A grassroots movement changes the industry
According to the recollections of Carolyn Rawlinson, the late founder of the British Woolfest, "[The] Woolfest was born at a liquid lunch just after Christmas 2003. I had dreamt for years of creating a really big show celebrating wool, spinning, dyeing, knitting, weaving, designing, and all things associated with this wonderful part of the textile world. I suggested the idea […] and to my surprise (and shock), everyone decided to take it on. Woolfest was born, with a vision for a mixture of the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival in the US and the Potfest here in Cumbria."
The Woolfest's aim is to celebrate all aspects of wool: from hill farming and rare breed fleece animals, to natural dyes, and high end knitwear design, and the latest craft techniques and creations. From the world's smallest breed of sheep (Ouessants) to a record 5000 registered visitors, Woolfest 2011 set new milestones. Visitors came from all over Europe (including Finland, Germany, Italy, France, Lithuania and the Netherlands), Australia, New Zealand and Canada as well as thousands from all over the UK, including several coach parties.
Woolfest is organized by the sixteen members of The Wool Clip, a co-operative of Cumbria-based crafts people that was set up in 2001, and counts on the support of over 100 volunteers. "We were all enthusiastic designers and makers but many of us were juggling our work with farming, families and other commitments. We enjoyed working with wool but also understood the threat to British wool and local sheep farming, and the loss of traditional craft skills. We want to celebrate the best of British wool," said Wool Clip member Marion, "and show the amazing range of uses, applications and inspirations that wool can create.“
For instance, “Every year we ask breeders and farmers to bring along their fleece for sale," said Jan Hicks, another Wool Clip member, "and then spinners, dyers, and designers can buy as close to direct as possible. This year, we were piled high at 10:00 am when opening the doors to the Woolfest, but were looking a bit depleted, having sold over 320 fleeces by the end of the first day. Fortunately, more fleece was brought in on the morning of the second day, so there was still a wide selection of different colors, breeds, and weights available. In the end, we sold nearly 500 raw fleeces across a range of breeds, prices and qualities.”
Starting two or three years ago, the changes the British and European wool landscape is undergoing has become palpable also at the Woolfest, which is due to the quantity and quality of fiber experts that congregate at the event. In Britain specifically, for the last couple of decades most wool batches, with exception of the best qualities and largest quantities, went essentially unsold—bought up and auctioned off by the British Wool Marketing board in compliance to legal regulations. Only since more recently the breeders and producers start to take noticeably charge of their wool's fortune again.
As a direct consequence of this phenomenon, small mills (called 'mini mills') are cropping up across the whole of the European geography. Most are spinning units, with the occasion carding only and weaving unit thrown in, and minimums can be as low as a single fleece. They all guarantee full traceability from fleece (and therefore sheep) to cone. Even specialist fiber mills, for Alpaca or Blue Faced Leicester for example, are among them. The British and European wool industry, in short, is recovering slowly some of its former glory and production capacity, and the breeders of small (rare breed) flocks with a high stake in their own wool and fiber are the market they are--highly successfully if waiting lists as long as nine months are a measure to go by catering to.
The increase in visitors, and the reputation of the Woolfest holds a promise for the upcoming editions. "Each year we think that we've reached a peak and that it's the best and biggest ever," said Pam Hall, another of the founders, "but it keeps growing. The creativity among artisans, producers and designers using British wool and the enthusiasm of our visitors seems to know no bounds."
To find out more about the Woolfest, please go to: http://www.woolfest.co.uk/
Pamela Ravasio is an ethical fashion journalist and consultant, and the publisher of the Award winning eco fashion Blog 'Shirahime 白姫' (http://shirahime.ch)