Hebridean sheep and Kyloe cows wander down to the beach to munch on seaweed and natural grasslands at their leisure, grazing habits acknowledged to enhance and protect wildlife and the landscape. It’s not just good animal husbandry and environmental protection that marks out the Ardalanish farm; it is one of the first to embrace organic textiles. The Ardalanish Isle of Mull Weavers have beaten the odds stacked against them: with a moribund UK textile market, wool prices as low as they have ever been and using sheep breeds that are not considered commercial, they still manage to make high-quality, distinctive organic tweeds.
Clothing, for most of us, is something created in China, Bangladesh, or less frequently, Europe. Once the mainstay of the UK’s textile industry, wool has been in decline for many decades. Last year, 70 per cent of the 35 million kilograms of raw wool produced in the UK became carpeting, while some innovative producers have created a market for wool-based insulation.
The economics simply don’t stack up: two loopholes aside – if the wool is for export or personal use – sheep farmers are required to sell their produce to the Wool Marketing Board (WMB). On average they receive 70p per kilogram of wool (auction price), minus 30p per kilo for the WMB’s operating costs. The problem is that it costs farmers the best part of £1 per kilo to clip a sheep and to transport its wool. Thus, according to the WMB’s appraiser, Steven Spencer, many farmers consider wool ‘a waste product, an afterthought, or even probably more of a nuisance – a shame, because it is a fantastic fibre.’
Where we once donned chunky and relatively coarse woollens, today’s consumer demands soft and superfine Merino – but it’s all in the type of breed farmers use. One of the most popular breeds in the UK is the Scottish Blackface, as well as the Welsh Mountain and the Beulah Speckled-Face.
Organic farmers, however, are more imaginative in the sheep they breed, opting for breeds such as Hebridean, Shetland or Lleyn. These are less common breeds that thrive in lowlands and produce a finer wool fibre, which is more useful than coarse wool for spinners and weavers.
At last count, the number of organically reared sheep on UK farms was 691,000, which would yield thousands of kilograms of premium organic wool fabric if processed in an organic supply chain. The WMB does grade organic wool separately – buying 300,000 kilos in the last year – and yet don’t pay farmers a higher price for it, simply because the WMB doesn’t get a higher price when it sells it on. ‘We are thinking ahead to the point when it will be a premium project,’ says Steven Spencer.
Enter the Isle of Mull Weavers. In the past few years, they have created a market for wool that was once worthless. Isle of Mull Weavers currently pay £1.25 per kilogram for their wool. ‘Fair trade begins at home,’ says Aeneas Mackey, who has run Ardalanish farm with his wife, Minty, for 12 years. Their pioneering initiative gives the wool from rarer breeds a greater worth – all the while creating a sustainable way of life for small farmers and safeguarding age old craftsmanship and traditions. They have combined textures and weaves to produce the country’s first collection of organic tweed, including tailored sports coats and ladies’ jackets, as well as organic scarves, rugs and throws.
Isle of Mull Weavers was founded in 1987 by Bob Ryan , a lifetime weaver, and his wife Cathy. Bob formed a partnership with Aeneas, who had switched his farm to native Hebridean breeds from the commercial Blackface and decreased the number from 600 to 200 sheep.
‘Hebrideans are a better breed for the land, which has flourished, and we get a better income from the wool,’ says Aeneas Mackey. Eight years ago the farm converted to organic.
Unique in terms of their shades – from steel-grey to jet black – Ardalanish’s 200 Hebridean sheep produce 200 kilograms of wool. The remaining 2.5 tonnes of wool comes from around the country, from such esoteric- sounding breeds as the Castlemilk Moorit, Manx Loghtan and from the Shetland Organic Producers Organisation, which includes 10 farmers rearing native Shetland hill sheep. Almost two-thirds of the wool is organic, but, as Aeneas says, ‘Smaller farmers can’t afford the £500 for certification.
‘When we started weaving Hebridean wool, I was inundated with requests from breeders who didn’t know what to do with their wool.’
Aeneas estimates that there are between 5,000 and 6,000 Hebridean sheep in the UK. ‘On the whole of the Isle of Mull there are perhaps 20,000 sheep. If all of these were native Hebridean breeds, our entire weaving operation could be run just from farmers on Mull.’
Weaving is a hands-on process using what Aeneas describes as ‘a dependable but ancient mechanical 1930s loom’. The products are unique, as the colours of the yarn vary from sheep to sheep. The undyed brown and black fleece of the Ardalanish Hebridean sheep is mixed with the natural whites and fawns of Shetland wool from Shetland Organic growers.
‘It’s been difficult to make the whole process organic,’ says Aeneas. ‘Aside from the wool, there is organic scouring, organic spinning and organic finishing, which has been the most difficult. Soil Association standards for organic wool won’t allow non-biodegradable detergents to be used, or those with high aquatic toxicity, and there is no bleaching. They also put limits on the use of heavy metals so environmentally friendly alternatives to chrome dyes are needed.’
Isle of Mull Weavers have had to rope in other smaller organisations, also certified organic, to perform parts of the manufacturing process. But the next stage is to develop their own scouring and spinning facilities. This is a local cottage industry, but one that started from the bottom up and which has had clear benefits to the community. While not mass market, their products find a natural home in high-quality tailoring outfits such as Savile Row and beyond.
The womenswear collection as well as a range of scarves, shawls, wraps & throws are available by mail order. Prices range from £25 for a wool scarf to £795 for a hand made designer coat. To buy: www.ardalanishfarm.co.uk
This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2007