Olympic golden fleece

Middle-aged businessman Martin Curtis is an unlikely candidate for Olympic gold, but he's going for it and he's been training hard. He's spent hours on his Blackberry, networked furiously all over the globe, and even when exhausted and jet lagged he's somehow summoned impressive powers of persuasion.

At the moment he is pleading with the Prince of Wales for support and all because he believes that the world's largest sporting event could be the saviour of Britain's ailing wool industry and struggling sheep farmers.

His Olympic bid started when his Bradford-based company helped come up with a unique carpet which is eco-friendly, undyed, entirely natural and made from 100 per cent British wool.

It comes from free-ranging animals and uses fleeces of all colours, including greys that commercially are usually considered inferior to the white, dyeable ones. Martin is certain there will be global demand

for the eco carpet, and what better shop window could there be for it than the Olympics?

"This whole idea was inspired by 2012. I knew there would be a huge building project and I knew they would need carpeting for the Olympic village," says Martin, who heads the family company Curtis Wool Direct in Bingley

"We developed the carpet with that in mind. It is the first product of its type and it is truly British, platinum certificated eco-friendly. It's also totally natural, robust and sustainable. I have a meeting shortly with Bovis Lend Lease, which is developing the Olympic village and I hope they will say that they want it."

Martin's passion is fuelled not just for the benefit it will bring to his own business, but by the plight of an industry and way of life that has suffered devastating decline. The price of fleeces depreciated so much that they weren't worth taking off the sheep. Things have picked up a little lately from a low of 84p a kilo to 103p, but some farmers still struggle to cover the cost of shearing. A sheep shearer's minimum charge is usually about of 30 for the first hour or about 1.30 per sheep if there are over over 20 to be done. The UK's 50,000 sheep farmers mostly rely for their livelihoods on selling lambs and mutton. Philip Trevelyan who farms organically at Spaunton on the North York Moors has a flock of Swaledales which are kept on the moor in the traditional manner. For him a balance has to be struck between the different requirements of meat and wool production. For breeding stock, short wool is more desirable. "With their offspring you need short wool so that you don't have problems with flies in fat lamb production," he says. Last summer he was charged 1.05p per sheep by shearers. The fleeces are then taken to a local collecting point at Malton and then delivered to Bradford. But demand has fallen to the point where Mr Trevelyan wonders if it's worth while, especially as a large proportion of his sheared fleeces now gets thrown away.

"They no longer take the 'daggings' - the mucky stuff which used to be cleaned and laid out over huge areas in Malton to be dried," he says. "It now goes into our compost heap, or it gets buried."

Wool fibre has gone out of favour for a variety of reasons – synthetics, subsidised overseas competition and cheap imports from countries that didn't have strict effluent rules to comply with.

In wool's Victorian heyday, Bradford was the world centre of the wool trade thanks to its naturally soft water for washing and scouring. Immense riches flowed from an industry whose showpiece mills matched their owners' wealth and ambitions by being built in ornate styles and sometimes looked like palaces.

"Wool has been undervalued for years and, as a consequence, farmers have had a terrible time. What we are doing is fighting back," says Martin, a former economist. "Our Olympic project carpet is specifically aimed at increasing demand for wool and giving the poorest farmers a better return.

"It will increase demand for fleeces from all 50,000 farmers, but in particular from those for who have struggled to find a market for the darker fleeces.

"Having a grey fleece used to be a disadvantage and it was worth a third less than a white one. For our natural coloured carpets it is an advantage. Our ambition is to make sure farmers can cover the cost of shearing."

He is also hoping that farmers will increase their flocks and "grow" more sheep for their wool rather than concentrating on the lamb trade.

"Sheep are crucial to our countryside, their grazing maintains the hills and countryside," he says. "Before foot and mouth, Britain produced 55m kilos of wool and now we have 30m – which is a big decline and yet it is the most natural, free range product on the market."

The Spyridon 2012 carpet, named after the winner of the first modern Marathon, is a 100 per cent British product from field to floor.

The sheep grow it, the British wool marketing board collects it, Curtis Wool Direct buys it and its sister company Haworth Scouring washes it. Then Yorkshire yarn spinners spin it before it goes to Cavalier Carpets in Blackburn to be tufted and woven. If it sells well, he believes it will make an enormous difference.

"It takes 2,012 fleeces to make the carpet for one large house," he says.

"People don't realise how many fleeces go into making a carpet.

"It's wool from a huge number of sheep. So that's how much difference it will make."

The signs are encouraging. Architects and interiors designers who have had a sneak preview love it and its integrity.

The Prince of Wales recently launched the Wool Project to promote the fibre's sustainable and natural features to retailers and consumers, so farmers can earn better returns from rearing sheep for fleeces.

"British wool is natural, sustainable, biodegradable, easy to clean, safe naturally fire retardant, comfortable and warm.

"It is the most respected wool in the world for carpet manufacture because it is strong durable and resilient to pressure," says Martin, who succeeded with another project to revive the original wool industry of the Shetlands.

"I hope this bid succeeds because if it does it will be good for UK farmers, manufacturing, jobs and the planet.

"It should appeal to everyone from contract buyers including shops and stores, hotels and offices and householders." He's thinking positive, so much so he's even got some lovely gold wrapping and a batch of Olympic Carpet labels. Marketing will be a longer slog if he gets the thumbs-down at the Olympic Village. But no-one would deny that Martin deserves a medal for his efforts.