“You have to learn this stuff from the beginning. It takes a long time”
Ramon Cobo is the 4th generation of wool makers at the family mill in Castilla La-Mancha. In the time of his great grand father and great uncle, they would collect wool from farms close to Mota and take it by horse and cart to wash the wool by hand in the river. It was then brought back to the mill to be dried, carded and spun into yarn and finally woven into blankets.
Ramon shows me with his hands, how he could hardly reach the top of the wool grading table when he first went to work there. He tells me with a chuckle and a sideways glance that he gave up school in favour of becoming a student of the ‘Wool Academy’.
“I learned from my grandfather, my father and my uncle. First they taught me the beginning of the process. I learned how to grade the wool according to length, micron (cross sectional diameter of the fibre), and colour, and then step by step I learned the rest.
“Not all wool can be washed the same way.” he says. “You need to pay attention to the amount of lanolin in the fleece.” Ramon’s eyes sparkle as he explains more about the production processes that underpin the work that has supported the last 4 generations of his family.
His attention to detail and passion for his work is infectious. From the deep shaft that the wool goes into for baling, to the Heath-Robinson-esque washer with it’s belts, cogs, chains and forks, to the carding machine and the winder, Ramon’s explanations as we tour the mill, are spell-binding.
But there is more to this wool, this mill. Frankly, there is more to Ramon. He may have left school at 14 but his so-called ‘wool academy’ has educated him as an economist, an ecologist and a philosopher..
“Look, since China absorbed 70% of the world’s wool production, they can determine the prices and it’s easier to import cheap Chinese wool. The European mills cannot afford to stay open with those prices so we have wool in Europe but no industry to process it.”
He’s explaining the decline of the family blanket weaving business why he wanted to get out of the carpet wool business.
“We can’t compete with countries that produce the yarn at ridiculous prices. For me making wool is not just a way to live, it’s a way to live happily. If you buy 100g of pure merino wool for less than 10 Euro, then you know for certain that there is some part of the production chain which is wrong. You can’t make a ball of pure merino properly for less than 10 Euro”
“We need to change these things” he says. The solution is a slow market, selling to people with ethics, with values, people who think..” he taps his head.. “people who think about the wool…knitters. We have to try to win this battle.”
The wool is plainly about more than the yarn we have on our needles or even our backs. There are families, sheep herders and traditions behind the wool. Integral to this is the Spanish livestock practice of Transhumance, the seasonal movement of sheep between northern summer and southern winter pastures. It naturally fertilises the soil and benefits the environment. “Did you know that sheep clear debris which reduces the risk of summer forest fires?”. Ramon is constantly joining the dots, circling things back. He’s constantly joining things together to show how they make sense.
So how did an ailing mill that was supplying yarn to an unsympathetic industrial carpet industry make the necessary change which has allowed Ramon to realise his wool dream.
It was 4 years ago when he received a visit from a young woman to the mill. Ramon tells it like this..
“She said, ‘Hello, I am a yarn dyer.’ I said ‘What?'”
She told Ramon she was a hand dyer of knitting yarns, and explained about a world of wool that Ramon knew nothing about.
“I thought knitting was just a thing for old people.”
“So I went to find out more. I went to lots of yarn shops and saw lots of artificial fibre. I also saw wool from Peru and Australia, but I didn’t see wool from Spain. I saw an opportunity for our wool and our farmers.”
I’m tempted to say that Ramon saw more than that though. He saw a version of his own family history reflected back in that opportunity – the sparkle in his eyes is back.
“I saw that our merino wool can be like in the past when my great grandfather started the business.”
And so a new chapter in the family’s wool story began, one that now has the mill powered by solar and running with the help of about 20 workers who spin the small batch yarns of wool from pure merinos, manchegas and other local rare breeds This is a wool story you can’t help but feel good about – his love for the sheep and the history and the process – no wonder the wool the Dehesa and Manchelopis wool they make for us is such a joy to knit with.
I ask him if his son will one day join him to work in the mill.
“I only want him to be happy. If that is with wool, even better.” He pauses, smiles and continues “..but the first word he said after mama, was Lana.”