A study of Newtown’s connections to the wool industry reveals how changes in global economic relations (labour, technology, infrastructure, policy and regulations, supply and demand) mean that sites of production, processing and consumption have become stretched across increasingly greater distances. As a result, the nature of the commodity itself has also changed from a place-specific product (Newtown flannel) to being branded and marketed at the national scale as ‘British wool’.
During the nineteenth century wool was grown, processed and manufactured into finished commodities all within the vicinity of Newtown, for onwards sale within domestic and international markets. Today, whilst wool is still produced on the sheep farms of mid Wales, those sites of processing (scouring, combing, carding, spinning and dyeing) and manufacture have relocated both nationally and internationally, and economies of scale mean that Newtown wool is combined with other British wools into larger lots for movement between sites.
This is partly a result of historical legacies. Bradford, for example, lay at the heart of the nineteenth century textile industry boom; having eclipsed places such as Newtown due to its rapid industrialization and urbanization. The concentration of wool related knowledge and infrastructure in the town has continued into the present with Bradford housing the headquarters of the British Wool Marketing Board as well as the last two commercial wool scouring facilities in the UK, including Haworth Scouring in the photo below (source: Global-Rural project):
However, lower labour costs and arguably less stringent environmental regulations have resulted in a significant shift in the primary processing aspects of the global wool industry towards China and, to a lesser extent India, over the past decade. In 2012, 43% of British wool exports were of raw or ‘greasy’ wool to be scoured and processed at large-scale overseas facilities in both the Czech Republic and increasingly China. Indeed, demand from China for all types of wool has increased massively in recent years and in addition to British wool (see table 1), China buys 75% of Australian wool and 25% of New Zealand wool, respectively.
British Wool Exports 2003 – 2015. Source: British Wool Marketing Board.
The majority of British wool exported to China will be finer, higher-value grades for onwards sale to textile manufacturers around the world. Whereas, wool from the coarser textured hill and mountain sheep breeds found in mid Wales will largely be used for carpet manufacture in the UK and Europe. However, carpet wool may also go to China for scouring and processing before returning to the UK for use by a carpet manufacturer. This means that that four or five companies and several countries may be involved in turning wool from the Newtown depot into a finished carpet ready for sale!
The complexity of these relations means that it is virtually impossible to trace the provenance of Newtown or even Welsh wool into a specific product within the global wool market (excluding the small-scale, artisan sector). However, a project to develop and market a pure Welsh wool of regional provenance is being developed under the Cambrian Mountains Initiative working together with the BWMB. Place-specific branding can prove successful within international markets, as demonstrated by the example of sales of hand-woven Harris Tweed to Japan where the tradition and craft of British textiles is held in high regard. Cambrian Mountains Wool is therefore an attempt to re-ground the stretched and distanced elements of the woollen industry within a specific regional area of mid Wales (of which Newtown is a part) and, in so doing, to “rekindle the historic links between local sheep farmers, wool processors, designers, makers and retailers”.