SHEEP'S BACK TO JACK'S BACK
The Romney Blazer and Laxton Gilet started life as a flock of shaggy sheep in Kent – to create the bespoke, woolen herringbone material, we wanted to stay close to home.
KENT: SHEEP SHEARING & WOOL GRADING
It's a warm day and we're standing in a shed with Paul, who has been shearing sheep since he left school two decades ago. “The best thing about it? It keeps you fit. Worst? Everybody wants you at the same time and there aren't enough sunny days!” Today's shearing is taking place on Romney Marsh, a beautiful part of our countryside with a sheep-farming heritage – we're visiting with Romney Tweed, a Community Interest Company that champions local industry and aims to help young people acquire skills and jobs. Paul's lucky customers are a flock of Romney Tegs in their second year of life – lucky because temperatures are rising and it's time to lose their four-kilogram fleeces. These will be turned into fabrics and clothing, eventually, but right now, the sheep's welfare is most important – if flies lay eggs in their fleece, this could kill them.
Paul demonstrates the process, which is, in theory, as simple as 1,2,3. First, restrain the sheep, which is a skill in itself; next, shear the sheep, which is no easier; last, release the (happy, lighter) sheep. Their fleeces are taken to a grading house nearby, where they're sorted and baled up. A sample from each bale is taken to Bradford, put up for auction and sold to brokers who clean the wool (essential – imagine how your coat might smell if you'd been wearing it nonstop for a year) before it travels on to its buyers. Thus our bales of Romney wool continue north...
WEST YORKSHIRE: DYING & SPINNING
The first thing that hits you at Laxton's is the aroma of the wool. Yes, it's a natural aroma but it's strong nonetheless. Loose bales of wool fibre go through various processes to become our bespoke yarn – as James Laxton himself tells us, “watching the wool change into yarn is an amazing thing to see, and one not often seen in this country”. His company deals with wool from many regions of the UK and countries around the world, producing yarn for products from clothing and crafts to upholstery and carpets. “I'm inspired to bring manufacturing back to this country because of the joy of making something, and pride in making it here”, says James. “There's nothing better than seeing a concept all the way through to the finished product”, and with that, our Jack Wills yarn travels back down south to continue on its journey.
SOMERSET: WARPING, DRAWING, WEAVING & FINISHING
The mill where our yarn is woven into woollen cloth has been in existence since the 18th century and every brick seems to have a story to tell. By this point our team has been in touch with the experts here at the Great British Cloth Company for months, selecting Romney wool and picking out the combination of yarns to be spun by Laxton, a black and charcoal yarn, made from black and white wool-tops. This will be woven into our bespoke herringbone fabric. Our effort is deemed “interesting and quite unusual” by Amy, one of the team at the mill – “it will make a really beautiful cloth. We like to collaborate with companies, like yours, which have the same ethos as us – you want beautiful fabric where quality isn't compromised”.
WHAT HAPPEN TO THE YARN?
- Warping = the charcoal yarn is put on the warp-creel and wound round the warping mill to the desired length. When the warp is made it is transferred to a beam to be prepared for loom.
- Drawing = each warp-thread (end) is pulled through a wire loop (heddle) by hand. The heddles sit on a series of shafts to create the weaving pattern. Again by hand the ends are pulled through a reed (metal comb) before placing in loom.
- Weaving = In loom the shafts lift in a specific pattern, while the weft thread is passed through the warp at a right angle, interlacing the yarn, creating the fabric.
- Mending/Quality Control = skilled eyes and hands scan the woven cloth for any imperfections which are mended before going onto finishing.
- Finishing = the cloth travels to Roberts in Keighley to be expertly scoured which gives the cloth its fine hand-feel. This process washes the cloth to remove the lanolin [wool wax] found in the yarn. The cloth is cropped and pressed before returning for final inspection.
The finished cloth is packaged and shipped to Blackburn for the final transformation
Constructing a blazer or backpack out of a sheet of fabric can seem, to many of us, like some kind of wizardry (alas, Hermione and co. never taught us a spell for that). Luckily the team at Cookson & Clegg has stitching and sewing and cutting experience that stretches all the way back to 1860, a year when trams arrived on our streets and Dickens published the first instalment of Great Expectations. By WW1 it was making uniforms for the British army and today, we're proud to collaborate on a series of bespoke woollen products – as you've just learnt, all three were made entirely within the UK in places that have been, and still are, an integral part of our textile industry's history.