Hi-tech softening enzymes offer hope of revival for Scotland’s wool industry Scotland

In a lab in Edinburgh, carefully selected enzymes are currently breaking down wool in the name of science.

In a world-first research project that is believed to revolutionize the Scottish wool industry, textile researchers are looking for ways to treat coarse wool, often produced by flocks from the hills, to make it suitable for clothing.

The project is a collaboration between Scotland’s youngest and oldest mills, zero waste designers Prickly Trussle and Elgin’s century-old luxury weavers Johnstones.

“Wool is an amazing fiber, but in the 21st century we have no science applied to it in this country. ‘Is it fat or thin, soft or itchy?’ We ask,” said Clare Campbell, founder of Prickly Trussle Highlands, speaking from a pop-up shop in Chelsea, London Fashion Week asking her fellow designers to do it. “Make every fleece count”.

Research being carried out in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh’s Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Center has identified three enzymes capable of naturally altering the structure of wool in a controlled way to achieve thinner and softer fibres.

“Now we’re looking at the manufacturing reality of that beyond the lab, how does it work on a larger scale, and still have the strength to be used in weaving?” Campbell says.

While merino is mostly imported from Australia and cashmere from China, most of the soft wool is imported for clothing, Campbell says, Scottish wool is mostly available as a by-product from farm sheep for their meat.

Wool fabrics
Woolen fabrics at Prickly Knits pop-up shop in Chelsea, London. Photo: David Levine / The Guardian

But it tends to be tougher than wool from sheep grown in mountainous areas and harsh climates, and the price of wool – especially for heavy grade – has fallen in recent years. It has been reported that rural farmers find it not worth their while to sell the sheared wool and instead dump it in sheds or leave it in the fields for composting.

The current experiment is one way to take full advantage of our home-grown resources as consumers become more aware of the environmental damage to the textile industry, relying on petrochemical-based products and disposable fast fashion. There is the potential for a wider impact on the wool industry, which has seen much of its infrastructure shrink over the past century, with sustainability at its heart.

“Scotland has a rich textile manufacturing heritage, at one point in the 1830s seven out of 10 workers were employed in the sector,” says Campbell. “Today only a few woolen factories remain. This project will contribute to a significant change in our approach to the production of home clothes and textiles and to the point where we can use local wool for a wider range of products than before.

Managers of the British Wool Consortium, which collects, grades and sells sheep’s wool, owned by 35,000 sheep farmers in England, hope the Edinburgh research will have a “significant impact on stimulating new demand”.

Business development manager Haldi Cranich-Wood explains that the industry has declined across the UK but there are still some fantastic producers based in Scotland who specialize in using British wool, such as Harris Tweed and Lochcarron Tartan. The historic Cheviot breed, found in the Scottish Borders, produces “one of the softest wools in the entire UK wool clip”, she says.

“People think British wool is only suitable for rugs and socks, but we have the most diverse wool clip in the coastal world and this comes down to our unique breed mix. We make over 100 quality wools from British wool, and a huge range of fine and Medium wool is best suited for knitwear.

As local and commercial needs align, Cranch-Wood said, “There is an opportunity here for people to start producing on a larger scale across the UK and have access to local wool fibre.” Money is coming back and confidence is coming back as consumers are changing and business is changing.”

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