In conversation with Wooltex

Our mill, Wooltex, is located in a part of the UK that has been at the heart of textile manufacturing for centuries. It is a place where tradition and innovation go hand in hand.

Wooltex, co-owned by Kvadrat, is one of our longest standing partner suppliers and is a specialist in the production of natural wool textiles. Here, Richard Brook; Wooltex’s Technical Director, explains his company’s efforts to achieve ever-more efficient and sustainable production and the glories of working with nature’s own ‘wonder fibre’.

In what ways does Wooltex innovate its processes?

Wooltex has insourced all the production processes and upgraded its machinery. The new machines use much less energy and water. The new dyeing machines use only a few litres of water per kilogram of wool in comparison to 20 litres previously. Some 85% of the water used in the process is recycled. The closed system of machines reduces energy and heat loss in the production process and recycles the chemicals. During the winding process, new robot technology enables loose yarn ends to be connected to one long thread of yarn. This optimises the use of yarn in the production process and reduces the amount of broken yarn that ends up as waste. Once woven, textiles need to be cleaned and destressed to ensure continuity in quality and in the way the textiles respond when handled around furniture designs. This is traditionally done in wet processes, but new technology has allowed Remix and Steelcut Trio to be run through a dry process, thereby saving water. Dyeing processes have been optimised by recycling water to save water resources. All waste water is cleaned and 50% of the water is actually recycled and used in the dyeing process once again.

Tell us about Wooltex's role in the culture and economy of the local area.
Last year we purchased around 12 million pounds worth of goods from within a 20mile radius of our mill. We buy locally whenever we can, thereby creating jobs for the local economy. The textile industry has substantially declined in this area and so our input is especially important.

We have very close partnerships with local suppliers that go beyond the usual. There is a chain of small businesses that are each extremely reliant on one another: Our dyers, finishers and spinners are largely within a 30minute radius. Most are family businesses now in their 3rd or 4th generation and have generations of manufacturing knowledge.

It is good for the local economy and community that a company like Wooltex is thriving. We want to keep skills in this area and so we hire apprentices to learn the industry, staff training is very important to us. We also work very closely with Huddersfield University and the local Textile Centre of Excellence. This year Wooltex won a Queens Award for Enterprise in the category of International Trade, something we are all very proud of.

Can you tell us a little about the geography of the area?
The local geography and climatic are an important part of why Huddersfield is the centre of wool manufacturing in the UK - the textile industry was born here during the Industrial Revolution. The area is surrounded by the Pennine mountains. Weather systems coming from the Atlantic hit the mountains and cause heavy rainfall on the western side of the hills (Lancashire). This wet weather is best suited to cotton manufacturing and the area became the world centre for cotton fabric production in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. On the eastern side of the mountains where Huddersfield is situated, rainfall is less and the conditions are more suitable to the production of wool. In addition, the rock formations in Huddersfield result in an abundance of ‘soft’ water, vital for the finishing of wool textiles.

What are you doing to make your production more efficient and sustainable?
Our business has grown enormously in the last few years and so there has been an almost constant investment in warping and weaving machines to increase capacity. Production on our new machines is more than three times faster, making us much more efficient. Our investment in new machinery and processes is now almost complete. Part of this includes a state-of-the-art dyeing facility and the first UK wool-finishing department to open for many decades. The aim is to improve our competitiveness, make us more responsive to the needs of Kvadrat, and to reduce our impact on the environment.

The new machines we have installed use much less energy and water. For example, our new dyeing machines use only a few litres of water per kilogram of wool in comparison to 20 litres previously. 85% of the water we use is recycled and we employ solar energy for some of the power in the mill. We are also exploring the possibility of finishing fabrics without the need for any chemicals or water at all! In addition, Wooltex is a virtually zero waste company and we recycle all our cardboard, oil, plastics, etc.

Protecting the environment is very important to everyone at Wooltex and we of course specialise in one of the most sustainable of all fibres: wool. Wool is natural, sustainable; it is biodegradable, energy efficient - if it were invented today, it would be called a wonder fibre!

How has your wool production changed over the years? Or is fundamentally the same as it has always been?
The basic principles of wool manufacturing have changed little. However, machinery used today is faster, more efficient, computer controlled, and is more environmentally friendly. There is a strong sense of tradition in this industry but people are very adaptable to change and improvement.

What are the future ambitions of the mill in terms of sustainability?

The mill is already accredited to ISO 9000 and we expect to achieve ISO 14000 by the end of this year. We will continue to monitor energy usage and look at alternative sources of water and the most energy efficient machines. We are also increasingly careful with our building, we make sure it is well insulated, uses LED lighting and we are even currently trying to reduce noise for the benefit of our neighbours (the mill still sits alongside the homes of our workers as it always did). We are even working with Kvadrat on an exciting project, still in its early stages, to make use of our waste yarn.