Find out how wool is processed from fleece to fabric and why using British wool is important, as we chat to Laura Rosenzweig, the founder of Laura’s Loom.
Laura, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you first learnt to weave?
I first learned to weave in the US, over 20 years ago now. Weaving was something I had always wanted to have a go at. When I had the chance to sit down at a loom for the first time I was completely hooked.
I grew up in Goole in the old West Riding of Yorkshire, England’s most inland port on the River Ouse. My granny taught me to knit and my dad was artistic but there are no professional artists or weavers in my family. I still have my first bit of cardboard weaving made at primary school and I clearly remember visiting an old decrepit weaving mill somewhere in Lancashire when I was on holiday.
My other interests and choices led me into the world of land use planning and environmental protection and this is what I focused on in my early career until I moved abroad. Moving to another country with a young family and no job, I started to weave more and more. By the time we moved again, to the UK, I had decided to focus all my energy on Laura’s Loom and started to build my business out of my hobby.
You use a lot of local wool, can you tell me more about that?
Here in the Yorkshire Dales we are surrounded by sheep. They are mostly hill and mountain breeds, hardy animals with hardy fleece. All wool is good wool in my eyes, but each fleece type has certain uses – if it’s good for carpets it’s not necessarily going to be good in a scarf! It seemed wasteful to me to be always buying in yarn from abroad for my weaving when there was so much raw material right on my doorstep.
Instead of buying in yarns that weren’t quite right I decided to make my own. Looking around my home in the Dales I started to think about what breed might suit my purposes. Most farmers around here have a small flock of Bluefaced Leicesters. They are bred with the native Swaledale to produce a hybrid called the North of England Mule. The resulting cross has good meat, good wool, and is a hardy animal reliably producing two lambs each year.
I chose to work initially with Bluefaced Leicester wool because it is a fine, long-staple, semi-lustrous fleece and can be spun to a fine count. It’s not as itchy as some other wools so it is good for scarves as well as blankets. In fact, when it’s worsted spun instead of woollen spun it can be one of the smoothest fibres available anywhere.
For those who don’t know, can you talk us through the whole process that you undertake from fleece to fabric?
I collect my fleece from local farms after it has been sheared in late summer. It is usually rolled up in big bags called wool sacks. I then set to work on each fleece individually. I don’t grade my fleece, which involves dividing the fleece into different qualities of wool, but I skirt them which involves spreading the fleece out on a flat surface and carefully removing the daggings (aka poo), all the vegetation that might be trapped in the fleece (straw, briars, leaves, etc) and anything else you might find such as bits of string and wire. Any parts of the fleece that are heavily matted or felted are taken off as well. Then the fleece is rolled back up again and stored in a clean bag.
The fleece is then sent to the scouring plant. I use Haworths Scouring in Bradford. Here the fleece is washed and dried in a series of giant washing machines and tumble dryers. It is important to me that the fleece stays as natural as possible so I don’t use bleach or any other harsh chemicals on my fleece. This means that you might get the odd bit of straw left in but at least it’s clean straw!
The next stage is spinning. I work mostly with Lightowlers Spinners in Meltham just outside Huddersfield. Here my fleece is blended and carded ready for woollen spinning. Nothing is added other than necessary oils for the spinning machines. The size (count) of the yarn and the twist needs to be considered ahead of time – I produce fine woollen singles yarn suitable for weaving scarves and blankets. Occasionally I might have it plyed to produce a thicker loftier yarn suitable for knitting as well as weaving.
From the spinner the yarn then heads off to the dyer if I am interested in adding colour to it. I work with Ettrick Dyers in Selkirk. I will supply colour swatches and they will test my yarn to see if those colours are achievable. BFL fleece is quite creamy in contrast to the brighter white you might find in a Shetland yarn. Creating pastels from a creamy base is difficult so it’s a good job I prefer rich deep colours!
After dyeing the yarn is ready for weaving. I weave sample fabric swatches at home on my own loom, designing with the yarn to see how it works best. I like simple designs and subtle colours. Once I have worked out what I want I will discuss this with the weaving company who will weave up several hundred metres of cloth for me. I work mostly with Drove Weaving in the Scottish Borders. If I don’t give them the right instructions I won’t get the fabric I want so I have had to learn the language of powerloom weaving which is quite different from the language of handweaving I learned 20 years ago!
After weaving there is one more process to get to the final fabric and that is cloth finishing. All of my fabrics are sent to Schofields Dyers and Finishers in Galashiels. Here the cloth is washed (known as fulling for woollen cloths) to both tighten and soften the quality of the woven fabric. It is then dried on a tentering machine where it is stretched to shape and fringes will be twisted into place if required. Then the individual blankets and scarves are cut and folded and are ready to come back to me for quality control, labelling and packaging.
With the amount of fleece I collect I am able to produce one ‘collection’ of throws and scarves each year. Any remaining yarn is knitted into socks at J. Alex Swift in Leicestershire, or is sold on for others to weave with it.
Tell us a bit about the people you work with during the process, the farmers, spinners, dyers, weavers and knitters. How do you find the right people to work with?
I found my people through word of mouth – a farmer who introduced me to other farmers; a weaver who introduced me to a spinner who introduced me to a scourer and suggested a dyer; a weaver who introduced me to a cloth finisher and took me up there to meet them. It was a steep learning curve in the beginning – you might give a scourer 100kg of raw greasy fleece but you only get 50% back if you’re lucky because the rest is actually not wool at all, it is dirt, grease and moisture!
There’s a lot to learn and the only way to learn it is by asking questions and learning the correct terms so there’s no room for mis-understanding. A handweaver can make changes on the loom on the fly, but you can’t do that so easily on a powerloom. It’s a fascinating world out there, taking a craft skill and turning it into an industrial process, even on the small scale that I do it and I am constantly in awe of the people who work in these industries. Their knowledge is a treasure-trove.
You do everything locally, from sourcing your fleece through to weaving, what value do you feel keeping it local adds to your brand?
People increasingly like to know where their food and clothes come from and who made them, what processes have they gone through to be made. Being able to point out the sheep on the hillside from where I get my wool is of great interest to the customers who visit my workshop. Telling people about the area where I live and how I am using a local resource is important to me. It helps the farmers, the community and me and it gives my customers, many of whom are visitors to the area, a taste of the place to take home with them.
For customers from further afield, they like to know that my product is an honest one and that I am trying to do something to give back to my community. What I do is a tiny drop in the ocean and most people won’t hear the splash but it matters to me. It is particularly gratifying that all of the farmers I work with value the work that I do. They all share in my success and are fascinated to see and learn about what happens to their wool when it leaves the farm.
They are no longer burning or burying the fleece now that they are getting more value for the hard work that goes into looking after their sheep.
Your passion for wool and weaving is so clear. Can you tell us what Made in Britain means to you and why it is important for your brand?
I have tried to keep things as local as possible but have had to learn that sometimes you need to go further afield to get specialist skills as they’re not all on the doorstep. But keeping it British is not a problem at all – we have all the skills I need for my business right here and if we don’t use them they will quickly be gone.
Many of the companies I work with struggle to find and keep young people. The pay is not great, the work can be dirty and noisy, there are times when jobs are flooding in and there are not enough hands to do them all, and then the work falls off a cliff edge because of global market swings and people are out of work or on short hours.
British industry relies on work coming in from elsewhere but it also needs a strong and healthy home-grown market. We make great things here in Britain and I believe British-made goods have a level of quality that is renowned worldwide.
And we couldn’t agree more!