The 10 – 16 October 2016 was UK Wool Week, which didn’t register much with me until a tide of sheep flowed towards me down a narrow lane. Obliged to pull into the hedgerow to let them pass, I took a moment to ponder the challenges faced by 21st century sheep farmers.

Moving the ewes from one field to another might seem simple enough, until you see the process in action. Restrained by the farmer in his pick-up, the flock surged forward, slowly but steadily, urged on by the second farmer walking behind with her implacable collie. The sheep squeezed between vehicles and fence, bleating noisily. The ewes were placid and orderly, with only a couple trying to (quite literally) jump the queue, but the motion of the flock was enough to gently rock my Subaru, as woolly bodies brushed against the paintwork. These ancient lanes were built for horses, carts and livestock – not cars, vans and lorries. Pastures are dotted around the village, so sheep must be herded past village shop and parish hall, churchyard and primary school, not to mention dozens of houses, where garden gates must be closed to prevent sheep making merry in the flower-beds. The collie slunk under the car, determined to outflank the ewes before any could skip off down the lane, but soon they were all safely corralled in their new field.

Fortunately, sheep farmers have a high-profile ally in Prince Charles, patron of the Campaign for Wool (CFW), launched in 2010 to support wool producers in Britain and the Commonwealth. In a recent article, Prince Charles revealed his concern that consumers are choosing man-made fabrics over natural ones. He also expressed shock that the cost of shearing a sheep sometimes exceeds the value of its fleece. (Although he might be impressed by this summer’s ‘Olympian’ achievement of record-breaking Welsh farmers, Gareth Daniel and Ian Jones, who sheared a combined total of 1457 lambs in nine hours).

During the annual Wool Week, the industry aims to raise awareness of the benefits of this unique, renewable substance. Not only is it breathable, but according to the CFW, wool is also ‘multi-climatic’, responding to the temperature of the wearer, making it suitable for all seasons (or a typical British summer). It’s resilient and versatile, perfect for carpets and upholstery as well as clothes. So are we buying it? The Chairman of the British Wool Marketing Board observed recently that, although there’s a healthy demand for fine and medium wool, this market stems mainly from China.
Making a quick check in the family wardrobes, I found that, although we did have sweaters made wholly or partly of wool, several of these did, indeed, have ‘made in China’ on the label. Rummaging further, I was relieved to find tweed skirts and jackets woven in Yorkshire from ‘100% British wool’. I was less excited to discover that the cloth was made into garments in Bulgaria and Romania, but it was a start. Finally, I pounced on an ancient, woolly jumper, which, according to the label, was ‘made in Scotland’. Result! But clearly I needed to do better if I want to help British wool producers.

In an attempt to emphasise the eco-friendly credentials of wool, Prince Charles carried out a couple of experiments. The first entailed setting light to a pair of sweaters (with fire brigade in attendance!). The woollen garment simply smouldered, while the synthetic version burst alarmingly into flames and melted. Secondly, he buried another set of garments (unwanted Christmas gifts, perhaps?) in the garden of Clarence House. Disinterring them after six months, the woolly sweater had partially biodegraded into the soil, while the made-made version was apparently in good enough condition to be washed and worn (presumably not by HRH).
This is all good publicity by the heir to the throne, but what should we be doing about it on a day-to-day basis? Are we afraid to buy woollen sweaters because we don’t know how to wash them? Will they shrink, stretch, bobble? Must they be dry-cleaned? Or are they just too expensive? I might covet the hand-knitted, snowflake design worn by Danish detective, Sarah Lund, in the television series, ‘The Killing’, but do I really want to shell out over £200 for a pullover?

I must remind myself that before the arrival of the ubiquitous and practical fleece (so handy for dog-walking, gardening or the school run), the only fabric available for a warm top layer was wool. Recently I found a childhood photo of my brother and myself enjoying a summer holiday on a Scottish beach. We’re wearing shorts, plimsolls and (you’ve guessed) hand-knitted woolly jumpers. So if I’m feeling chilly this winter, and in need of a cosy new sweater, I’ll definitely make sure it’s made from British wool – even if I have to knit it myself.

Written by Claire Thurlow