Tuesday 8 February 2011

Woolly Thinking

"Norwich, with a population of probably under 6,000 in 1377, was the only town (London apart) with a population of over 10,000 in 1524...  The communities of the surrounding rural area were very active in the manufacture of (woollen yarns), and Norwich was the principal centre of their sale.  Norwich's prosperity lasted and her population grew... throughout most of the fifteenth century."

The girls wanted to make some pompoms, so we popped into a local charity shop that we know sells wool. It was only later when I looked at the label, I realised that the “wool” was actually 100% acrylic and made in China.

The next day, I was talking to a friend of mine who owns some sheep. I asked him what he did with the wool. He told me that it costs more to shear a sheep than you can get for the wool. In fact, he couldn’t even give the wool away, no-one wanted it. It’s not so much that it’s hard to turn the raw wool into the knittable kind of wool, but you have to wash it first to get the lanolin out, and it’s that that requires a lot of effort, and you have to be careful that the lanolin doesn’t clog the drain.

It seems to me an odd situation that we have the two ends of demand and supply so close to each other, yet in order to satisfy that demand, we import from many thousands of miles away a product that is actually a substitute for what we really wanted in the first place. And we’re substituting a natural, renewable resource (wool) for one made from chemicals(acrylic). Add to that the fact that people with dry skin buy big pots of lanolin at the chemist, yet it’s a waste-product of the wool-making process that’s simply going down the drain. I’d never really thought it through like that before.

The process whereby a sheep’s winter coat becomes a knittable product clearly requires a bit of thought and effort, but our current system does seem daft. Instead of throwing wool away, we could give our local (or national) farmers and producers an additional income, reduce imports, reduce waste, and revive a part of the economy that has served us, in Norwich's past, very well indeed.

If there are readers out there who would like to get their hands on some wool, or readers who have access to the raw product, do get in touch and I’ll do what I can to match you up.

Quote from English Society in the Later Middle Ages 1348-1500, by Maurice Keen

1 comment:

  1. In the days before man made fibres, clothes were much more expensive than today, so I thought that I would compare the cost of wool fibres for knitting to acrylic fibres for knitting. But is not so easy as fibres described as 'wool' seem to be up to 75% acrylic or nylon! Presumably to increase the strength of the fibre. And there was no mention of country of origin.

    Maybe our knitting expert Helen can enlighten us as to the true relative costs?