The British Wool Marketing Board, part 1

posted in: Travel, Wool | 3

I’ve got better photo export settings figured out, but I also have set up three posts with test versions 1 and 2, and if I stop to rework them I’ll never catch up. So apologies for the blur in the images. On we go.

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In two days, I visited several sites important to the understanding of wool production and processing. The first, which I’d anticipated seeing for years before I got there, was the British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB). Tim Booth, who showed me and a friend around, had been instrumental in obtaining several samples for The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook. We only approached him after we’d exhausted other options (or at least the time we had in which to pursue them) and he sent a wonderful box that filled multiple gaps. I wanted to say thank you in person, and to see what the BWMB is like.

The organization moved into a new building in 2012, so what I saw was not what I would have seen if I’d gone earlier. The business and its details are undoubtedly similar. The headquarters are in Bradford, along with the largest warehouse and processing facility. There are several other sites where wool is physically handled, but this is the big one. The BWMB was established in 1950 and buys wool from all growers who have more than four sheep (three being the approximate number to supply a family’s annual needs, and four being the start of a “surplus”—different breeds having different fleece sizes, and so on, but they had to have a practical number). There are exceptions for rare breeds and for some fleeces to be held back and sold to spinners, and the Shetland growers as a whole chose not to be included (an option I’m guessing they had because of their geographically separate situation, although I need to look into that a bit more). But overall, the BWMB manages all British-produced wool, and makes it possible for British farmers and shepherds to compete on the world market. Without the board, there would be scattered amounts of diverse types of wool, never in quantities large enough to make an impact. Interestingly, the board never owns the wool. It acts as an agent between the farmer(s) and the buyer(s).

So here’s a quick overview of what happens there. We found the building, located in Bradford.

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Signed in, and got badges.

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In the entry area there are displays of some ways in which wool can be used.

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And some historic photos and narrative.

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Throughout the facility’s non-warehouse areas there are gorgeous carpets, made of, naturally, British wool. Within the reception area, high on the wall just to the right of the photo display shown above, was a monitor showing the progress of the auction that was taking place at that time. There are about twenty-two auctions a year, with the exact number depending on wool supplies and how the overall progress of sales has gone.

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More on the auction in a moment. On the walls are pile tapestries (similar to carpet pile) showing some of the breeds of sheep, each made from the wool of the sheep that it portrays. I have not yet been able to find out who made these, but they delighted me. I’ll include a few here.

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This is the auction room. It is (and needs to be) extremely quiet.

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Buyers must be in the room to participate, because otherwise they’re vulnerable to technological glitches from a distance. This puts everyone on an even footing. There are about 7 seconds for each lot of wool sold. They’ve gotten descriptions of the lots a week earlier, so they can plan what to bid on and how much they’re willing to pay. There are some minimums set, to guarantee an adequate return to the farmers. If a lot doesn’t reach its minimum, it is held back and offered in another auction. As we were watching, about 77 percent of the lots sold and about 23 percent were held back. That may reflect the particular raw-materials needs of the buyers at the time the auction is held. Year-round, there are about 22 auctions—slightly more or less, depending on how much wool there is to be sold.

Now to the warehouse, and a look at what happens to get to the point of the auction. I tried some panorama shots with my camera for the first time. The white bales are incoming wool.

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The orange and green have been graded and scientifically evaluated. The orange are last year’s clip, likely sold and awaiting delivery, and the green is this year’s clip, possibly being auctioned at the very moment we were looking at it.

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Here’s wool arriving from the farms. Those flat white packs are called sheets, and they’re loaded up on the farms.

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Sheets get piled up for grading.

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Here’s the grading area. Those bins (I think they call them trolleys here, but correct me if I’m wrong) contain graded wool. Grades have numbers and there are quite a few grades.

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Here’s a sheet that’s been clipped to an overhead suspension device and is being emptied onto the grader’s working table.

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All empty and about to be pulled out of the way. . . .

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Starting to grade, pulling each fleece out and putting it into a bin. I asked how they know which ten or so grades to represent in the bins closest to the grader, and it’s by geography: if a sheet comes from a particular area, the grades it contains are likely to be within a predictable range.

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It takes five years of training to become a grader.

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Fleeces are weighed as they come in, and while the operation as a whole is computerized and mechanized there are still some manual bits. One of them is involved in making sure that each farmer gets an appropriate share of the income from the bale(s) to which an individual clip contributes.

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To be continued tomorrow (or the next time I can get a strong enough signal to upload). . . .

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3 Responses

  1. Thanks, Deb for posting as you travel about and including all of the photos. It is very fun to be with you as you travel about. It appears that you are having a marvelous time.

  2. Fascinating Deb, Thank you.

    Wool auctions have changed somewhat:

    http://www.soundsurvey.org.uk/index.php/survey/radio_recordings/1930s/1925/

    But they were *very* fast even then.

  3. Thanks, Rod! I figured they’d gone very fast even in the past. I suspect the additional activity and noise may have made it demanding on the participants in different ways.

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