was a weaver and it feels right to be working with wool in this way.”
‘Wool House’ runs at Somerset House, London, from March 13-24, www.somersethouse.org.uk