Sunday, 5 February 2012

Cold? Ten Reasons to Mug A Sheep Today.***

Chilly right now, eh chaps? Even with central heating, a hot water bottle, a cat, duvet and takeaway vindaloo. Of course, years ago, back when winters were real, and none of your imported winter crap, the poor old Brits used to get through winter without subjecting themselves to such indignities. Look at Winston there: is he clutching a microwaveable hot water bottle and snivelling? Of course not. How did our forebears manage this, you cry? Well, I'll let you into a secret: wool.

Wool is awesome. Firstly wool, in its native state is practically free. It comes off sheep which eat grass, which is free, and hang around draughty but picturesque uplands that nobody else wants to visit. Those sheep make a new coat of wool every year. This must have been so useful for early natives of Britain, you could almost think somebody designed it that way, till you remember that sheep evolved here.

Britain used to be a world leader in wool. British cloth was exported all over the place. If you don't believe you can get rich off the back of sheep, visit the Cotswolds, and look at the houses of the wool merchants, who were rich from the middle ages till the invention of steam-powered mills, when the whole shebang moved to Yorkshire. Yorkshire had an advantage, having sheep and coal.

Wool keeps you warm and dry without making you sweaty. (This is something that manufacturers of outdoor gear swear they know how to do. They don't.) Here's the science bit: the density of fabric is what affects its warmth and water-repelling abilities. If your coat does not keep you warm and dry, pick it up with one finger. Light? Now, go and try the same trick with a 50-year old men's overcoat. Your hand will practically fall off. That, ladies and gentleman, is because the 50 year old coat is made of densely packed wool fibres. The modern one isn't. British wool fabrics are traditionally dense, (like the upper classes, y'know).

Sheep have to put up with a lot of rain, so wool has natural water repellent properties. If you buy a goretex coat, the water-repellent properties come from dangerous chemicals which will probably have strange effects on you and your offspring. I have a goretex coat. It does not keep me dry in a downpour for a 20-minute cycle ride. I have a duffle coat, and its water-repellent qualities last about twice as long. Also, it looks nicer, cost less and keeps me warmer.

Wool produced in Britain is not much used by mass retailers, because  companies that produce it tend to be smaller enterprises that cannot meet demand for thousands and thousands of garments across a global chain. Also, it is simply not as cheap as synthetics. But cheap clothing made from synthetics or cotton carries huge hidden costs: the carbon footprint as it is lugged around the globe, the exploited workforce that produce it in conditions that would be illegal in the UK, and the difficulty of disposal. Also, to every cheap sweater produced in Vietnam, add your taxpayer's contribution to somebody's dole money in Yorkshire or Scotland, as they sit on the sofa chugging anti-depressants. Am I joking? Hell, no.

Also, before I get too earnest, can I just say that that droopy thing you're wearing, that cost £35 and looked so great on the hanger, that's now covered in bobbly bits and has inexplicably stretched after one wash, darling, darling, it looks just dreadful, really. If I tell you that for the price of two horrid sweaters, you could have had one gorgeous one from Scotland*, you're going to hate me, aren't you? Probably. Also, that sweater that cost twice as much will last four or five times as long. Buying the cheap sweater is is a false economy.

Anyway, on the subject of sweaters, I love knitting. Sadly, if you go to a knitting shop, much of the wool is not produced in Britain. Instead you are often invited to part with a tenner for a single ball of wool from Peru, or New Zealand. This is mad, because you can get this British made wool for a very reasonable £3.50. Or this, or this, etc. However, many knitting shops don't even bother to include the country of origin in the listings for wool. Some British producers don't mention their wool is British; they don't seem to be proud of it. That's daft.

So I think it's time for us to go back to our roots and embrace the sheep. Not literally, you'll get arrested. But we have a resource, a great tradition, and probably lots of expertise which we can just about rescue before it pops its clogs. We need something in our economy that isn't just about pushing money around, and we need to bring jobs to deprived regions of the country. And look, we can all feel smug, socially conscious and cosy, and look a little more stylish as well. It's what's called a win-win situation. Go and buy some British wool today!

Ten Reasons to Wear British Wool

1. It's breathable. You know that magic thing manufacturers of outdoor gear bang on about? Keeps you warm and cosy when its cold, and doesn't make you hot and sweaty when its warm? Wool is designed to deal with the British climate, since it evolved here. It's the result of a millenia-long research process, which is more than can be said of lycra.

2. It's environmentally friendly. It's a permanently renewable resource, since sheep have a new fleece every year. It hasn't been dragged halfway round the globe. It can be composted safely. Unlike say cotton, which is a pesticide intensive crop, which also uses up vast quantities of water.

3. Britain is good at producing wool. Or it used to be. British wool was once a thriving industry, renowned for its quality, which employed swathes of people across areas like Wales, Yorkshire and Scotland, which now experience high levels of unemployment. For every British made wool garment you purchase, you keep somebody in a job in the UK.

4. It's low maintenance. Unlike cotton and synthetics, wool garments need cleaning occasionally, instead of after one or two wears. This is cheap, good for the environment (less detergent, water and electricity use) and means you can spend time doing something more exciting than dragging misshapen lumps out of the washing machine.

5. It's economical. OK, it might hit your wallet in the first place, but you'll still be wearing it in five years time, unlike a synthetic or cotton garment. For example: Exhibit A, synthetic sweater from high st chain: £40. Exhibit B: 100% wool sweater from Scottish cottage producer: £80. Length of time before A disintegrates: 2 years. Cost per year, £20. Length of time before B disintegrates: 8 years (minimum). Cost per year, £10. The synthetic/cotton sweater is 100% more expensive.*

6. Nobody has been abused in the process of making it. It has all been produced in the UK, under UK law, by literate adults with health and safety and voting rights and access to healthcare. Unlike, say, cotton, which in major producer Uzbekistan, is harvested by hand, by children, under a forced labour scheme for the profit of dictator Islam Karimov, mostly known for boiling his opponents. No, I'm not making this up.

7. Sheep are intrinsically funny. Neither Islam Karimov, nor Dupont, makers of Lycra, are even slightly amusing.**

8. Wool is fun. You can knit, dye, and felt it. Oh, and insulate your house as well.

9. Wool is stylish and beautiful. It keeps its shape and does not bag, sag, or crinkle. Because it is a natural fibre, it takes a wide variety of dyes in subtle shades which cannot be achieved by synthetic fibres.

10. Wool is sexy. It is soft, warm, and tactile. It makes anybody look classy. To prove this, I merely ask: which of these two gents would you rather cosy up to? See, I rest my case.

*Scientific test conducted by me, on actual sweaters in my wardrobe. 

** In December 2011, the non-partisan organization Public Campaign criticized DuPont for spending $13.75 million on lobbying and not paying any taxes during 2008-2010, instead getting $72 million in tax rebates, despite making a profit of $2.1 billion, and increasing executive pay by 188% to $27.4 million in 2010 for its top 5 executives. Source: Wikipedia.

*** The author does not condone sheep-mugging, which is a figure of speech. Besides, unprocessed wool doesn't smell that great.


  1. Great post! Well done.So true! I'm biased of course producing Bowmont wool here on my farm but even if I didn't, wool just makes so much SENSE in every way these days. Despite it's initial higher price, a good quality garment is so durable.
    Do check labels though. Sainsbury's are selling "With Wool" garments in their TU range which have 16% wool in the outer shell only. A real con! Does no one any favours when the article falls to pieces and consimer says - "Hmmph! I'm never buying WOOL agai. Just doesnt last!"
    Labels and origin are crucial. Buy wisely and buy well.

    1. that is so true... i think fabric density is one way to make sure you're getting quality, but you have to be used to handling textiles to get an idea of that.

      Do you sell your wool, or is that something in the future?

    2. Hsndling textiles yes and also with a good understanding of exactly WHAT wool is in all its variations.
      Yes do sell wool but majority goes to who make it into things. Small amounts of yarn and fleece for hand spinners.

  2. I love wool, and the vast quantity of gorgeous sweaters, of varying ages, testifies to my addiction, as do my merino thermals!. Can't stand 'technical' outdoor clothes, give me wool any day. My best coat is 1940's Harris tweed. the lining is battered but the tweed (wool) is immaculate. Need I say more :)

  3. Lovely piece, and definately agree re. labels and provenance! Just like to add though, that all wool is not the same, and UK can't produce very fine wool on the same economic scale as say Australia? UK wool isn't necessarily the best for near-to-skin garments, unless sourced from smaller producers . I think we have to help people understand how to wear wool too; I get so many people say 'oooh, lovely, but I can't wear wool, it's much too prickly.' I try and get them to see it as a layer - I can't stand it next to my skin either (even my angora(rabbit) prickles) but wouldn't be without my woolly cardi over my cotton polo in the winter. Just have to make sure it's decently produced cotton!

  4. To be pedantic I'm not sure how true it is to say sheep evolved in Britain. They have admittedly been bred there for a long time (how long I’d love to know, 3,000 years?) and that’s evolution too of course. Wikipedia says they evolved from the mouflon which today inhabits the Caucasus, northern Iraq, and NW Iran, and originally also Anatolia, the Crimea and the Balkans (where they had already disappeared 3,000 years ago).

    1. That's actually a very good question. I had a feeling I'd read that sheep were here at the end of the ice-age, but of course that's not the same as evolving here originally, 8000 years being but a short time in evolution terms...