Pete Glanville on Working with Organic Wool
Pete Glanville is the secretary of ShetlandOrganics, a Community Interest Company in Shetland, dedicated to the production of Organic Shetland wool; he has a lovely flock of organic, coloured Shetland sheep which he and Linda Glanville shepherd in Tingwall. Here they are!
The ShetlandOrganics Community Interest Group includes several other shepherds, who – like Pete and Linda – are growing organic Shetland wool in Shetland. There are quite a few shepherds who have begun to concentrate on a certified organic production system here in the UK in recent years, and we thought you might be interested to read more about what is involved in taking the organic route as a yarn producer. Therefore this evening Pete Glanville has very kindly provided us with a Q&A about ShetlandOrganics. All the words are © Pete Glanville, while the photos are © Felicity Ford. All the sheep shown belong to Pete and Linda Glanville while all the textiles have been produced by different artists and makers using ShetlandOrganics wool, and were displayed at Vaila Fine Art during Shetland Wool Week in a glorious sheepy celebration of what can be done with this distinctive textile
WOVEMBER: Could you tell WOVEMBER readers a little bit about Shetland Organics and the different shepherds and sheep involved?
Pete: ShetlandOrganics Community Interest Company was set up in 2008 out of a desire by Shetland Organic Producers’ Group (SOPG) to form a trading arm. SOPG was formed in September 2001, with ten organically certified sheep producers among its membership at that time. There are now eleven organic certified producers and processors that include six sheep producers. These organic units vary in size from a croft of just 40 ha to a farm of 700 ha.
WOVEMBER: In the world of organic food production, one of the things that seems to have really taken off is product differentiation, and also increased consumer awareness regarding different types of breeds, provenance, etc. I wondered if you feel this model could be useful at all for wool growers and indeed whether looking at the ideas surrounding organic food market played a role in the decision for you and the other shepherds involved to move to organic wool production?
Pete: Only one of our members is marketing organic lamb, but three or four units supply him with lambs for that market. The Native Shetland sheep is renowned for the special nature of the meat, both lamb and mutton, and this equally applies to the fleeces from this breed. Prices obtained for fleeces at the time we first formed SOPG were very poor, and there was little interest in the coloured fleeces in particular.
ShetlandOrganics decided that there had to be a way of improving on that situation, and now its members concentrate on the native breed in the production and processing of yarns from natural coloured fleeces. Some organic certified dyed yarns are also produced. ShetlandOrganics CIC has concentrated on product development utilising only pure 100% Organic Native Shetland Wool, and placing it at the top end market, emphasising the unique variety of colours and shades available from this native breed.
WOVEMBER: What are the positive benefits involved in switching to organic production for the wool-grower?
Pete: The description ‘organic’ is the only one that is subject to EU and national regulation. ‘Organic’ production means working with natural systems rather than seeking to dominate them, as is often the case in intensive farming systems, and to minimise the use of animal medicines and non-renewable natural resources such as the fossil fuels used in the manufacture of fertilisers and pesticides. However, once the producer accepts these principles and can comply with the certifying authority’s requirements regarding record keeping etc., it is possible to benefit from an improved financial return on the products, whether that be meat or fibre.
WOVEMBER: What are some of the challenges involved in establishing a sheep to shoulders process that is certified organic?
Pete: Under an organic system, animals are kept in ways that minimise the need for medicines and other chemical treatments. There are strict regulations controlling the use of all treatments, and animal welfare is of utmost importance. Therefore, if an animal is sick it is essential that the correct treatment be employed under the direction of a veterinary practitioner. However, normal withdrawal periods for medicines, including dips are increased by 100%. Should the ailment entail special treatment, derogation from the Organic Standards has to be obtained from the Certifying Authority. Under certain circumstances this might not be permissible, and the organic status of that animal could be lost.
In addition to the producer’s organic certificate and before a fleece can be utilised in the production of organic textiles, a Livestock Veterinary Treatment Declaration detailing the courses of veterinary treatments for external parasite control administered to each animal has to be provided. These days there is a general awareness that there may be traces of residues from fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides in finished food products, and this also applies to the fleeces of sheep. No external treatments should have been administered within 3 months prior to the date of clipping. The processing of the fleeces into yarn has to be carried out by a spinning mill that also has organic status. In the UK that means Soil Association Certification Ltd. (SA), who also certifies ShetlandOrganics for the handling of the raw fleeces, carrying out the manufacturing of garments and the marketing and packaging of the final product. Currently there are just two spinning mills in the UK with such certification: The Natural Fibre Company in Cornwall and New Lanark, Scotland. Therefore all organic fleeces produced in Shetland have to be sent to UK mainland for processing.
WOVEMBER: You yourself have a small flock of organic Shetland sheep; could you say something about them and the land that they live on?
Pete: Linda and I own a small croft of 40 hectares in Tingwall, in the Central Mainland of Shetland. This comprises about 35 ha of rough hill ground and the remainder permanent grassland in-bye. We have a flock of 10 pure-bred Shetland ewes that produce on average 10 lambs each year plus 2 gimmers. We do not carry our own ram, but get one from our organic neighbour in December for tupping. Generally this is a tup lamb, the colour of which we alter, depending on the predominating colour of the off-spring each year, in order to maintain a good variety of colours in the flock. Most of the year, the sheep are kept on the hill, but come down for lambing and later to graze the aftermath following the cutting of silage.
WOVEMBER: What are the highlights for you in the shepherding year?
Pete: There is no doubt that Linda’s favourite time is lambing in May, when they are brought in-bye. I on the other hand am content to see the flock doing their own thing on the hill!
WOVEMBER: Processing organic wool presents several complexities which readers of WOVEMBER might not be aware of; would you be able to outline these here? Obviously one of the things that is amazing about producing a small, niche product such as Organic Shetland Wool is that it has a very specific cachet value. However, are there any problems associated with protecting that cachet value, and how does dealing with small quantities of wool work when it comes to negotiating with spinning mills?
Pete: Because of the small scale of production and high level of ‘hands-on’ intervention required this becomes one of the first opportunities for the consumer to obtain full traceability from croft to finished product. ShetlandOrganics CIC is a registered Trade Mark for organic yarns, garments etc. made in Shetland. The two spinning mills mentioned above are quite different in terms of the quantity of material they are able to process; while Natural Fibres have a minimum batch size of 20 kg of fleeces, New Lanark will only accept 500 kg per batch. The other difference to note is Natural Fibres has on-site scouring (washing), while fleeces for New Lanark first have to go to an outside organic certified scourer.
WOVEMBER: Have you got any advice for other wool producers maybe considering pursuing an organic wool route?
Pete: Our advice would be first to look at the market opportunities, and processes from flock to yarn, and consider whether you want to sell the finished product as processed yarn or as fleeces for hand-spinning or machine-spun to be sold by others. For the former route, you have to obtain full certification by Soil Association, complying with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). There is no doubt that there is a revival in the use of natural fibres, and home-knitting in particular; so the opportunity is out there for the (dedicated) entrepreneur.
WOVEMBER: Could you say a few words about dealing with multiple mills and multiple yarn types?
Pete: Since we started processing yarns, we have used the services of five different spinning mills. For one reason or the other three of these have dropped their certification. Each one had a distinct product, and so, as we have a small stock of yarns from each, there is an inconsistency about the weights; some being finer or softer than others. This has to be highlighted when dealing with customers, as each batch might well vary in colour as well as texture.
WOVEMBER: Finally, for WOVEMBER readers, what will your sheep be up to this Wovember?
Pete: At present, the flock are enjoying the last of the grass along with the two Shetland cattle, but soon they will be put back to the hill, with the lambs taken off. Two of these will be kept in-bye as replacement gimmers for next season.
THANK YOU Pete, for telling us a bit more about some of what is involved in the production of organic Shetland wool! At Vaila Fine Art this year during Shetland Wool Week there was an extraordinary display of different things created using your yarn, including work by Sheila Fowlie, Andrea Williamson, Helen Whitham, Mati Ventrillon and Sue White. Di Gilpin has also worked with your yarn has of course fellow WOVEMBERIST, Kate Davies!
Here is a selection of some of the wonderful things spotted at Vaila Fine Art during Shetland Wool Week, all created in organic Shetland wool and conveying some of the lovely things that can be created out of this special, traceable product.