Our Wool Process
New Lanark today has re-invented its role as the spinning centre it once was, now producing woollen yarn instead of cotton. However we still employ traditional methods similar to those used when the site was a working cotton mill.
The production of woollen yarn at New Lanark started out as a small part of the Visitor Centre experience where tourists could see a working 19th century spinning mule.
It has taken years of experimentation, training, rationalisation and hard work to build our expertise and get production to its current stage but it has been worth the effort and our product is sold around the world!
This section tells you about our production methods, from sourcing the raw product, to our finished yarn.
The raw product
The raw product that we use to produce our wool is called fleece, which comes from sheep.
There are more than 60 different breeds of sheep in Britain, more than in any other country. Their wool is very different often depending on where they live, on hills or lower land, and some are naturally coloured. Different sheep also produce different quantities and weights of fleece.
At New Lanark we work with fleece from the following breeds:
- Kent Romney
Our fleece is bought from a broker and arrives in large bales or bags which are stored in the basement of Mill 3, where most of the production takes place. Most of our fleece comes scoured (cleaned) and if we, or any of our commission customers, want the fleece dyed, it is done before it is delivered here. All of the brokers, scourers and dyers we use are based in Yorkshire. For some of our yarns we add silk (our Donegal Silk range) which softens the yarn. In the silk range there may be up to 10% silk in the yarn.
To create our yarn range we work to a recipe book of finely tuned combinations of weights of different fleece. To create a batch of a particular yarn, particular amounts of specific wool shades are selected, weighed and blended. Our final shades have up to 7 different colours in them.
Blending takes place in the following stages:
- Selected wool is weighed out and spread in layers on the floor (usually light colours first then dark).
- Oil needs to be added to the wool to lubricate it for machine processing as the scouring process takes out the natural lanolin in the wool. Vegetable-based oil is used and the weight of wool determines the percentage of oil needed. The oil is mixed with water (50:50) before being added between each layer of wool on the floor.
- The blending process is the dustiest and dirtiest part of the process. It can take all day - around 8 hours to blend a batch of 500 kilos. The blended wool is then transferred to a large container in the Blend Room, ready for carding.
The main aim of the carding process is to further blend and align the wool fibres. The card rollers all have hundreds of teeth or combs on the surface which do this. The teeth are coarser at the beginning and finer at the end of the machine.
The wool is fed into the hopper at the start of the carding machine from the Blend Room and the carder continues to blend and refine the colour as the wool moves through it.
The last part of the machine divides the wool fibres into 28 loose groups on a large spool ready for spinning.
You can see the carding process take place on the Ground Floor of Mill 3.
Our carding machine is twice as efficient as the spinning mule, therefore there can be a build-up of spools stored and waiting for spinning. Quality control is important, and throughout all processes samples are checked to ensure we maintain the required weight. Our standard weight is 12 cut (lengths).
The production of a 600 kilo batch of wool takes 8 hours to blend and 25 hours to card. The card requires to be cleaned (fettled) between batches.
The process now moves to the Textile Floor on Level 4 of Mill 3.
The spinning mule can take 14 of the large spools with carded wool. Each spool has 28 ends. These ends are pieced to existing yarn or onto empty pirns (spindles). When the carriage of pirns moves out it puts a twist in the yarn and then winds the yarn onto the pirn. The distance that the carriage moves and the amount of length or feed of each end are very specific and it can be adjusted to vary the thickness of the yarn. When the pirns are full of spun yarn they are called cops. The spinning mule makes 1-ply yarn.
On an old hand spinning wheel, production would perhaps be 1 pirn of spun yarn per day. In comparison, our spinning mule produces 392 pirns simultaneously about every 1.5-2 hours per day. We can produce over 1,000 pirns per day.
To ensure quality, the spinning mule is stopped and batches are tested at least once per day. It will be tested several times on the first day of a new batch to ensure the correct quality is maintained.
The spinning mule runs every day, but the machine has to be stopped to be doffed (removing full pirns) and also for quality control testing and maintenance.
Winding & plying
The full cops are taken from the spinning mule to the Savio, which is a winding machine. This machine also undertakes quality control processes. The parameters for the desired thickness of the yarn are set by the machine and it runs through 500 metres of yarn per minute onto a large cone or cheese. There are 8 units for cones on the machine and it takes 18-20 cops to make 1 cone. This machine ensures the quality of our yarn and removes any knots or inconsistencies. Unfortunately, this machine is not on public display.
2. Plying - Twisting Frame
To make the yarn into the desired ply it is put through the twisting frame. This is situated beside the spinning mule. This machine twists together the 1-ply strands from the cones to the desired thickness of yarn onto other tubes to create Double Knitting wool (2 strands), Aran wool (3 strands) or Chunky wool (4 strands).
These tubes of yarn are now at the correct thickness, but they need to be prepared for final processing which takes place off site. This final processes required may be scouring (cleaning) and balling/coning. The hanking machine or skeen removes the yarn from the tubes and winds it into big loops called hanks. A hank is just over 1 kilo in weight. This is the preferred format for cleaning the yarn.
The hanks are sent off site for scouring/cleaning in Yorkshire. Remember that up to the point of hanking, the yarn still has oil in it which was re-added at blending. When the yarn has been scoured or washed in hanks, it is 10% lighter as the oil has been removed. When dry, the yarn is balled or coned with our labelling, packaged and returned to New Lanark.
The finished product
We sell our finished product in many ways - in our Gift Shop, at Trade Shows, via our online shop and to wholesalers or commission customers.
How long does the whole process take?
The quickest turnaround from start, blending, to finished product including hanking and balling, is 6 weeks. However, as New Lanark has a wide range of shades available, it could take a few months for a specific shade to be reproduced if our production schedule is full.