By Sandra Dick

WITH their thick and warm fleece to protect against the wildest weather, for Scotland’s sheep there’s no such thing as a bad hair day.

But with prices for their fleece at rock bottom, some farmers have found it more economical to just throw it away.

Now, however, a new project inspired by the advances made in softening treatments for human hair is examining ways to make typically coarse Scottish sheep’s fleece more suitable for use in clothing and other textile products.

Highlands-based sustainable weaver and zero-waste clothing maker, Prickly Thistle Scotland, has teamed up with luxury woollen mill Johnstons of Elgin to explore a new process that could lead to natural, eco-friendly Scottish wool fibres used more widely in the textiles industry north of the Border.

The research project, the first of its kind, is being supported by the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre and the University of Edinburgh.

As part of the feasibility study, chemistry researchers aim to use enzymes that naturally decompose wool to treat the fibres in a controlled way to achieve a thinner, softer material.

Variables such as the temperature, quantity of the enzyme and length of time the fibres are treated for, will be tested to deliver the best outcome.

Despite there being more than six million sheep in Scotland, it can cost farmers more to shear a sheep than the fleece is worth. And while Scottish wool was traditionally admired for its high quality, home-grown wool fleece now is most likely to be used for carpeting or hard-wearing upholstery instead of clothing.

However, with fleece prices at a low, some farmers and crofters have found themselves having to pay for the wool to be taken away by the British Wool Board or, rather than end up out of pocket, simply disposing of the wool on their land.

In one case, a crofter on Skye received just £5.22 from the British Wool Board for her 215kg of fleece, while others were said to have resorted to throwing fleeces on the ground as mats to provide grip for vehicles travelling over muddy gateways, burying them as vegetable patch compost or giving them away free.

The low price for fleece has been fuelled by the pandemic plus a drop

in demand from carpet and mattress manufacturers.

Finding alternative uses for it – such as insulation - have been hampered by high processing costs.

Finding a method to soften the wool would solve an array of problems

for farmers, boost the value of the natural material and help introduce

a new, sustainable product to the textile market.

Globally, less than 1 per cent of fabrics are recycled as clothing, and more than 60% are derived from petrochemicals. Less than 2% of textiles come from animal fibres, while in Scotland the majority of the yarn used in luxury clothing such as cashmere and Merino wool is imported from overseas.

The Prickly Thistle mill, one of the newest mills in Scotland, is the only tartan weaving mill in the Highland region. It uses rare shuttle looms dating from last century and aims to combine 21st century science with native raw materials of Scotland to create its cloth.

The mill recently featured in the Channel 4 series, Miriam And Alan: Lost In Scotland, where acting stars Alan Cumming and Miriam Margolyes designed their own bespoke “Aliam” tartan.

Clare Campbell, founder of Prickly Thistle Scotland, said: “Scotland has a rich heritage of textile manufacturing and, at one point in the 1830s, around seven in 10 workers were employed in the sector. Today, only a few woollen mills remain and sustainability is at the top of the agenda – we are focused on supporting local people and minimising our impact on the planet.

“Textiles is the second most damaging sector in environmental terms and, therefore, a widespread shift away from petrochemical-based products and disposable fast-fashion cannot come soon enough.”

“In this country, we have natural wool available in abundance on an annual basis: it’s a by-product of one of our biggest economic sectors. However, as agriculture tends to be driven by meat yield for livestock breed choices, the trade-off has been that farmers currently earn very little for their wool fleece.

“This project could be the catalyst for a significant shift in Scotland’s approach to manufacturing homegrown clothing and fabrics, bringing our native fleece to a point where we can use more of it for a much wider range of products than ever before.”

Initial results from the study are expected later this year, which will determine whether a suitable yarn quality can be achieved and used in future products designed by both Prickly Thistle and Johnstons of Elgin.

The project team also hope to share their findings with the wider wool industry, in the hope of opening

up a new Scottish supply chain and contributing to the sector’s regeneration.

Chimaeze Onyeiwu, procurement and technical director for cashmere and wool at Johnstons of Elgin, said

the project has the potential to revive Scottish produced wool as a quality product.