Putting wool back on the map

Susan Gaunt, who designs fabric from local wool, with a blazer made by Jaeger from her fabric. Picture: Adrian Murray. (1210153AM5)
Susan Gaunt, who designs fabric from local wool, with a blazer made by Jaeger from her fabric. Picture: Adrian Murray. (1210153AM5)

Over the years an industry that was once the backbone of the Dales has slowly been eroded. Victoria Prest spoke to one Nidderdale woman determined to put wool back on the map.

For hundreds of years the wool trade has shaped the landscape of Yorkshire and the lives of people living across the county.

From the hill farmers producing the wool to the textile mills of the West Riding, making woollen fabrics has been a central part of lives and livelihoods across the county.

And even though it has taken such an important role in the county’s history, to many the textile mills in Yorkshire are an industry of the past and is a story that belongs in television costume dramas and nineteenth century novels.

But one Nidderdale woman fighting to reinvigorate the historic Yorkshire wool industry has celebrated a major win by producing a home-grown fabric that has caught the eye of a high-end fashion shop.

Fabric designer Susan Gaunt, who lives and works from her home in Birstwith, has worked with Yorkshire mill companies to produce a fine wool fabric which has been spun, woven and finished all within a 40-mile area of Yorkshire. The fabric has so impressed fashion label Jaeger that is has been used into a classic blazer for the shop’s latest autumn/ winter collection.

Susan has worked in fabric design for more than 25 years, and comes from a fabric-making family with four generations of history in the industry. After three years of hard slog her “40 mile fabric” has made it into the shops.

She said: “It’s just really nice for someone to get behind what I have been doing for three years, and it’s lovely to be taken on board by such prestigious company.”

Susan worked with Guiseley fabric company Laxtons to make the cloth. Wool was sourced from the British Wool Marketing Board’s warehouse in Bradford and spun and woven by companies in Guiseley. As well as her duties as designer, Susan looked after the logistics and quality control for the new fabric, and kept an eye on its progress through the final stages of production.

“The finishing processes are the ‘dark arts’ of cloth manufacturing,” she added.

Susan set out on the “40 mile” project because, she said, she wanted to show people how good Yorkshire wool could be.

“I think we need to be proud of our heritage and say what we are really good at,” she said.

Although Yorkshire’s fabric business is still alive and making some of the best woollen fabric in the world, she added, British wool has an image problem.

The perception is that British wool is “itchy scratchy” she said, but with the right treatments through the very technical finishing processes the “itchy scratchy” wool can be tranformed into a much finer cloth.

For Susan, working with British wool and continuing her family’s long involvement in the textile business is a labour of love.

“My family love it, and are really proud of it. When I talk to people around Yorkshire, a lot of people used to work in textiles.

“I had a career break when my children were born and it was like my right arm had been cut off.”

British wool prices rocket

Prices for raw British wool have rocketed over recent years as the industry has become one of the few to benefit from the economic crisis.

Richard Poole of the British Wool Marketing Board said instability in the financial markets from October 2008 meant wool prices soared as investors looked at commodities like wool as a safe place for their money.

Coupled with a shortage in the wool market as many buyers let their stocks dwindle, the sudden demand for British wool saw prices rise from averages as low as 64 pence to as high as 184 pence per kilo.

But even with these higher prices, wool is still a by-product of sheep farmers’ real business of producing lamb.

Richard said: “Most farmers only have around 300 sheep, so selling wool is not an income for them. Even when the prices are high they could only fill their Landrovers up with diesel a couple of times with the money they get for the wool.”

For most, the wool price only offsets the costs of shearing the sheep, he added.

But, he added, Yorkshire’s fabric industry is thriving and he has seen companies investing and employing more people and the marketing board wants to see more good-quality British wool making its way into the shops.

“What Susan is doing is bringing British wool back into clothing, and I think it is brilliant.”