STEP back in time 100 years ago, and towns and cities across the West Riding and Yorkshire would have been smoke stained from the fumes of hundreds, if not thousands, of woollen mills.
But you might be surprised to learn that even today, the woollen trade still very much has its heart in the region - and despite the rise of new technologies, some of the most crucial roles in wool production still rely on the same techniques they did they, and they are very much human.
Ian Brooksbank was just 16 years old when in 1990 he followed into his grandfather’s footsteps and joined the Bradford-based British Wool Marketing Board, the central marketing organisation for UK fleece wool, which was established in 1950 to collect, grade, promote and sell British fleece wool.
He worked his way up to the role of senior head grader, a job that relies solely on a grader assessing the quality of wool fleeces purely by its character, smell and touch.
His work ensures that farmers receive the very best price for their wool - and with between 1.5m kgs and 2m kgs sold at auction by the board every fortnight, it’s crucial he knows his stuff.
Now he’s in charge of training the next generation of graders, proof the industry is going nowhere.
Mr Brooksbank said: “Apprentices are taken on five years before a grader is due to retire to ensure there is continuity and an apprentice has adequate time to get the training they need.
“In their first year apprentices don’t even look at wool; they need to sample life on the depot floor, familiarise themselves with the environment and get a feel for the nature of the job before they begin grading apprentice training.
“Once training commences, I teach the apprentices how to grade the fleece using sight, touch and smell to determine the quality of the wool.
“I’ll take a lock of wool, known in the industry as a staple and show the apprentice how I assess the quality based on its strength, length, uniformity and natural colours found in the fibres. This process is done entirely by hand.”
Mr Brooksbank and his team of six qualified graders handle 5.7m kgs of wool each year.
Geographical areas can also change the style and character of a fleece - and each fleece itself is graded, rather than lumping different breeds of sheep under on grade.
“We grade the wool as the different characteristics determine which products it will best create, for instance it might be more suited to fashion or carpets or insulation,” Mr Brooksbank said.
“Ideally, wool should be well grown, strong, clean and white. Some breeds are more prone to have grey fibres in the wool, which makes it harder to dye.
“It takes me seconds to identify a fleece’s characteristics and grade it.
“Apprentices also have to learn to work at a certain speed to make sure they meet the end of season deadline, but quality of work cannot be compromised. If they don’t keep to the high standards, the wool won’t be as valuable and the whole process will be undermined.”
Tim Booth, marketing manager at the Board, said the British woollen industry was recovering from the dip it took 15 years ago, and the numbers employed in the region have steadily risen, from a low point of 1,000 t0 around 1,500.
“We have retained a high-end niche here in the UK and that niche is growing, by being able to diversify into products that aren’t mass produced,” he said.
Inspiring the next generation
The British Wool Marketing Board is hoping to inspire the next generation about the wool industry by developing a new educational resource.
It is hoped the tool will encourage youngsters to want to learn more about British wool - either for a career themselves, or to inspire their parents to buy British.
Tim Booth said: “The wool industry had been in the doldrums for some time but that is changing. We’ve seen a rise in knitting and crafts that had all but disappeared, and we’re passionate about encouraging the next generation to learn about British wool and sheep. We’re hoping they will tug at mum and dad when they are buying a new carpet, for example, and encourage them to buy British.”