Vinegar and wood wool: taste and tradition

When we teamed up with Sarson’s Vinegar back in 2018, it wasn’t to help them out with their packaging.

Among the lesser-known and, on the face of it, more surprising uses of wood wool is the role it plays in the traditional manufacture of British malt vinegar.

If you were to visit the Sarson’s factory in Manchester and take a peek into one of the wooden vats where the vinegar matures, you’d see bales of our wood wool in there along with it: it’s helping the natural chemistry along, and contributing towards that distinctive final flavour.

But how? It’s actually not rocket science; but it does make for a fascinating story – and not just because it really does explain why a splash of Sarson’s is pretty much everyone’s favourite condiment. It’s also because of what it says about the importance of tradition, and of traditional working methods, in the modern food industry.


We were chatting the other day to Graham Houghton, Sarson’s technical manager. He was saying how an awful lot of the stuff that people put on their fish and chips, stuff that calls itself vinegar, isn’t really vinegar at all. He himself would call it ‘non-brewed condiment’ or ‘just acetic acid and colouring’.

What’s the difference? Some would say that acetic acid (in diluted form) is pretty much all vinegar is. The clue, it seems, lies in the name. The word vinegar derives from the Latin for sour wine. And historically vinegar, no less than wine, comes from an agricultural source.

The acetic acid in those ‘non-brewed condiments’ is a byproduct of the petrochemical industry. Acetic acid in proper vinegar, on the other hand, is created by the natural fermentation of an alcoholic foodstuff – whether that be made from grape or grain.


They say that wine was discovered by accident: jars of grapes in the ancient Middle East are supposed to have started fermenting by themselves under the influence of native yeast. Some have speculated that the invention of vinegar was no less stumbled upon, the result of wine having been left too long in the open air, exposed to oxidizing bacteria.

Whatever the truth, it’s remarkable how little help from human hands the production of alcohol and vinegar ultimately needs. The chemistry unfolds on its own: it’s merely a question of marshalling and directing the forces of nature.

Which is not to say that vinegar makers in history haven’t explored all sorts of ways of accelerating and upscaling the process. And the Industrial Revolution brought with it the mechanical means to mass-produce almost any kind of goods on a scale never seen before.

All of which has left something of a tension in the world of food manufacturing: a tension between the demand for a product which is authentic, or historically recognisable, and the pressure to produce the same thing more quickly, more efficiently and in greater volume than would have been possible in an earlier age.


It’s a tension that Sarson’s, who’ve been in business since 1794, are well-practised at negotiating. Their factory operations are a combination of the old and the new: time-honoured processes like mashing barley grains in hot water or cooling and fermenting the resulting ‘sweet wort’ (they don’t buy their alcohol in) are maintained in a production-line setting capable of rattling out millions of bottles a year.

Towards the end of the manufacturing process Sarson’s vinegar is scrupulously standardised to five per cent acid; and then it’s bottled and labelled by as slick a suite of automated machinery as you’ll see anywhere else. But other areas of the factory offer a glimpse into a much older world.

And nowhere more so than in the sight of the monumental wooden vats where the fermented wort matures, the alcohol slowly turning into acetic acid. These are the acetifiers.

Graham, our technical friend at Sarson’s, tells people never to mix up their acetifiers with their acetators. And the two things really couldn’t be more different. Acetators are modern stainless steel tanks for alcohol into which air bubbles are pumped by turbine power; those air bubbles trigger the oxidizing bacterial activity necessary for the creation of vinegar.

They’re textbook industrial age: very efficient, very fast.

Sarson’s wooden acetifiers are no less efficient; but they’re much more traditional – and nowhere near as fast. An industrial acetator can turn its contents into vinegar in a matter of hours. Sarson’s acetifiers take seven days.

That’s because the dynamic relationship between the alcohol, the acetifying bacteria and the oxygen on which the bacteria thrive is completely different – almost reversed. Rather than having air, in the form of tiny bubbles, rushed through the alcohol, the alcohol is made to trickle slowly down through an aereated structure.

Which is where the wood wool comes in.  The people at Sarson’s lay bales of larch wood wool – ‘as if you were laying straw for cattle’, as Graham describes it – across the wooden staging that sits inside the acetifier. It needs to be kept light and fluffy, rather than densely packed, so that both the alcohol and plenty of air can move freely through it, interacting with the bacterial presence that clings to the wood wool’s extensive surface area.

And it’s entirely because the alcohol is allowed to drip through the acetifier at its own pace – rather than being blasted through with air bubbles – that the process takes as long as it does.

Interestingly enough, the trickle-down method of acetifying alcohol was once upon a time considered impressively rapid. For centuries before the ‘quick’ process was developed, the only way of making vinegar was through surface fermentation: alcohol was simply left standing in a vessel exposed to the air so that, in time, a film of bacteria would develop and then begin to acetify the liquid beneath.

Tricks for helping this chemistry along – kick-starting it through the addition of a vinegar culture and introducing air holes into the vessel walls near to the liquid surface – were as close as craftsmen of yesteryear got to turning an essentially domestic operation into something more industrial (back in the eighteenth century, this ‘Orleans Method’ was the standard commercial process).


The trickling method was a revolutionary advance on – and no doubt contributed towards the decline of – the age-old practice of surface fermentation. Compared to modern technology, however, the pace of its chemistry remains natural and unforced; and, thanks to it, Sarson’s vinegar has the time to take on a depth and roundedness of flavour impossible to achieve at high speed in stainless steel.

For that flavour is influenced not just by the larch wood wool, but by the Siberian pine vats that contain and contribute to the process.

These mighty tuns can be decades old. Unlike the absorbent wood wool, which becomes increasingly compressed over time and must therefore be changed every three to six months, the barrel interiors just get better and better with age.

It’s a kind of cask-maturing, not dissimilar to the use of oak barrels to age whisky, wine or indeed the celebrated balsamic vinegars of northern Italy. There’s a symbiotic, special relationship between these products and the wood they’re aged in which is one of the oldest gastronomic traditions of all.


Sarson’s vinegar may not be a gourmet product as such, but it’s as faithful to the requirements of its own tradition as many a more artisanal name. It’s also – like much of what’s most admired in world cuisine – indisputably regional.

Malt vinegar is as British as John Barleycorn – springing from the same cereal source as so many of the island race’s beloved beers and whiskies, and no doubt instrumental in the establishment of fish and chips as the nation’s favourite dish.

There’s little demand for it from overseas, apparently; and the lion’s share of Sarson’s exports goes to ex-pats unable – wherever they are in the world – to find anything remotely similar.

Which makes it all the more fitting, perhaps, that this most British of staples should be made with wood wool grown so close to home.

Before they were supplied by us, Sarson’s used larch wood wool from the Vale of Evesham. Now it comes from the Leighton Estate in Wales (see our earlier blog, below). It was an important transition for the manufacturing team and Graham, as technical manager, made sure that he saw the new material for himself (he remembers ‘spending a day in the back of a van with a burly Welshman driving us around the forest looking at trees’) before happily committing to the choice.


No one else in the UK (or, as far as we’ve heard, anywhere else) continues to use the wood wool method in the commercial production of malt vinegar. That’s interesting when you consider that Sarson’s is a bestselling brand.

In this case at least, it seems, taste and tradition add up to pretty much the same thing.

Packaging through the ages

With wood wool playing a prominent role in the current packaging revolution, we thought a look at packaging in earlier times might raise some interesting questions. As we discover, the solutions for tomorrow were often the solutions of yesterday.

Packaging has a long and colourful history. It’s been a feature of every culture in every age – the need to wrap things up, to organise, store, protect and preserve whatever has been held most valuable. It’s been a constant in the human story – and an illustration of each chapter’s talents and technologies.

Some of the most beautiful examples of prehistoric craftsmanship relate to early forms of packaging. The pumpkin-like gourds that were cultivated in some early African and American societies were wonderfully transformed – sometimes shaped with cords as they grew, then hollowed, dried and elaborately decorated – into canisters for food, water and medicines.

Whole arts and industries were to grow up around different types of packaging and container manufacture. Pottery, metalwork and glassmaking would all become artisanal ways of life, and for a long time were more important to the world than money.

Something like a barrel – that construction from natural resources of a vessel without which the storage and transportation of grain and liquids would not have been possible – represented a raft of painstakingly acquired abilities: from fashioning the grooved staves, to binding them in hoops, to introducing the necessary dimensional reinforcements and proofing against leakage.

Then there have been the creative breakthroughs – those historical moments of discovery that changed the material landscape. The invention of paper was one such. It is credited to China in the second century, where there was already a custom of using strips of bark from the mulberry tree to wrap food. It was found that boiling and pulping the bark fibres, then pressing and drying the result, produced the revolutionary new sheets.

The way in which the art of paper-making spread around the globe – first through central Asia, then into the Arab world, thence to Europe by the second millennium – shows how all communities take on good ideas, adopting and adapting them in the process. Thicker types of paper were in time developed before the first evidence of handmade cardboard boxes starts emerging (little ventilated cartons made for silkworm breeders in the south of France, used to carry the eggs) in the nineteenth century.

So far, so hand-crafted – and impressively so. But the world of packaging didn’t explode into its full power and diversity until the industrial revolution and the era of the factory machine. Now complicated fabrications could be churned out at scale – and make a much bigger impact on the kind of things, foods in particular, that ordinary people could trade and consume.

Cardboard boxes didn’t go mainstream until this point. Paper bags had come first and it was, in fact, a paper bag factory owner – Brooklyn-based Robert Gair – who in 1879 came up with the idea of pre-cut, pre-scored sheets of cardboard that could be folded into boxes (he was inspired by a factory mishap in which press rulers meant for creasing sheets of paper accidentally starting cutting them).

It’s during this period that wood wool enters the story. The idea of using finely shredded wool for stuffing and padding purposes (it was at first used mainly to fill mattresses, as an alternative to horsehair) could only become a reality with the right kind of mechanical technology behind it; and numerous ‘slivering machines’ were devised for the purpose in the middle part of the nineteenth century.

A report in Scientific American from 1886 gives us a detailed account of how one of these early machines worked. It consisted, essentially, of a drive shaft fitted with a fly-wheel, which was linked by a connecting rod to a ‘knife carrier’. This, the key element of the contraption, ‘slides in iron guides, and carries a set of peculiar knives arranged in such a way that the wood is cut in both the backward and forward motions of the knife carrier.’ The fly-wheel also controlled the inching forward of the wood blocks under the knives. With a four horsepower capacity, the machine could make upwards of 1,500 pounds of product in a ten-hour day.

It was just one of a constellation of clever machines that powered a veritable golden age of material manufacture. Corrugated cardboard dates from this period: pleated versions of stiff paper had first been used in Victorian England as a lining for top hats; but it took another New Yorker – one Albert L Jones – to patent and produce an industrial version for the express purpose of protectively packaging merchandise (especially glassware).

In 1876 the German chemist Herman Frasch patented a process for refining paraffin wax – and arguably took a first step towards the era of plastic packaging. Paper used for wrapping bread and other dry goods could now – for the first time on an industrial scale – be made waterproof. Waxed paper then, inexorably, gave way to moisture-proof cellophane (in the 1920s) which would, in turn, yield place to the twin dominance of polyethylene and polypropylene films in modern times.

Nowadays it’s not just food wrapping that comes in plastic form. From boxes to bottles, bags to bubble wrap, plastic has become the prevalent packaging material of our age – with the twenty-first century already having manufactured as much as had been ever made before it.

And now, after thousands of years of getting it ingeniously right, we’re realising we’ve almost gotten it fatally wrong. With plastics we’ve overshot the mark. What was wonderfully watertight, lightweight and durable turned out to be, simply, far too durable.

Focused on improving on the past, we took our eye off the future.

The next chapter in the history of packaging is going to be all about correcting the plastics mistake – whether that means developing biodegradable versions (for where we still need it) or replacing it with more natural, even historical alternatives (where we don’t).

Because history, it turns out, doesn’t always move in straight lines. And sometimes things that looked like the past can also start to look like the future.

The Leighton Estate Woodlands: Business and Biodiversity

Proven and reliable suppliers are key to any successful business. In this article the Great British Wood wool Company blog looks at its timber supplier, Leighton Estate Woodlands. With environmental responsibility and sustainability heading the agenda for both organisations, it is a partnership based on shared values and a determination to attain the highest standards.

Deep in the heart of the Welsh Marches, on the opposite side of the River Severn from mighty Powis Castle, lie the Leighton Estate Woodlands.

It’s a thousand or so acres of picturesque, tree-covered hillside. It’s also a busy commercial forest that keeps an assortment of neighbouring businesses supplied with timber from a truly diverse range of species. We were given an insight into the management of the Estate when we talked recently to its owners, Charles and Victoria Crewdson.


It’s land, Victoria began by telling us, with a colourful backstory.

Originally, the woods were part of a great country estate, the historic pile of Leighton Hall in old Montgomeryshire. The house and grounds found a kind of fame half way through the nineteenth century when they were bought and spectacularly transformed by their new owner, entrepreneur John Naylor, into a fashionable Gothic mansion, complete with model farm (the only one of its kind in Wales).

But hard times and difficult decisions followed; and 1931 brought the sale that finally saw the Estate’s centuries-old woodlands separated – albeit as an entity intact – from their ancestral home.

Some of the Victorian trees, notably a grove of redwoods (sequoia sempervirens) planted in the 1850s, were later gifted to the Royal Forestry Society. They still stand today – surviving testament to Naylor’s pioneering spirit, and some of the oldest examples of their kind outside California.


Leighton Estate Woodlands has always had its eye firmly on the future.

And it certainly, as Charles explains, earns its keep. Over forty species of tree are kept in manageable compartments – and a significant proportion of what gets chopped gets matched to local building and manufacturing demands. As well as many varieties of softwood there are ash, oak, larch, cherry, sycamore, even ancient redwoods (thinning to allow the remainder to grow and thrive). All have their markets (and all are neighbours: almost all clients are based no more than thirty miles away).

It’s an impressively bespoke business. Not only are specimens for felling hand-selected – by head forester Will Jones – but different sections of timber are targeted at different kinds of use. In the case of ash, for example, wood from the lower part of the tree is set aside for the most heavy-duty purposes (this, it seems, is where Irish hurley sticks come from); material from the middle might find new life as furniture; while the topmost parts are right for firewood.

But Leighton is well-qualified to meet specific, even specialist, supply requirements.

One of the Estate’s more exacting customers is nearby Great British Wood wool Ltd. Of the three species of larch that grow on the estate (European, hybrid and Japanese), it’s the European variety (larix decidua) which has been found to make by far the best substrate for acetobacter in malt vinegar production. And it takes someone with Will Jones’s experience of thirty years or more to pick out, every time, only the European species from a mixed stand.

As Charles describes the business of choosing and chopping the estate’s wood, it’s clear that Will’s expertise is indispensable to the whole, tailor-made model of delivery; as is his hands-on relationship with almost every tree. If one has been blown down by the wind, Will is called upon to read the pattern of potentially dangerous stresses and forces in its position so that he can, himself, dissect it safely. And all his cutting aims to maximise the wood’s usefulness – creating as much timber as possible out of every felling, as well as pieces of the right lengths and shapes to fit with the requirements of specific machinery in the workshop or factory where they’ll end up.

Sourcing our timber at The Leighton Estate Woodlands.
Not only are specimens for felling hand-selected – by head forester Will Jones – but different sections of timber are targeted at different kinds of use


For all its success in meeting the multiple commercial demands made of it, the Leighton Estate Woodlands are simultaneously managed as an ecologically rich and balanced forest, the natural health of which is designed to be sustainable into the very long term. The range of what the woods can offer for sale, it seems, is a close reflection of their biodiversity.

This is no monocultural swathe of spruce, waiting for the next clear-felling. As Charles puts it, the estate presents a ‘constant relationship with nature’ – not a brutal exploitation of it. The arrangement of the woods’ trees into compartments (each just two to three acres in size), allows for an optimum juxtaposition of species, or mixtures of species, of different ages. And compartments may go entirely untouched for decades. Thus, when demand calls for a certain area of trees to be thinned, any impact on the larger area is essentially contained.

It’s in fact an ongoing, gradual process of adding and subtracting. The woodlands are regularly reinvigorated with new plantings (often experimentally: eucalyptus, for example, though not indigenous, has been found to thrive here); and thinning happens all the time, to give the surviving trees room to reach their full potential. What’s particularly interesting is how well the estate has perfected the art of dovetailing the thinning process to the timber needs of its clients: even the by-products of what Charles calls the ‘uneconomic thinnings’ (of very young trees, where the cost of the work is not recuperated by the sale of the wood) are sold for biomass.


It’s an enterprise worth protecting; and keeping the woods safe from harm is a big priority for the owners.

The number one nuisance? Unquestionably the grey squirrel. Victoria has seen ten-year-old oaks quickly ruined by the things, damaged at the formative stage and bound thereafter to be stunted and disfigured.

Unlike so many of the trees that make up its habitat, the grey squirrel is one of those non-native introductions which Leighton is definitely not happy to have around. It’s simply because the environment lacks the natural predators to keep their numbers down – and, as Victoria says, ‘too much of one thing is not good: too much human is not good, too much squirrel is not good. It’s all got to be in balance’.

The Estate knows how fortunate it is to have been spared an import even more deadly – the larch disease phytophthora ramorum. Now affecting much of the UK, and with recent outbreaks reported as close to home as south Wales, the problem could, should it visit Leighton, not only see the end of some of the estate’s oldest and most majestic specimens, but, in addition, compromise the commercial viability of affected timber.

Every year the Forestry Commission flies over the forest to check that trees are budding properly; and Charles knows that, should anything amiss be spotted, he’ll have to act quickly.

The problem with any tree epidemic – and the team at Leighton is equally mindful of the threat posed by ash dieback (hymenoscyphus fraxineus) – is that, not only does it take out of commission a specific wood valued for specific commercial purposes (in the case of larch, for example, that’s not just the aforementioned wood wool but, because of its exceptional durability, outdoor fencing), but it subtracts from any woodland’s overall biodiversity.

With this in mind, and thinking of the future, Charles and Victoria would be pleased to see more stringent biosecurity standards in the UK; and cites the example of Australia for impressive practice.


The new plantings with which the Leighton Estate Woodlands routinely experiment are designed to deliver natural diversity over the coming decades – whatever damage individual pathogens might do to particular species.

And if there’s a theme to which Charles and Victoria keep returning as we talk, it’s that this process of nurturing biodiversity – of continuing to plant imaginatively and creatively for the sake of the woods’ species variety – is a long game.

Charles points to the example of the grand fir (abies grandis), which has been out of favour. However, more recently, it has become popular for its utility and its vigorous growth. It was an innovation that took a perhaps surprising number of years to get off the ground in Britain. The Estate has stands that were planted over thirty years ago. It can’t always be known, in the beginning, which plantings will go on to thrive – and that’s an axiom set to become truer, Charles notes, in the face of long-term climate uncertainty. He has started trialling eucalyptus.

The existence of such time frames (Charles likens the work of this kind of forestry to farming ‘but spread over a hundred years, not a year’) explains why those in its service need long memories. Will Jones’ lifetime of experience is from this point of view invaluable. But it almost inevitably has to be an intergenerational affair. Charles talks about what’s worked and what hasn’t from the long-ago plantings of his father-in-law – just as he looks forward to his son doing the same thing in fifty years’ time.

And if Charles and Victoria’s son gets to sell timber to the next generation of local businesses in the same way that Leighton does now, then that’ll be thanks to the efforts of Charles, Victoria, Will and the rest of the dedicated team that came before them.

Wood wool: A packaging material of the future

It’s ironic that such a traditional material with such a long history behind it should at the same time be poised to be a favourite packaging material of the future.

But it’s thanks, in part, to the same cultural shift that now defines plastic – once the wonderstuff of an ultramodern era – as deeply problematic and mountingly unpopular.

For good reason. History will probably look back and see 2017 as the turning-point. That was the year the BBC’s Blue Planet II – now thought to have been watched by 750 million people around the world – revealed in unflinching detail the appalling damage done by plastic debris to beaches, oceans and marine ecosystems.

To describe the resulting mobilisation of public concern as revolutionary is no understatement. It’s known, simply, as ‘the blue planet effect’.

A YouGov poll from last April put the feeling into figures: over 80% of Britons are now actively trying to reduce the amount of plastic they throw away; they are now more likely to buy eco-friendly packaging than plastic (even at a higher price); and most now believe that companies should be legally obliged to use eco-friendly packaging.

And it is specifically plastic packaging that has become the standout issue. A massive 67% of the UK plastics waste stream consists of thrown away packaging – a statistic which dwarfs that of any other source sector.

The problem is so big, and public anxiety about it so strong, that it is perhaps not surprising to see the wheels of fundamental change already in motion.

Great British Wood wool is determined to play its part in the packaging revolution unfolding before us. The opportunities are considerable; but first it is necessary to highlight that wood wool is not a commodity: quite the opposite – it is a product to which much value can be added through the manufacturing process. For packaging, the wood wool must reflect the quality of the goods it surrounds, whether fine china, a delicate wine or a scrumptious cheese.

This year the UK government announced a new tax on plastic packaging, manufactured or imported, that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic. And industry giants are openly signalling their willingness to act. Nestlé, the world’s biggest food and drink company, has committed to a target of 100% recyclable or reusable packaging, including the elimination of non-recyclable plastics, by 2025.

Unfortunately, as encouraging as these moves are, they are not, in themselves, going to be enough.

That’s because the recycling of plastic is not the solution it has sometimes been made out to be. From one perspective, recycling plastic actually camouflages the problem it purports to solve; from another, it adds new ones.

It is not like recycling glass or aluminium: recycling plastic significantly downgrades the material’s chemical structure, meaning that its new application must be correspondingly downgraded (from bottles to carpets, for example), before – just like non-recyclable plastics – it must eventually be either incinerated or buried.

In this sense, recycling plastic is just putting off the inevitable.

It’s also expensive (often more so than making it fresh) and very hard work. The painstaking cleaning, sorting and separating out of recyclable from non-recyclable plastics needs to be carried out both manually and by machine, and the consequences of inefficiency (such as overlooked elements of non-recyclable PVC) can fatally compromise entire recycling streams. Meanwhile, the melting down of viable plastic produces fumes toxic to the nearby environment.

Operational logistics can also lead to headaches – as they have in recent years for the UK.

These began in 2018 when China stopped taking the 500,000 tonnes of plastic the UK was in the habit of shipping there every year for recycling. A consequent rush to find alternative overseas contractors led to a massive diversion of plastic to Malaysia, which was in turn so overwhelmed that last year it had to impose restrictions on what it could continue to take.

Now, with the pressure passed on to outfits in places like Turkey, investigators there have identified UK plastics, intended for recycling, being dumped by the roadside and openly burned.

It’s a dispiriting narrative. And it drives home the point that – to put it mildly – plastics can end up being more trouble than they’re worth.

Few, of course, dispute plastic’s legitimate applications; how, in certain forms, it can even benefit the environment: its preservative properties can cut food waste; it can help make buildings more energy-efficient; by making vehicles lighter, it can improve their fuel-efficiency.

But plastic packaging? The stark inconsistency of what campaigner Sîan Sutherland calls ‘a temporary use for a permanent product’ has never been more obvious.

It’s a major realisation; and a major turn in the road. As for new directions – they’re already emerging.

Where plastic’s particular qualities are currently most valued and would in the future be most missed – in certain forms of food packaging, for example – many are setting store by the development of bioplastics: a new generation of biodegradable plastics made from such organic source material as cornstarch and seaweed.

Then there are those attempting to get away from the world of disposable packaging altogether, exploring a zero-waste economy in which goods like pasta, oil and tea might move about in continually redeployed stainless steel and glass containers.

Somewhere in between lies the sphere of completely natural packaging materials – the kind of thing that, at the end of its life, can be thrown into the compost or garden mulch and so complete the environmental circle. Not so much cradle to grave, as they’re now saying, as cradle to cradle.

And it’s here that wood wool – being entirely untreated organic matter – can play a starring role.

Great British Wood wool sees the opportunities as boundless, and reach well beyond the contents of hampers or high-end wine cases. From machine parts and masonry to electrical goods, household items and the most delicate gifts – the list is a very long one.

Though, from the environment’s point of view, it can’t really be long enough.

Welcome to the world of wood wool

Don’t be fooled by its simplicity. There’s an awful lot more to wood wool than meets the eye.

Though we concede that what does meet the eye is certainly pretty. It’s that material that looks like straw in luxury hampers and champagne presentation boxes – except it’s not straw. It’s handfuls of very fine, very long wood shavings. The Americans call it Excelsior; here in the UK it’s wood wool.

We’ll get onto its surprising versatility shortly. But it probably is as a packaging material that it’s best-known. And it’s also as a packaging material that we think it’s got a particularly big future. The reason? It’s 100% natural.

Surveys tell us that the protective packaging industry is booming – but that it’s also transforming. Not only are more and more of us buying things online, we’re finding increasingly responsible ways of keeping our purchases safe in transit. Manufacturers of bubble wrap and polystyrene peanuts are doing their best to make those materials recyclable so they don’t end up in landfill. But, for a growing number of us, a completely biodegradable product is the only acceptable way forward.

Wood wool is one of those products. And it’s already a firm favourite for certain types of package, especially in the food and drink industry. It looks great with real outdoor produce, like fresh fruit, and suits anything hand-crafted, like soaps or ceramics. It feels retro and contemporary at the same time. People talk these days about the ‘unboxing’ experience – that thrill of opening a beautiful package where every element has visual appeal. Wood wool plays a big part in those experiences.

There’s another way in which wood wool is helping the environment that you might not realise. Manufacturing this product actually improves the health of the forests that the wood comes from. That’s because woodlands, like our neighbouring Leighton Estate, benefit from thinning. If they grow too densely, trees end up being uniformly underdeveloped. You need to make sure they have enough space and light of their own to achieve the right, healthy stature. So cutting down some trees for timber and timber products leaves a better forest behind.

If, by the way, you were to follow some of that timber just a few miles down the road to our workshop (again: small carbon footprint. You’ll have guessed by now how we feel about the environment.) you’d see how we make our wood wool. Imagine short sections of debarked tree trunk fixed in place over razor-sharp lathes shuttling back and forth across the undersides. It’s a bit like watching giant cheese-graters at work (the fine shavings that pile up underneath even look a bit like parmesan).

And that’s about it. We can vary the grade of shredding (from 0.35mm to 0.05mm), and it’s always dried to make it light and fluffy, it really is that natural.

But back to how useful the product is – and how there’s much more to it than just packaging.

It’s perfect for animal bedding. Whether for the hamster cage or kennels and catteries – or even the local safari park – it’s a lot better than straw or hay. It’s got volume and sponginess for warmth; it’s highly absorbent (because of the drying); it’s clean and dust-free; and it’s long-lasting. Animals like playing with it; they love to make nests and dens out of it and to forage through it for treats.

Then there’s the really big beasts: teddy bears. Toy stuffing was one of the very first uses of wood wool back in the nineteenth century (when it was also used to stuff quilts – not, perhaps, the first thing we’d recommend it for these days). But if you’ve ever seen the Two Bear Ladies on BBC One’s Repair Shop (they’re customers of ours), you’ll know that the tradition continues to this day. What our friends in the crafting business particularly like is the way that, if you dampen little snippets of very fine wood wool and use it to fill the trickiest nooks and pockets of an antique teddy, it dries out to give a wonderfully firm, solid shape.

Some uses of wood wool you just wouldn’t guess at. Pads in evaporative air coolers, for example. Air gets cooled down in this kind of air conditioning machine by being passed through special porous pads before being pumped back out into the room; the pads work by holding onto cold water which is constantly circulated through them. Wood wool makes a good choice of material for this.

But its ultimate hidden talent has got to be for vinegar manufacture. We learned all about it from Sarson’s when they proposed we join forces (our larch wood wool from the afore mentioned Leighton Estate turned out to trump everything they’d used in the past). Apparently, the wood wool is used as a substrate for the acetobacter – or “good” bacteria that convert alcohol into vinegar. You can read about the full process here.

We could go on. Archery bales; bonded wood wool construction boards; erosion control mats. That last one is an especially neat idea. When large quantities of earth get moved around (by construction sites or road builders, for example), those new mounds, planted with grass seeds, need holding in place and protecting from the elements. Matting for the purpose has all too often been made of plastic. But make it out of wood wool – as many now do – and not only is the earth kept in place while new growth comes up from underneath, but the material naturally, over time, turns into nutritious mulch.

Which brings us back to biogdegradability and the environment.

If this whirlwind tour of our product has a takeaway theme, we’d like you to think of it as this: versatile, affordable, even nice to look at are must-have qualities, no question. But we’ve got a future to protect, too. And we think that’s the most important box we tick.