Wool and royalty are undergoing something of a love-in at present as prospects for the natural fibre on which Bradford’s original fortunes were built look better than they have for many years.
The Countess of Wessex came here to officially open the new £6 million base of the British Wool Marketing Board on Canal Road. She was following in the footsteps of her brother-in-law the Prince of Wales, who 18 months ago chose Bradford to launch the Campaign for Wool.
This is an increasingly global five-year promotional programme involving wool growers, processors, manufacturers and retailers to boost demand for a fibre that ticks all the environmental and sustainability boxes – and yet accounts for only one per cent of world fibre consumption.
The royal visitor was given a behind-the-scenes look at BWMB’s impressive new base, which has consolidated wool grading, packing and distribution, an electronic auction centre and offices on one site.
Later she visited Haworth Scouring at Cashmere Works, in Birksland Street, Bradford, the largest commission wool-scouring company of its kind and the biggest buyer of British wool, to open its new showroom, named the Wessex Room.
The British Wool Marketing Board was founded under the Wool Marketing Act in 1950 to operate a central marketing system for UK fleece wool, with the aim of achieving the best possible net return for producers.
It remains the only organisation in the world that collects, grades, sells and promotes fleece wool and the only remaining agricultural commodity board in the UK. A non-profit making organisation, it returns the market price for wool to sheep farmers after deducting its own costs.
According to managing director Ian Hartley, it could be loosely described as a quango, but receives no Government funding. Following a recent Government review of quangos, BWMB is officially designated as a ‘public non-funded organisation’ – in other words it must stand on its own feet.
After years in the doldrums, wool is on the up again, driven largely by demand from China, which is now the world’s largest wool textile centre, and last year the Wool Cheque – the money BWMB pays to UK sheep farmers – was the highest since 1985. The amount paid to farmers for the 2010 wool clip increased from 89.6p a kg to 146p a kg.
Maintaining supplies of British wool, 70 per cent of which ends up in carpets, has been a challenge as UK sheep numbers fell from nearly 65 million in 1990 to around 40 million last year.
Ian Hartley, who is treasurer of the Campaign for Wool, said: “Farmers raise sheep mainly for their meat and wool is a by-product. Sheep are shorn for health and welfare reasons and our challenge is to try and ensure the best possible price through our 20 or so Bradford auctions a year.
“The situation has improved dramatically as wool moves back into favour for its durability and sustainability. While current global economic conditions make it difficult to predict the future, we believe that the new level of prices can be maintained this season and lead to higher producer returns.
“Whatever the market conditions, we must continue our strategy. We believe that the clip will maintain around the current level.”
The BWMB’s new base includes a grading and warehouse with easy access for vehicles that bring wool from its network of depots around the UK. The Bradford centre can handle six million kilos, or 2.5 million bales, of wool a year.
Investment in the new base was part of a strategy of cutting the oganisation’s cloth to meet present-day circumstances, which has involved restructuring and cost-cutting in recent years.
The new base, where around 35 full-time and casual staff work, was funded through the sale of other BWMB premises. Grading of wool fleeces, from the coarsest to the finest, is carried out by six experts following a five-year apprenticeship and two current trainees.
BWMB’s activities also include the promotion of wool through a series of initiatives and events, quality control and testing, educational programmes and the training of sheep shearers.
“This building will meet our expected needs for up to 30 years. We’ve replaced two separate sites in Bradford and this provides a more cost-effective and flexible operation. The Countess of Wessex was genuinely interested in what we showed her and we were delighted she came to officially open the new building.
“The involvement of the royal family through the Campaign for Wool has been a boost to the whole industry, and the Campaign continues to expand globally to help increase awareness of and demand for this most versatile of fibres,” Ian said.
This view was echoed by Martin Curtis, joint managing director of Cottingley -based Curtis Wools Direct, which owns Haworth Scouring and Combing.
He said: “The Countess of Wessex officially opened our new showroom, named in her honour. The Wessex Room has been built to showcase not only what we do at our scouring and combing plants and the ENco laboratory, but we’ve also invited our customers and their customers to display wool products “It is an investment we have made that will hopefully help to tell the story of wool from the greasy fleeces right through to the retailers, fashion designers and of course interior designers.”
Mr Curtis hailed the new BWMB headquarters as a “very good move forward” by the Board which would provide an operation to meet the needs of buyers and sellers for many years to come.
Just before the official opening of the new BWMB headquarters, the annual congress of the International Wool Textile Organisation in New York was held and was reportedly seen as the most optimistic gathering of wool people for decades.
The congress focused on the role of social media in promoting wool and driving demand in the 21st century.
The Wool Textile Organisation, whose president is Bradford-based wool textile veteran Peter Ackroyd, was founded in 1924 through a bilateral agreement involving Bradford Chamber of Commerce and it is responsible for overseeing trading regulations, testing and licensing and arbitration.