For Laura’s Loom, it all started with a couple of hundred Bluefaced Leicester sheep — those noble roman-nosed creatures shivering in their fine robes under northern skies — and their friendly hardworking hill farmers who look after them, day in, day out, no matter what the weather or if it’s Christmas. These sheep don’t have much wool on their backs, but what they do have is particularly good wool. I wanted to create a range of throws which were warm but light; not your typical thick woolly blanket but a fine wool throw, and Bluefaced Leicester seemed the right place to start.
Learning to turn the fleece into beautiful woollen fabric has been a fascinating journey, especially for a handweaver used to creating as she goes, on the loom. When designing for production weaving everything must be decided and planned ahead of time, from the size and twist of the yarn, to the design and loom width of the throw, to the finished measurements and the desired quality of the final product.
To start with there is shearing, skirting and sorting, followed by grading and scouring. Realising that you lose more than half the weight of greasy fleece in the scouring process comes as quite a shock – that’s a lot of dirt and moisture! At the spinners the wool goes through a process of blending and carding before it is turned into roving and finally the twist is put in to create what we call yarn. Then it all gets wound onto cones. At the dyers it’s all wound off again before it is immersed in huge vats of colour. And then it’s wound onto another set of cones. Once the yarn reaches the weaving shed those cones are split and assembled on a creel before being wound in sections onto a warping mill and eventually transferred to a beam. Now it starts to look more familiar as the final stages of threading heddles and sleying reeds is completed before the weaving begins. It’s such a rich language and the machines are mesmerising in their size and complexity, and we haven’t even been to the cloth finishers yet!
The final steps in taking wool from the sheep’s back to a fine wool throw involve purling, steaming and blowing to transform the oily stiff cloth which comes off the loom into a delectably soft fabric, bringing the lustrous wool to its ultimate glory.
The making of cloth is a magical process, whether woven by hand or by machine, and the people involved in producing my products are all highly skilled craftsmen and women in their own right, continuing a long and illustrious industry of woollen cloth manufacture in the British Isles.
I feel proud to be playing a small part in bringing this industry back to the forefront of British life. There really is nothing quite like wool. It keeps you warm when it’s cold and wet, even if the wool you’re wearing is wet itself (it dries from the inside out and traps warm air to insulate you). It breathes, absorbing moisture when damp and releasing it when dry, which makes it perfect for bedding and insulation material. Wool is a natural, sustainable and renewable fibre, naturally resistant to fire and remarkably strong. These days you can even wash it in a machine! But perhaps most importantly, wool does not leave behind microscopic plastic when it decays. It does not pollute our planet. There’s nothing more natural than wearing wool.