Campaigning for Wool

Written by Lynn Abrams

Sheep on hillside (published by Scottish Government, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

In 2010, the Prince of Wales launched a major wool campaign with the aim of:

‘raising awareness amongst consumers about the unique, natural, renewable and biodegradable benefits offered by the fibre.’
Campaign for Wool

Since then, the Campaign for Wool has worked with designers, makers, retailers and farmers to promote the sustainability of wool products and to encourage the use of wool in a wider range of products – from insulation to knitwear.

The campaign was launched at a time when farmers faced rising costs in production (the cost of shearing was not recovered during the sale of fleece) and challenges from the increasing use of synthetic fabrics, especially for leisure wear.

The Challenge from Synthetic Yarns

However, this recent promotion of wool as a natural and sustainable fibre is not a new phenomenon. In the 1930s, British knitwear and hosiery manufacturers became concerned about the rising popularity of a new synthetic fibre – Rayon – the brand name for artificial silk.

Rayon is manufactured from cellulose derived from wood pulp. The chemical company Courtauld set up the first factory to produce it in 1905, and the silk weaving mills of Halstead in Essex incorporated it into fabrics not long after its introduction. The lightweight and silky properties of this synthetic fibre proved a challenge to wool.

Fashion illustration featuring both wool and rayon jersey fabric, Ladies Home Journal, 1948 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In the UK, wool had been an important fibre for the production of hosiery and knitted underwear. This natural material had been the first choice for both consumers and manufacturers for several centuries. But the introduction and use of Rayon challenged wool’s dominance.

Knitwear manufacturers were forced to consider adjusting production to accommodate this artificial fibre. On 30 October 1934, at a meeting for the Directors of the successful Scottish border firm, Innes Henderson (later known as Braemar), it was recorded that:

‘Sir Thomas Henderson…thought the time would come when we must use Rayon…’
Innes Henderson Minutes Book (1).

A surviving rayon garment knitted by Braemar, from the collection of the National Museum of Scotland, reveals that the company did adjust its production during the 1930s. The growing popularity of cheaper artificial fabrics proved to be a very real threat to the sector.

In addition to cheap artificial yarns disrupting knitted garment and textile production, the preference for other lightweight and cheaper natural fibres also proved challenging.

‘Use More Wool’ Campaign, 1936

In 1936, the British hosiery trade – including Hawick manufacturers – came together to promote a ‘Use More Wool’ campaign in an effort to counter the ‘inroads … of cotton, linen and rayon’. The challenge was whether manufacturers were going to have to adapt their products or

‘continue to sell all wool garments against a very definite demand for cheapness’
Yorkshire Observer, 9 January 1936

Moreover, British hosiery manufacturers had become dependent on the good quality merino fleece available from Australia. However, if British manufacturers were not able to reduce the cost of production to meet the demand for cheaper wool products in Britain, then they would be unable to utilise a significant share of the Australasian wool clip. This could lead to further competition from overseas manufacturers.

Foreign competitors – particularly from Japan – could afford to produce pure wool garments more cheaply. If UK manufacturers did not purchase the Australasian wool clip, foreign competitors would – and could flood the UK market with cheaper wool garments. With no import tariffs, an influx of cheaper wool products would threaten the jobs of thousands of workers in the British textile industry.

The incursion of Rayon was just the first salvo in what was to be a long running battle for the woollen textile industry. By the 1950s and 1960s new synthetic fibres were being introduced to the market with increasing frequency in an effort to gain competitive advantage in a lively fashion scene.

Jersey mini-dress by Mary Quant, c.1960s (Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

Rayon was followed by the new polyesters and acrylics – Nylon, Orlon, Courtelle and Terylene amongst them. And by the 1980s Lycra was found not only in hosiery but also in underwear and outerwear. Wool began to be perceived as a luxury fabric that was usually more expensive than the synthetic alternatives.

Twomax dress with belt
Knitted dress in 100% Orlon, c.1960s, by Glasgow firm, Twomax. Private Collection. (Photograph by Isabella Wagner)

Championing Natural Fibres

The ‘Use More Wool’ campaign of the 1930s and the Campaign for Wool of the 21st century have more in common than might appear at first sight. Both campaigns were keen to educate the buying public in both the economic and sustainable benefits of natural fibres.

In 1937, a Hawick hosiery manufacturer returned from a tour of Australia to report that the buying public were no longer ‘wool minded’. Moreover, he recounted, the artificial fibre producers were winning the advertising war by propagating the view that:

‘wool was actually dangerous to wear.’
The Scotsman, 5 March 1937

This scaremongering flew in the face of the reality of the dangers associated with the chemical industry producing the artificial fibres.

More recently, campaigns by animal welfare organisations (RSPCA) and wool promoters (Woolsack) have drawn attention to concerns associated with sheep shearing. Small companies have capitalised on the debate around the ecology of sheep farming – and a growing adherence to vegan lifestyles – by producing knitting materials and garments labelled ‘cruelty-free’. So-called vegan yarns, manufactured from organic cotton and plant fibres, have proliferated.

The knitwear industry, however, continues to champion the use of wool. Shifts in public opinion about the welfare of animals and the sustainability of products have encouraged garment manufacturers to adopt new approaches to production. Garments made from recycled fibres and fabrics (International Wool Textile Organisation) are becoming increasingly obtainable and affordable. In addition, the promotion of visible mending celebrates the value and quality of knitted wool garments and hosiery.

All set against a white background. image: two figures run forward toward the viewer. The left-hand figure is composed of saucepans and kitchen utensils. The right-hand figure is composed of buttons, thread card
Poster printed by British Board of Trade during WW II (© Imperial War Museum, Art.IWM PST 14926)

These new production initiatives and campaigns illustrate that the knitwear industry continues to respond to customer demands by using new – and old – ways to emphasise the value, sustainability and versatility of wool.

[1] p. 289, Innes Henderson Minutes Book 2 (Collection of Hawick Museum)

If you would like to receive alerts for the publication of blogs and/or notifications of events, please complete this form.