Velieris

Tucked away in an industrial pocket of Braybrook, Velieris manufacture beautiful carpets and rugs. I visited because they offer scouring as a service to other textile businesses.

Fibre first

Rocco, the production manager showed me around on the day. We started in the scouring room, which was piled high with bales of fibre. Velieris buys wool and alpaca fibre from co-ops who gather local fibre in a central location. The fibre is sorted for quality, length and colour at the co-op, then delivered to Melbourne. Velieris also buys fibre from Peru and NZ to make up the quantities they need.

Scoured fibre

Scoured fibre

The company scours for doona and pillow manufacturers, local processers and UK spinning mills. Velieris accept orders between 1000-50kg, which makes their service accessible to smaller players.

Clean it up

Bubbles!

Bubbles!

Velieris use an eco soap in their scouring bowls. The first four bowls have soap; their water is steam heated. Effluent from scouring goes through their water treatment plant to remove the soap. Some chemicals are used at this stage. They also need to cool the water down before it is released. Their sludge, all the dirt removed in scouring, goes into landfill.

Water treatment

Water treatment

At this stage, if the fibre has been processed for an external company, Rocco bales the scoured fibres up and sends them off. All the carpet fibre moves to the next stage of mixing, carding and combing.

Mix it up

Velieris specialise in luxury naturally coloured products. They use a weighing machine to mix colour ‘recipes’. Eliminating the dying process reduces water usage and retains the softness of the wool and alpaca fibres Velieris use.

Weighing machine (green, on left) and carder (grey box on right)

Weighing machine (green, on left) and carder (grey box on right)

There’s no need for dehairing, because this fibre is destined for carpet. The fibres are sucked into a huge carding machine, then transfered to combers. Melbourne’s manufacturing history feels very close when you’re standing next to these old, but still powerful machines.

Combing machines

Combing machines

The combed fibres are gilled twice to even them out before spinning. I loved watching the fibre snake up into the gilling machine!

The resulting slivers are then spun and plyed into carpet yarn. The yarn is tufted before heading to the loom to be woven into carpet. Velieris do moth proof their carpets, but they are happy to skip this step at the customer’s request.

Weaving it together

Carpet maker

Carpet loom

The carpet loom is a thing of wonder. I couldn’t capture it all in a photo, so I’ll try to describe it. You have the loom up one end of the factory of course, but what you see is more like a yarn blood system. Leading into the loom are about 10 metal frames. Each frame holds about 10 cones of yarn. Each cone of yarn is strung through the frame, to the loom to make the warp. The whole system takes up about 15 square metres. It’s impressive.

Once woven, the carpet gets checked over by hand for any blemishes like loose threads. It’s trimmed to create a neat consistent top, then sent off for backing. Velieris makes the carpet entirely at their Braybrook workshop, except for the latex backing. This is done by an external specialist in Melbourne because it’s cheaper.

Checking for blemishes

Checking for blemishes

Side line

There was one row of spinning machines that weren’t running when I visited. These machines were bought in error – they are fine yarn spinners. Rocco’s been experimenting with them to get a good product to attract a buyer with. He can get a 270 tex yarn. He’s met a group interested in returning fine yarn spinning to Melbourne, but they don’t yet have the skills to use the machinery. Will we see fine yarns in this Fibreshed again one day?

Carpet and fine yarn samples from Velieris

Carpet and fine yarn samples from Velieris


Victorian Wool Processors

I didn’t expect to be visiting a wool scourer. There’s a view in crafting circles of Australia that wool scouring has left Australia. It turns out that scouring does still exist. Victoria Wool Processors was as interested in having me visit, as I was in visiting them.

Getting started

David, the managing director of Victoria Wool Processors (VWP) showed me around the factory. He was open about the environmental challenges of scouring, and passionate about the potential of wool as a natural material.

Raw wool bales on a conveyer to be broken up

Raw wool bales on a conveyer to be broken up

VWP purchases wool directly from Australian farmers, to meet orders from overseas mills. The raw wool arrives compressed in bales and is broken up before scouring.

Scouring

VWP use one million litres of potable water a day as well as 100,000 litres of bore water. That’s down from 1.3 million litres of potable water during Melbourne’s last drought. David is working to use less potable water. The alternative is bore water, which needs desalination.

​The raw wool drops into the first scouring bowl, a dark mix of greasy wool, detergent and dirty water. David surprised me by explaining that at this stage, dirty water is better for cleaning the wool! The wool is agitated and moved around by metal forks. It then passes through rollers to press out the water, grease and dirt. The wool drops into a new scouring bowl to start the process again. In total, there are seven scouring bowls in VWP’s system.

David explained that fresh water enters the system at the last, cleanest bowl. It travels down the system by gravity; each bowl’s height is lower than the previous bowl. Eventually it reaches the first, dirtiest scouring bowl. Here the water is drawn off to separate out the dirt and grease. That water is then recycled back into the dirtiest scouring bowl.

Wool grease

Wool grease

The separated wool grease is packed up for export to make into lanolin. Lanolin is used for personal care products,  lubricants and even vitamin D suppliments for livestock. It’s a useful ingredient, and contributes to 50% of VWP’s income.

Solid waste collected for fertiliser

Solid waste collected for fertiliser

The remaining solid waste is collected in huge piles at the back of VWP’s property and composted. After 6 months the grass seeds in the mix have died off and its likely to be a useful farm fertiliser.

Scouring gives a 52% yield, which means that around 48% of raw wool is actually grease, sweat and muck. Wow. The scouring process removes most, but not all vegetable matter. Depending on the end use, vegetable matter is spun off during top making, or VWP removes it by carbonising the fibre.​ 95% of VWP wool is scoured for bedding products, the remaining 5% is carbonised for fashion fibres.

Carbonising

During carbonising, the fibre drops into a sulphuric acid and water bath, then neutralised in an alkaline bath. This process repeats two more times; the acid dries the seed. The next stage heats the fibre up to 110 degrees celcius, which dries the seed further. Finally, the fibre drops into a line of crushers, which reduce the seed to a dust that is removed.

acid bath and crushing machine

An acid bath (left), and crushing machine used during the carbonisation process

The acid bath is recycled for two weeks. Only the water in the bath needs topping up because it evaporates over this time. The acid and alkaline baths are combined to neutralise them before disposal. The seed dust from the crushers is pure carbon, so that is added to the solid waste to aid composting. The workers in this section wore face masks because the air is dusty.

I asked David why the extra effort of carbonising is worth it. He explained that it softens the fibres, which is useful with fashion products. The process is also very good at removing vegetable matter. This is a particular issue for Australia, because of the sticky burrs we have in the paddocks.

Last steps

Whether it is just scoured, or carbonised as well, the wool is bleached with hydrogen peroxide.

Drying tube

Drying tube

The drying machine contains huge perforated barrels. The wool drops on the outside of the first barrel and air sucks from within. This spreads the wool flat across the surface of the barrel and dries it. As the barrel rotates, the wool passes to the next barrel, moving the fibres around so it dries evenly.

Dried wool

Dried wool

The dry wool is then sucked up into a pipe that runs along the ceiling of the factory. This gets it to over to the baling machine in another part of the factory. It’s quite Willy Wonka-esque!

Walking over to this section of the factory felt like Christmas. The dried wool dropped from the ceiling pipe into one of several huge piles on the ground. It was gorgeous. The wool is quality checked one last time before being passed to the baling machine.

The bales are so heavy, David has strict safety rules for how they should be handled.

Baled wool

Baled wool

The business of scouring

Victoria Wool Processors scour 3% of Australia’s total wool clip. The company employs 17 people. Its activities generate the same level of waste as 80,000 people (per year?). Labour and waste disposal are David’s two major costs of business.

Currently most VWP product sells directly to mills in South East Asia and China. Their production calendar is organised around the Northern hemisphere buying cycle. David would like to expand sales to Europe, a market that demands solid eco credentials.​ It’s a good time to do this. At current exchange rates, the cost of scouring in Australia is competitive with China.

AWP's Central control and monitoring system

VWP’s Central control and monitoring system

​It was fascinating to see VWP’s machinery in action. I felt welcomed by the staff, who were curious about my visit. They clearly had a comfortable relationship with their boss. I can see that David is motivated by environmental as well as commercial concerns. It’s interesting to see the solutions he’s come up with so far.


Washing and Scouring

At its most basic, scouring is a way of cleaning textile fibres. Wool that’s been shorn from a sheep is known as greasy, or raw wool. Just under 50% of raw wool isn’t actually wool at all: it’s grease, dirt, sweat (suint), burrs and seeds. Many other animal fibres also get washed: alpaca, goat hair and silk all get some level of cleaning. Angora rabbit is apparently an exception. Plant fibres have different processes, although decortated hemp does have a degumming stage.

So many ways to clean fibre!

Raw fibre often contains burrs that can scratch, and may contain disease that can transfer to humans, so it should be treated with caution. Cleaning removes the danger of disease and some burrs. There are many different traditions and ways to wash and scour a fibre. In this context, washing aims to remove large particles and sweat. Scouring uses heat to remove the oils from the fibre. Some people choose not to scour their fibre, because the oils can help the spinning process. Greasy wool is also more water resistant. Wool grease can develop a distinctive smell and gum up modern spinning equipment that is made for clean wool.

Raw huacaya alpaca fleece

Raw huacaya alpaca fleece

Some farmers wash their own fibre, using detergent. Ruth McGregor gives a good description of the process. Their products have what some people believe is a more natural ‘feel’. It’s particularly easy to do this with fibres like alpaca, which don’t have much grease. They do remain rather dusty though! Different sheep breeds have different levels of grease. For example, a Gotland sheep fibre will feel cleaner without scouring than a Merino sheep fibre.

Another way to clean wool fibres is to ferment them. This process uses the oils and sweat already present in the wool to ferment a soap. Zoe had me giggling and in awe over her experiment with this process.

How big business does it

Most commercial fibre you buy is scoured. There are two commercial scouring methods: an aqueous (water) process, and an organic solvent process. Scouring in Australia commonly uses the aqueous process. This process uses large amounts of water, heat and some detergent. The raw fibre gets dropped into 4 – 8 bowls (wash tanks) of hot/warm water and moved around to clean it. After each dunking, excess water is squeezed from the fibre before it drops into the next bowl. Each bowl contains cleaner water than the one that preceded it.

Wool-scouring

The commercial wool scouring process

1 ton of wool will usually contain:

  • 150kg of wool grease
  • 40kg of suint
  • 150kg of dirt (in Australia it averages around 180kg)
  • 20 kg of vegetable matter (although this is likely higher in Australia because we have lots of burrs in our grass)
  • 640kg of wool fibre.

Any grease in the washing water is spun off and sold to be made into lanolin. Solids can be separated from the wash and sent to landfill or composted for agricultural use. The washing water can be recycled up to a point, but scouring plants can still go through up to half a million litres of water a day. Scouring plants in Australia must treat water on their site until it’s safe to add to the sewerage system, or apply to the land. In Melbourne, all the scouring plants are city-based. This means they treat their water on site, then our excellent sewerage system takes over.

Water treatment

Water treatment

After scouring, fibre might be carbonised with sulphuric acid or bleached with hydrogen peroxide. Carbonising removes high levels of vegetable matter and softens the fibre. Bleaching brightens the colour of the wool. Not every plant undertakes these steps; I saw how they are done at Victorian Wool Processors.

acid bath and crushing machine

An acid bath (left), and crushing machine used during the carbonisation process

The final step is to dry the fibre, using drum rollers.

Drying tube

Drying tube

Environmental impact

Scouring has a big environmental impact. It uses large amounts of water (whether it is performed at home or commercially). Depending on the type of wool and equipment used, typically 8-20 litres of effluent liquids are created per 1kg of greasy wool. In some ways a commercial system is preferable, because it can recycle its water several times before disposal.

Waste water is high in potassium and nutrients, particularly nitrogen (although not always in a form accessible to plants). A consideration for Melbourne is that scouring works best with soft water. Our drinking water is soft, but our bore water (which local scouring plants may access as well) is hard. It’s possible to soften water, but those additives pose disposal challenges.

Electricity use is high if heat or extraction processes are applied. There are also many biological and chemical contaminants to deal with. The biological contaminants (like grease and weed seeds) often arrive with fibre from the farm. They need to be dealt with at the scouring disposal stage. The chemical contaminants also arrive direct from the farm (like inorganic fertilisers or biodegradable pesticides), or are added during cleaning (like detergents and bleaches). Sodium sulphate, a byproduct of carbonising, needs proper treatment before application to the land.

Dirt collected for fertiliser

Solid waste collected for fertiliser

The (old) Australian scouring effluent standards say that these contaminants can have a big environmental impact, but this can be mitigated with good management. The Global Organic Textile Standard prohibits use of endocrine disrupters (which can be found in detergents) and phosphates. It restricts bleaches to oxygen bleaches only. There’s a lot more detail in these standards that I can’t comprehend. I’d love to have someone’s more educated view on these documents and what they mean for this process.

What does this mean for consumers?

Washing and scouring fibres is a part of clothing manufacture. Few of our animal fibre clothes will skip this process. While fibres like alpaca and goat don’t need intensive scouring, in Australia they’re often processed like wool so the difference in impact is negligible. Even processing fibre at home will still use a significant amount of water, which needs to be disposed of appropriately.

A proactive approach could be to remember that scouring is a process we shouldn’t approach lightly. Let’s use it when we need something new, but try to reduce how often that happens.

Where does scouring happen in Melbourne?

EP Robinson, Geelong

Velieris, Braybrook, Melbourne

Victoria Wool Processers, Laverton North, Melbourne

edited on 11/1/16 to add details about disease risk in raw wool