Wool Reclamation during WWII – A lesson for us all

Written by Lin Gardner

Poster promoting the collection of rags. Each letter of the word rag is cut out of a different piece of cloth.
Poster promoting the collection of rags during World War II printed by H.M. Stationary Office (Art.IWM PST 14677 © Imperial War Museum).

Due to the shortages caused by World War II, the UK was forced to expand its collection and reclamation of materials like rags, bone and metal. A remarkable series of photographs in the collection of the Imperial War Museum – ‘Old Rags into New Cloth: Salvage in Britain, April 1942’ – illustrates the processes involved in the reclamation and processing of wool during the war. These images not only capture the effort involved but also demonstrate what can be achieved if there is a will and organisation.

The mountain of clothing collected in just one place illustrates the scale of the collection network that must have existed throughout the country (Figure 1). The amount gathered also reveals the commitment that people made to prevent waste during the second world war.

Workers add items of woollen clothing, such as jumpers and socks, from sacks onto a large pile at this salvage depot, somewhere in Britain.
Figure 1 ‘Old Rags into New Cloth: Salvage in Britain, April 1942’ (D 7430 © Imperial War Museum)

Collection and separation were the first stages of the process. Once garments could no longer be worn or mended, they were collected as rags. And unlike today, most people – until the 1950s – wore woollen hosiery and underwear (Figure 2). These were cut into smaller pieces ready for shredding (Figure 3).

Workers examine a pile of vests and long underwear amidst piles of bales of clothing at a salvage depot, somewhere in Britain.
Figure 2 ‘Old Rags into New Cloth: Salvage in Britain, April 1942’ (D 7433 © Imperial War Museum)

Woman cutting old clothing into rags.
Figure 3 ‘Old Rags into New Cloth: Salvage in Britain, April 1942 (D 7438 © Imperial War Museum)

Once the garments were in smaller pieces they could be put through the carbonising process, which removed all non-woollen fibre (Figure 4). This process involved soaking the rags in a solution that included sulphuric acid and then heating them to a high temperature. This process turned the cellulosic material to dust. The rags were then put into a shaker to remove the dust before being packed in large sacks to be forwarded to the next process.

Men and women at work in the carbonising shed. T
Figure 4: The carbonising process which removed cellulosic material from the rags. ‘Old Rags into New Cloth: Salvage in Britain, April 1942’ (D 7439 © Imperial War Museum)

The processed woollen rags could then be shredded to reduce them to a fibrous material known as ‘shoddy’ (Figures 5 and 6). (And the expression ‘shoddy’ – meaning of poor quality – is derived from this process.) The chemical and structural properties of wool meant that it could be turned from spun yarn and knitted garments back into fibrous material.

This worker collects armfuls of rags to place into the shredding machine.
Figure 5 Throwing rags into the grinder to shred into shoddy. ‘Old Rags into New Cloth: Salvage in Britain, April 1942 (D 7444 © Imperial War Museum)

Engineer setting the teeth of the rag grinding machine.
Figure 6 Grinding machine for shredding rags. ‘Old Rags into New Cloth, Salvage in Britain, April 1942 (D 7446 © Imperial War Museum)

The salvaged fibrous material or ‘shoddy’ could then be combined with new fleece, which gave it additional strength (Figure 7). The newly blended wool could then be carded and spun into yarn (Figure 8).

Piles of the fluffy wool and shoddy mixture are fed into the carding machine at this textile mill somewhere in Britain.
Figure 7: Blending shoddy and new wool fleece before carding. ‘Old Rags into New Cloth: Salvage in Britain, 1942’ (D 7452 © Imperial War Museum)

Spinning machine
Figure 8 Spinning the blended new wool and shoddy into yarn. ‘Old Rags into New Cloth: Salvage in Britain, April 1942 (D 7459 © Imperial War Museum)

Although this was clearly a labour intensive and time consuming process – it was also resourceful and did not waste precious natural material. This is a valuable lesson for us today when so much clothing is burned or buried in landfill. The threat and uncertainty of war gave people little choice but to salvage, mend and economise. In a world threatened by climate change – this process of reclamation offers us an incentive and an example of how we can do the same.

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