RECENTLY, the British Wool Marketing Board got its biggest cheque ever from one merchant for one auction.
Made out for £1.25m, it was signed by Martin and Simon Curtis, joint managing directors of Curtis Wool Direct, of Bingley. And it made a number of points.
First, the price of wool stayed up to the end of last year’s stocks – setting a healthy new average which the Curtis brothers predict will hold when the first of this summer’s clip is auctioned.
Second, the brothers are by far the biggest buyers left in the market for raw British wool. Third, thanks to them, Bradford remains Wool City.
Curtis Wool was founded by Martin and Simon’s father, Laurence. They took over with their older brother and carried on as a partnership after he retired – hungry to make a comeback against the “synthetics boys” and the international penny-pinchers who had driven the business into a bit of a corner. Against the odds – including foot-and-mouth, twice, credit crunch and recession – they kept making investments in the future.
Now they supply factories in India and China as well as all over Europe and United States. And they want farmers to know it.
Curtis Wool and a Norwegian partner, Nortura, own Haworth Scouring and Haworth Combing, which moved to a 12-acre site off Leeds Road, Bradford – and up the international heavyweight rankings – after absorbing the business of a former Norwegian plant at Addingham and taking over Whitaker Fibres in stages.
The site is now also home to EnCo, an environmental impact laboratory and consultancy, rescued from the collapse of the Confederation of British Wool Textiles.
Both the processing plant and Curtis deal in wool from, and for, everywhere. But British is a speciality. “It has unbeatable qualities and we bring those qualities out better than anybody in the world,” says Martin Curtis, 58. One of his sons, Adam, runs, the Real Shetland Company, supplying many of the small craft businesses which have helped to create a new appreciation of wool.
A second factor is the international Campaign For Wool, patronised by Prince Charles. A third, just beginning to take effect, is the drive for sustainability.
“You can debate carbon footprint theory forever but if you assume the sheep are going to be there anyway, the environmental cost starts with shearing and the argument is over,” says Mr Curtis.
We meet at the Bradford plant, run by David Gisbourne, 50, whose father and grandfather spent their lives in the same business. He was hired to make an old-fashioned heavy industrial operation competitive in a world of cheap labour. Even after paying the new average of £1.70 a kilo for greasy wool, he is turning out “combed tops” – the end products after 30 percent of weight has been lost in the wash – at around £4 a kilo. And landfill is nil.
Prince Charles has been here to marvel at the number of energy-eating processes which are included in the margin and so have a lot of farmers. The industrialists want them to understand that co-operation with the Wool Board is buying them a good fight in a tough competition.
“Wool is less than two to three per cent of world fibre production and British is two per cent of wool,” says Mr Curtis. “But I don’t think we are going to lose any more ground. The whole world acknowledges that wool prices got too low for too long. We have finally broken out of that trap. That is partly because production dropped but I believe our own farmers can rely on the new price if they start to expand again.”
When David Gisbourne was at Leeds University, he was the first Briton in six years to do his master’s degree in textiles.
And it has got worse, he says. He gets textiles design students who come to tour the factory but cannot bear to handle the wool, let alone plunge their noses in to savour it, like his boss does.
He would be interested to hear from graduates willing to learn his business from the dirty end. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Holdstock writes: Gathering the annual wool clip from Yorkshire’s sheep has been a thankless task in recent years. One farmer who shears his own is Robin Peart, regional chairman for the Blue Faced Leicester Sheep Breeders Association.
“Until last year wool in general hasn’t made as much as it has cost to get the sheep sheared,” he says. The Blue Faced Leicester is one of the few British breeds whose wool appeals to the clothing, rather than carpet industry. “It has a very fine purl and a very deep lustre to the wool. It lends itself very well to fine spinning, and weaving,” says Robin.
Wool has been going out of fashion for a long time but that has changed. Bill Stewart, managing director of Calder Textiles in Dewsbury, said: “This last six months we’ve seen the wool prices go through extraordinary heights. The company buys in British and overseas wool to spin into yarn.
“In many cases, we’ve seen the price of wool rise by over a pound a kilo. Traditionally we were operating with prices around the £1.80 per kilo mark – that’s clean British wool into our mill. Now we’ve seen that exceed £3 per kilo.
“I think it’s from a decline in the sheep numbers both in the UK and New Zealand – our industry uses the wool from there quite extensively. Quite a lot of the wool is going into areas such as China and Turkey where they are buying it as a commodity. That causes shortages within the UK.”
The British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB) in Bradford represents 50,000-plus sheep farmers. All wool from farms with more than four sheep must be sold through it and the BWMB is obliged to buy it.
The board says the price of wool is going up because during the financial crisis manufacturers used up stock in hand. Now they are re-stocking.
Innovation has also opened up possibilities. Hainsworth, a specialist textile company in Pudsey, has designed a coffin made from British wool, called Natural Legacy. Three fleeces are used to make each coffin costing between £600 and £800. It can be used for both cremations and for burials. The outer case is a thick, undyed felted wool cloth with a re-cycled, reinforced cardboard inner which gives it shape on a chipboard base. Jute straps add strength.
New immigration quotas looked as if they would stop foreign shearers coming to work here as they normally do for six months of the year. But Jill Hewitt chief executive of the National Association of Agricultural Contractors says for this year a transitional scheme will overcome that and adds, “We don’t have enough of a shearing resource in the UK, so it’s important that they do keep coming.”
They may well find that the farmers are more enthusiastic about employing them, but not much.
Even with things picking up, Robin Peart says returns on wool have been too low for too long.
“In general with wool, I’m always disappointed. For example when you go to buy a 100 per cent wool carpet it will cost you £80-£90 pounds per square metre. You’d sell possibly 100 fleeces of wool for the same sort of price.
It seems to be a luxury product at the end. For the farmer it’s not worth the cost of taking it off the sheep. I think if it were not for the welfare point of view that sheep have to be sheared, a lot of sheep wouldn’t get sheared.”