A brave new world for wool

19 July 2023

A photo of Kate Drury, head of Sustainable Wood Ltd.

A fourth-generation sheep farmer is championing British wool with a sustainable alternative to plastic rope. British Farmer and Grower Content Editor Beth Wright explores the journey so far, from aquaculture to the King's Coronation.

It’s an unlikely trio – sheep, the sea, and the Coronation of King Charles III – but somehow fourth-generation farmer Kate Drury has managed to connect them.

The secret is her company, Sustainable Rope Ltd, which sells wool rope commercially. The business produces rope, fabric and other products including dog leads, sheep halters, and horse lead reins, all made with 100% traceable British wool sourced from the British Wool Auction.

Its namesake offers a sustainable alternative to traditional plastic rope, reducing microplastic pollution, and is being used in trials to repopulate the seas around Britain with kelp and to replace plastic rope to grow seaweed.

The company’s fabric, meanwhile, is being used in the permaculture industry to manage the invasion of foreign species and seeding of areas of unstable land, and as a substrate in sea grass trials.

Recently named as one of the 50 winners of this year’s Women in Innovation Awards, run by Innovate UK and UKRI (UK Research and Innovation), Kate is passionate about supporting British sheep farmers and championing wool and its value.

As producers of wool, we have a role to play to remind people of the value that sits in our wools. It’s a conversation that we need be having a lot more.”

Kate Drury, Sustainable Rope


She says not only does sourcing all her wool through the auction – where graders take about four years to learn their skill – give her both assurance and insurance, it also allows her to support all 35,000 sheep farmers as opposed to just one if she were to buy direct from the farm gate.

Empowering farmers

Kate, who was elected as a British Wool board member in 2021, is passionate that her rope can move from farm to consumer while being made solely in the UK, meaning she has oversight of the entire supply chain. The long-term aim is for her innovation to increase demand for wool, and, in turn, increase the return to Britain’s farmers.

She believes that in the face of tough wool prices and a difficult market the key is investing energy into innovation.

“Things must change because the market is not sustainable as it is.

“We know what we can head for but it’s the how we do it that is the issue. I want to empower farmers. Currently, their return is resultant of the market, so we’ve got to change that.”

The way to do it, she says, is to look beyond the traditional markets for wool and highlight the scope of innovation the fibre offers.

“There’s a lot of research around innovation within the product, but we need innovation in new markets that have never used wool, which is where I’ve positioned my company,” she adds.

Kelp to Coronation

Among those new markets is aquaculture. Less than two years on from the company’s launch, Kate’s rope is being used in trials to repopulate the seas around Britain with kelp and to replace the plastic rope used to grow seaweed.

While Kate says plastic rope can take up to 40 years to degrade and has the potential to contaminate the seas with microplastics, she explains her wool alternative will biodegrade in about three to four months. It can also be brought back on land as a fertiliser and can go back to its original components, providing a circular economy.

Steve Allnott of the Sussex Seabed Restoration Project is among those trialling the wool rope. He uses the rope as a substrate on which to grow kelp sporophtyes as part of his bid to repopulate kelp forests which help to enhance marine biodiversity.

Steve likens the project to rewilding and says that, while it’s still early days, it’s great to know the wool rope works as an eco-friendly substrate for the kelp sporophtyes.


Funding further research

Meanwhile, as part of her PhD and her Women in Innovation win, Kate is funding research in how her rope could be used in commercial seaweed farming and habitat restoration in a marine environment.

“There is as much value in researching habitat restoration as there is in commercial aquaculture,” she notes.

Back on dry land, Kate’s rope was used to fix one mile of wool bunting in the London neighbourhood of Savile Row, Clifford Street, Old Burlington Street and parts of St James’s to mark last month’s Coronation of King Charles III.

The community initiative was organised by the Campaign for Wool and Savile Row Bespoke and saw apprentice tailors in each company create the bunting using red, white, and blue wool Melton fabric from AW Hainsworth, a fabric historically used in red military uniforms.

“I was so proud that something we have created here, made with 100% British wool off British farms, was part of such a big event in history,” Kate says.

As to what’s next, Kate reiterates British wool’s strength is in its diversity and the opportunities it poses.

“The way we collect, present to market and auction is globally unique. As producers of wool, we have a role to play to remind people of the value that sits in our wools. It’s a conversation that we need be having a lot more. For me, that is what we are overlooking. The focus needs to be on the market and not the product.”

For more information on Kate's work and products, visit: Sustainable Rope Ltd – Proud manufacturers of Natural Fibre Rope.

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