it used to be said that for woolmen ‘every silver lining has a cloud’ but that’s certainly doesn’t apply to Martin Curtis and his team at Curtis Wools Direct, the Cottingley-based wool merchants he runs with his brother Simon and which owns Howarth Scouring and Combing in Bradford.

Wool may be as old as the hills – and the scale of the processing that produced much of Bradford’s wealth is miniscule compared with the industry’s heyday – but optimism and evangelism about the qualities of this natural fibre and its commercial future dominate their thinking.

Cashmere Works on Birksland Street, the former home of cashmere specialists Dawson International nestling next to the railway line into Bradford Interchange, remains a hive of activity.

Curtis has invested heavily in its scouring and combing operations, more than £4 million so far, and another £1m of spending is planned.

In 2010, Prince Charles visited the 12-acre site as part of a Bradford visit to launch the Campaign for Wool of which he is patron. The room where he met guests was empty apart from some bales of raw wool. Today, it is a humming centre of carding and woolcombing.

More than £1m has been spent on two carding machines of 16 combs; five gilling (remixing) machines; two finishers and a new press to produce ‘bumps’ (packages of combed wool) along with a new wool sorting room – the only professional sorting operation in Bradford.

This commitment to the future of Haworth Scouring and Haworth Combing has created about 20 jobs and the plant employs more than 100 people.

Martin Curtis said the intention is to invest up to £400,000 in a new larger bump press which will produce 50kg bumps – more than twice the size of the current machine’s end product.

“Larger bumps will be more efficient for our customers to process and will hopefully help us to attract new customers while keeping existing ones happy,” he said.

The firm’s green credentials have ensured its place at the forefront of the industry and more investment is earmarked for environmental projects.

Haworth’s double line of scouring tubs use mainly recycled water, which by the end of the process is clear. The plant has also significantly driven down energy consumption and adapted the latest computerised packing and processing technology.

In addition to processing, demand is high for the services of the ENco Global testing laboratory, which was installed at Cashmere Works in 2010 after being rescued by Curtis Wools. The laboratory provides a range of testing services for national and international clients.

Working as an independent operation, ENco has ensured that Haworth is already compliant with forthcoming EU water regulations that will come into force in 2015.

Dr Mike Madden, a world leader in his field who runs ENco, said not only tighter regulations but also consumers’ expectations of greener processes and products would drive the agenda.

“Under the water directive, for instance, factories will be forced to release a lot less and cleaner waste water. Unless you’ve got a good idea of what’s going on in the environmental field and an eye to the future you will be in danger of falling by the wayside,” he said.

Martin Curtis said Haworth’s operations were guided by ENco’s work.

“It applies to everything we do. If Mike recommends something we ensure we do it. We can’t be the industry leader and not put money into this area. We’ve got several investment projects planned as direct result of ENco research,” he said.

These include improving the quality of wool processing waste material which is sold for use as fertiliser to make it both more effective and commercial.

Since introducing wool combing, Haworth now averages 100 tonnes of tops (combed wool) a week. Only five years ago output in the Bradford area was down to 15 tonnes compared with one million tonnes in the 1990s when the likes of J W Whitehead, Woolcombers and Heydemann Shaw were still operating.

On the scouring side, operating five days a week Haworth processes around 500,000 kilos of greasy wool but could double that if supply grew enough.

“We want to continue expanding and will do so but will need more space, which will mean reshaping the site. Whatever space we have we’ll fill it,” said Martin.

Curtis Wools Direct is the largest buyer of British wool from the Bradford-based British Wool Marketing Board. In 2011 the Curtis brothers signed a cheque for £1.25 million in one of the biggest deals completed at a single BWMB auction.

Apart from the run of the mill processing, Haworth is focusing on adding value to customers. Spinners are increasingly approaching Haworth for help with developing their yarns, colour shades and wool blends to help provide a marketing ‘story’ or brand to boost sales.

Haworth Scouring and Haworth Combing, which are the largest early stage processing facilities of their type in the world, have recently launched their own new branding.

Marin Curtis said his business had been inspired to invest heavily as a result of the Campaign for Wool which has brought everyone form sheep farmers through to luxury designers and retailers together.