A Journey Through Wool Innovation and Circularity

Revisiting the innovators from across the wool supply chain championing a Circular Action Plan for UK wool.

Posted on: 28/07/2023


What springs to mind when you think of wool? Clothing? Carpets? What about tree shelters (NexGen), wool rope (Sustainable Rope Ltd), draught excluders or growing medium for your garden (Chimney Sheep)? The Wool Community of the Innovate UK Circular Economy Innovation Network (CEIN) have been uncovering the exciting world of wool innovation. For the first time, we have brought together a UK-wide group of passionate and committed innovators from across the wool supply chain to develop a Circular Action Plan for UK wool. One year on, we’re here to report on those who are championing some fascinating progress in the sector and why it’s time to invest in wool! 


Culture & context

In the UK, we’ve somehow gone from relying on wool for survival and economic prosperity to favouring cheaper materials made from finite resources. The story of repurposing woollen cloth (the shoddy and mungo trade) goes back 200 years and is a tale of early textile recycling. A once thriving industry has now been lost and cannot function as it once did. John Parkinson, from iinouiio, has been involved with traditional Yorkshire mechanical wool recycling for over 30 years and suggests that if brands want to help revive textile circularity, they may need to adjust business models to support sustainable profit-making and, most importantly, re-think ‘wool waste’ as a valuable ‘raw material’.  

Government strategy is now supporting major UK industries to adapt their supply chains for a circular economy, but the public also has a key role to play in supporting ethical pricing for higher quality items, using products for longer periods, and seeking the means to reuse and recycle. So, let’s take a closer look at how wool could help the embed circular practices at home and across major industries!  


Wool versatility & potential

Wool is a renewable, natural, biodegradable material we are producing on our doorstep as a by-product of the sheep industry – and it is both underused and undervalued. It is a fantastic material for a variety of textiles with a suite of properties difficult to replicate in synthetic materials. Wool keeps you warm (temperature regulating/insulating), smelling fresh (antibacterial) and can reduce your energy bills (just hang pure wool products out to ‘air’ – no need to wash). But this is just the start as wool has an incredible number of applications across multiple industries such as construction, horticulture, and packaging, which are yet to be fully realised. 

It is important to understand that UK farmers annually shear their sheep to keep them from overheating in summer. Most farmers are currently shearing at a loss and until wool prices increase it is going to be difficult to inspire and motivate some farmers to put time and resource into selling their wool. There has also been some debate over the need to reduce livestock numbers in the UK, but even if we halved the number of sheep grazing in the UK, we would still have a minimum of ~16.5 million kg of wool available for processing. Despite its magic properties, wool accounts for just 1% of global fibre production and UK farmer income from wool makes up less than 3% of the revenue gained from rearing sheep. How do we change this…? 


Of ‘coarse’ you can use wool for that!

Wool isn’t just about yarn and fibre. A substantial portion of the incredibly varied fleece from the 60 sheep breeds, and nearly 120 wool grades (see the British Wool catalogue), produced in the UK is referred to as ‘coarse’ and isn’t as valued for next-to-skin textiles. However, coarse wool is just as much of a smart technical fibre with plenty of value-add uses in non-textile industries. Applications include composite materials in packaging and construction, due to its outstanding flexibility, flame resistance, odour absorption, sound proofing (Woolly Shepherd) and breathability to encourage a movement towards ‘healthy’ houses with improved air quality. A recent Innovate UK funded project, led by Ruth Marie Mackrodt (Wool Insulation Wales), has explored the use of innovative microbiome technology to produce a sustainable method for moth proofing wool insulation. Ruth continues to take advantage of Innovate UK funding for collaborative work with Built Environment – Smarter Transformation to test wool composite materials for use in construction, and recently presented at our ‘Wool Use in Construction’ webinar, more of which will be coming later this year! 

Wool also contains significant amounts of protein and minerals such as potassium and nitrogen relevant for use in horticulture, silviculture, and agriculture. Dr Joanne Roberts and her team at Glasgow Caledonian University are investigating non-fibre uses of wool – using anaerobic digestion to extract protein and other nutrients. Products from companies like Hortiwool, Wool SHrED and Chimney Sheep also produce coarse wool and recycled wool materials/mats to act as fertiliser, slug repellent, and enhance soil structure for improved plant health and yield. For silviculture, there are biodegradable wool composite tree shelters already in production (NexGen) to replace the typically used plastic guards. Wool is also able to hold multiple times its weight in water – a highly relevant characteristic to combat periods of drought and heat waves which have led to tree and crop losses across the UK as we experience the impacts of climate change. The use of wool to replace traditional mulching has yet to be fully realised but has the potential to drastically reduce labour costs, protect against temperature shocks and act as a weed suppressor with minimal use of herbicides or plastic matting. 


New technologies emerging to aid wool processing

Wool also contains lanolin – removed in the washing (or ‘scouring’) process and sold either to the shrimp industry as a feed source or used in cosmetics. The processing of wool to remove both organic matter and oil is dominated by two companies in the UK, and large investments have been made to ensure both water and heat is recycled where possible. Potential solutions for washing wool without water or detergents have been discovered through the Innovate UK KTN Innovation Exchange (iX) Platform by Colin Spencer Halsey, CEO of The Natural Fibre Company. Colin is pioneering work to test the use of ‘supercritical carbon dioxide’ to clean wool, with promising early results; a technology typically used to extract flavours and oils from herbs, flowers, and vegetables provided by companies such as Nova Extraction. Colin is committed to establishing his company as a ‘customised development house’ for wool product R&D and is also exploring the potential of Artificial Intelligence to optimise wool processing operations to meet product specifications when there is a high amount of variation in the type and condition of fleece available. 


New technologies to increase wool softness

Speaking of value; for the textile industry (a major global wool market) the finer the wool, the higher the price. Emerging innovations and pioneering technologies are underway to help UK farmers and textile producers meet this demand. These include the use of enzymes by Clare Campbell from Prickly Thistle to soften wool fibres and the development of on farm wool testing and wool-quality focussed breeding strategies. In the current wool market, enabling the production of finer, higher value wool would prevent a rise in the rearing of ‘wool-shedding’ sheep which has resulted from the farming community need to avoid the cost of shearing whilst maintaining welfare standards. However, as we are approaching Net Zero 2040/2050 deadlines, it is not logical to remove wool as a valuable carbon sink and a potential carbon commodity – similar to that of trees or peatland areas. 


Relevance to current global challenges

A recent chat with John Royle (National Farmers Union) highlighted that “even if you put aside the focus on bringing economic value to farmers for their wool – there is value in reinforcing the message that the sheep sector produces 2 products (protein and wool) for the same inputs, the latter of which is currently undervalued and could aid the sector to move towards NetZero.” In addition to this, Innovate UK KTN has been proud to support farmer Rob Hodgkins in the development of methane emissions testing in sheep – showing the potential for future breeding programmes to reduce emissions (see BBC and Farmer’s Weekly articles).  


National wool strategy

There is recognition that a renewed national sheep strategy is needed to forecast sheep numbers and wool production in the UK long term, however, efforts to do this will be best placed when relative geo-political and market stability has returned to ensure the longevity of any strategic policy making. The industry is extremely interested in producing an accurate Life Cycle Analysis for the sector and we discuss the accuracy of current calculations in our Wool Action Plan. British Wool (handlers of 75% of the UK’s wool) and Ulster Wool have made significant R&D investments and are involved in several innovative projects to combat key barriers to market value and growth, including the development of a fully traceable system and creating just Life Cycle Analysis metrics for the sector. We arranged a knowledge exchange visit to British Wool for those working across textiles, construction, food safety and waste management – reflections from their ‘learning journey’ are available to view in our 2 min film. 


Next steps

The time is right to move forward, reinvigorate public interest in wool and accelerate business involvement in circular wool innovation. Watch this space for the announcement of upcoming Innovate UK CEIN events – which aim to, for the first time, host the body of UK wool research and innovation in one location, alongside other industries, potential collaborators, and investors. In the meantime, for more information about the key challenges of the wool sector and how you could be involved – read our Action Plan, join the CEIN Wool Community, or introduce yourself on our LinkedIn Page


By Jo Gosling, Knowledge Transfer Manager – Aquaculture and Livestock, & Debbie Tully, Knowledge Transfer Manager – Food.

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