NO war - NO wool
Among the many factors leading to the decline of the wool industry few things have invigorated America’s pastures like the demand to clothe thousands of soldiers. With no one knitting little green berets for a squadron of drones, American wool is staging a comeback and fully prepared to sock it to you.
Ifall on a large bag of roving filled with fat contrails of wool the instant I step inside the offices of the American Sheep Industry Association. Peter Orwick, the organization’s executive director, is ready for me. “Merino?” I ask, stroking the fiber. “Rambouillet,” he corrects, explaining that the represented variant is the “French merino.” Orwick is in a position to know. In addition to his more than 20 years with ASI, Orwick grew up on a cattle and sheep ranch in western South Dakota homesteaded by his great grandfather. There, in addition to beef, they raised Rambouillet mostly for meat.
Today, he runs the U. S. wool industry’s oldest and largest trade association, representing more than 82,000 sheep producers. Founded during the Lincoln Administration in 1865 as the National Wool Growers Association ( the country’s first livestock association), the organization is poised to celebrate its sesquicentennial in just over a year. The anniversary will mark, if not a time of renaissance for the wool industry, a time of renewed interest.
Located in Englewood, Colorado, ASI’s headquarters look for all the world like those of a mortgage lending company, with some notable exceptions: On one wall hang the photographs of former presidents of the National Wool Growers Association and now ASI, representing 150 years of association leadership. In spite of the fact that the sheep and wool industry depends on its ewes, it wouldn’t be until the 1980s that a woman’s photo would join that line- up. Orwick’s office, which looks out onto the northern Front Range peaks and the vast expanse of city and prairie to the east, harbors a mounted mountain lion, a 140-pound tom who made the mistake of taking out about a half dozen yearling ewes on the the Cottonwood Ranch in Utah. “It took me five days to find him,” Orwick says.
In the last century and a half, the American wool industry has faced threats even more dire than those posed by preda- tors. Changing technology, tastes and government policies have done their part to shear the size of the American flock to the point that the United States barely registers on global inventories. Currently. American producers run about 5.34 million sheep, putting the United States behind China, Australia, Iran, the U. K. and even Azerbaijan in the number of sheep raised domestically. We currently produce about 14 million pounds of clean wool ( down from 55.1 million pounds in the mid- 1970s), more than half of which is exported.
Counting sheep: Where have all the ovines gone?
But that wasn’t always the case. In 1942, when American sheep were feeding and clothing U. S. servicemen overseas, the inventories of these multi- purpose animals hit an alltime high of 56 million head, putting the U. S. in fifth place in worldwide wool production at the time. Since its heyday, the American flock has dwindled some 90 percent, a figure that begs the question, where have all the ovines gone?
The slide of the sheep industry mirrors that of agriculture in general. Young World War II veterans, having been raised on dry rangelands in the West and green pastures in the East, didn’t want to return to the farm after liberating Paris. With the G. I. bill in their back pockets, they poured in to America’s colleges, choosing other occupations and leaving the sheep industry— and agriculture in general— behind.
But the assaults on sheep didn’t end there. The postWorld War II era also brought the advent of cheap feed grains, which boosted the popularity of chicken, pork and beef, while mutton fell into disfavor among families whose patriarchs had endured countless tins of the stuff during the war. Add to that the popularization of lower- cost synthetic fibers that were easy to wash and wear, and it appeared as if the industry was headed out to pasture.
Enter the National Wool Act of 1954. Despite the robust-
ness of mid- century sheep inventories, the United States still imported about half its wool for military uniforms during World War II and the Korean conflict. To limit the country’s dependence on foreign fiber and bolster American wool against international competition, Congress passed the National Wool Act, providing subsidies to wool and mohair growers. Though sheep numbers continued to decline, the Wool Act helped shore up wool prices and encouraged growers to improve their clips.
The Wool Act stood for almost 40 years, but under the Clinton Administration in 1993, the Wool Act was repealed.
“It was part of an effort to reinvent government,” Orwick explains. “They thought it was too much money to spend on a small agricultural industry and they thought they could win it.”
The demise of the Wool Act represented an enormous blow to a sheep and wool industry that had already experienced serious contractions. In a perfect storm of sheep dip for the industry, the 1990s also ushered in the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization, reducing barriers to foreign imports and opening doors for American textile manufacturers to move operations to Mexico, China and India with their lower labor costs. The result: Ninety- five percent of the looms shuttered in the American South, and wool production continued to plummet.
“In late 1960s and early 1970s a huge share of garments were American made; maybe three- quarters were made in America,” Orwick observes. But in America today, we’d be hard pressed to find a fraction of that.
Sheep: An endangered American species?
Though so many factors have conspired to put a crimp in the industry, Orwick, wearing a tie and wool suit (“business casual,” he says, has taken its own toll on wool apparel), sees bellwethers of change on the horizon that could bode well for the future of American sheep. Increasing immigrant populations of Middle Easterners, Greeks and Hispanics who have a taste for lamb are pushing demand for high- quality products at ethnic markets. The knitting boom, which has proved to be a gateway to spinning and weaving— and even raising animals— is driving interest in American fibers and yarns. The Internet, too, is making it easier for novice growers to learn the ins and outs of raising sheep.
“Because of the Internet you don’t have to have sheep farmer down the road for mentoring,” he explains, adding that new growers can reach out to veterans digitally and take advantage of online educational programs, such as webinars offered by ASI. “The difference between now and the 1980s: you don’t have to be in a county where your neighbors raise sheep.”
A 2001 controversy over the manufacture of U. S. Army berets in foreign countries and subsequent U. S. incursions in Afghanistan and Iraq has also helped the wool industry, which provides tons of fiber for American military uniforms. ( The U. S. military uses about 20 percent of the American clip.). A revisiting of the Berry Amendment of 1941 by Congress in the 2000s requires that all food, clothing, tents, etc., purchased by the Department of Defense be of U. S. origin, including wool uniforms— and berets.
Other forces such as the buy ( and eat) local movement, the Great Recession and concerns about the environment and food safety are changing the way people are thinking about their livings and the land. Handspinners, weavers, felters, knitters and dyers are taking to the festival circuit to ply their wooly wares and develop alternative income streams. Ranchers find they can command premium prices on grassfed lamb, selling directly to the consumer at farmers’ markets. Young— and not- so- young— entrepreneurs are looking for ways to create their own jobs and bring their livelihoods closer to home.
“What is driving this is that people are getting sick from sizing they put in fibers,” observes Vicki Eberhart of Montague Farm, who has started the North American Wool Cooperative to help American growers get more value from their fiber. “Natural fibers are making a comeback, because people have allergies and want to buy locally. And the only way to do that is to pay a fair price to the farm.”
In Belgrade, Montana, near the base of the Bridger Mountains, Becky Weed and her husband Dave Tyler decided to create their own experiment in living off the land with sheep. Neither come from farm families. Weed is a geologist by training and knitter by avocation, and Tyler is an engineer. Both had an interest in farming, and after many frustrating attempts to find a spread they could afford, they purchased the John Reese homestead, one of the oldest in southwest Montana’s Gallatin Valley in 1987 and Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Co. was born.
“Thirteen Mile is an attempt to see if you can manufacture fiber goods without putting people in a factory hell- hole, in a way that respects and values a healthy rural community,” she says. “Can that be real business and mean some jobs? I think it can. We’re not getting rich, but this is not a hobby.”
Initially, they kept their off- farm jobs. They started by selling their lamb into the commodity meat market and their wool into one of the Montana wool pools that enable growers to combine their clips and sell them at a central location. “It didn’t take us long to realize that at low and volatile commodity prices for lamb and wool, we weren’t going to be able to make it,” explains Weed. “It also seemed a little bit crazy to put effort into products with such regional identity, and then send them off into a commodity system.”
A 2001 controversy over the
manufacture of U. S. Army berets in
foreign countries and subsequent
U. S. incursions in Afghanistan and
Iraq has also helped the wool
industry, which provides tons of
fiber for American military uniforms.
So they decided to take the ram by the horns. Weed and Tyler’s decision in the late 1980s to transition to direct sales is one that many small farmers have made in recent years. Their income now is a pastiche of custom fiber processing ( in the mill they built on their ranch), the sale of grass- fed, organic lamb, wholesale and retail wool sales in forms ranging from handspinners’ roving to yarn and felt and knitted goods. They also provide jobs for four part- time employees.
Thinking differently is how many producers are addressing the challenges of making it in the American wool market. In the case of Thirteen Mile, Weed has gone out of her way to not only raise sheep organically ( her products are certified under the National Organic Program by the Montana Department of Agriculture), she has worked to produce yarn that is about as clean as it gets. Solar water heating panels heat much of the water used for scouring wool. Fibers are dyed using natural plant dyes. Weed and Tyler manage their herd using predator- friendly practices, meaning that Thirteen Mile sheep are protected from coyotes, mountain lions and other predators by guard dogs rather than guns, snares and poisons.
“Three million pounds of wool gets shipped overseas in California and sent back here for retail,” explains Fibershed’s Dustin Kahn. “It makes a lot of sense to us to bring back that industry and use that wool locally, reduce its carbon footprint, create jobs and provide a model for having it done in our fibershed. ...”
“If ranchers want to market themselves and their products as environmentally friendly, that means we have to move toward accountability for the full cycle of what we do,” says Weed. “To me, that means reducing our dependence on feedlots, on chemical farming and feeding practices and on fiber processing methods that are contradictory to the stewardship we seek on our own land. This can’t happen overnight for everybody, but people do seem to respond to the efforts we’re making to work toward products we’re proud of in all their many dimensions.”
In the Bay Area, Rebecca Burgess was worried about her clothes. A textile artist and environmentalist, Burgess recognized the incredible strain clothes put on the environment. ( Textile World says the textile industry is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases on Earth.) So she set this challenge for herself: wear nothing but clothing that was grown, manufactured and sewn within 150 miles of her house for one year.
Part blog trope and part environmental initiative, Burgess’ challenge was more involved than not spending money for a year or cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In order to locally produce even a small wardrobe, she needed to corral and pay wool and cotton growers, spinners and mills, fashion designers and knitters as well as other makers. It wasn’t something she could neither do alone nor for free.
A $ 10,000 Kickstarter campaign in 2010 funded the project that would come to be known as Fibershed, a term coined by Burgess that’s roughly analogous to the foodsheds or watersheds that supply regional populations. In addition to producing what Burgess calls the “prototype wardrobe,” a tidy closetful of casual, wearable clothes that included naturally dyed sweaters, pants, skirts, leggings, and yes, undergarments, it also slashed the environmental burden of these garments to zero toxic dye effluent and zero pesticides. Fibershed reduced the carbon impact by an estimated six times that of producing equivalent garments.
The project caught fire. It brought together about 100 artisans and growers whose interest in contributing to the development of a sustainable textile chain had been kindled, it got healthy coverage in the press on everything from national radio to the blog of The Atlantic magazine. The sheep was out of the gate. So in 2012, Burgess incorporated Fibershed as a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the evolution of local clothing movements.
And it’s working. Today, some 17 affiliate fibersheds in the U. S. and abroad are taking steps to create communities similar to that of the original and making use of their local abundance. For example, The Recycled Lamb yarn shop just produced a Mountain and Plains Fibershed product ( the fibershed identified as 300 miles from the town of Golden, Colorado) This 30th anniversary yarn combines Sister Sheep’s CVM/ Ramboulliet wool and alpaca from Ancient Treasure Alpaca Ranch with a kiss of Midnight Moonsong’s angora, all processed and spun at Wild West Fiber Mill near Elbert, Colorado. The natural ecru and fawn colors are selling briskly at $ 18.50 for 150 yards.
Back at Fibershed headquarters, the organization has grown to offer a range of programs that include everything from fashion shows and kids’ classes to educational offerings on sheep husbandry. They are also in the final throes of a feasibility study to foster the development of an industrial wool mill in the Golden State.
“Three million pounds of wool gets shipped overseas in California and sent back here for retail,” explains Fibershed’s Dustin Kahn. “It makes a lot of sense to us to bring back that industry and use that wool locally, reduce its carbon footprint, create jobs and provide a model for having it done in our fibershed.
“Hopefully, then people will see it as a viable source of income and more people will be interested in raising sheep, not just in California but around the country.”
Heirloom tomatoes and heirloom wool
As a member of Virginia’s Loudoun Valley Sheep Producers, shepherd Gretchen Frederick realized that a lot of small sheep producers either had no idea what to do with their wool or saw it as a hassle. As a result, they were throwing fleeces away.
“Unless you’re a user of the wool and get plugged into hand spinning markets or figure your way into this fiber world, you don’t know what to do,” she explains. “Or it’s too hard to figure it out and too expensive to have products made—and then how do you sell them?”
Recognizing that she was surrounded by a wealth of purebred wool that was going to waste, in 2006 Frederick joined forces with another likeminded shepherd and handspinner, Sue Bundy, to buy up fleeces with the goal of producing breed- specific yarns.
“I am very interested in the local food movement and see a real parallel,” Frederick says. “People who care and support local agriculture will buy food direct from farms and it’s got an identity to it. Wool is an agricultural product. It also has terroir, in that different areas send you to raising one sort of breed or another. East Coast shepherding is another language than Western range shepherding. It’s really different.”
And so are the yarns. Since starting out, Frederick and Bundy have sent wool to mills all over the country, using their spinners’ sensibility to match their yarn design choices to the wool characteristics of each breed. The yarns are marketed under the historical name of Frederick’s farm, Solitude, a nod to the yarns’ origins, and sold through fiber festivals and a website, solitudewool. com.
Understanding that, like heirloom tomatoes, conservation breeds can help boost genetic diversity and create stunning yarns, other companies are producing artisanal singlebreed yarns. Elsawool in Colorado sells yarns and finished garments made from Cormo wool sourced from two ranches in the Rocky Mountain West. And handknitting superstar Jared Flood of Brooklyn Tweed turned to the TargheeColumbia crossbreed grown in Wyoming for his signature yarns, Shelter and Loft.
The yarns are as individual as wine varietals, each breed like its own grape. Educating customers who may not recognize the difference between Karakul, a hardwearing, feltslike iron wool, or Tunis, a versatile medium wool, has been part of the process. The publication in recent years of books such as Clara Parkes’ The Knitter’s Book of Wool and The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook by Deb Robson and Carol Ekarius has also helped raise awareness among stitchers of the idiosyncrasies of breed- specific fibers.
Solitude Wool currently buys between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds of wool annually, paying above- market prices. She estimates that about half that amount might not have found a market if she and Bundy hadn’t found it useful.
“A lot of what aided the local food movement were chefs,” Frederick observes. “It became cool and you had to have local food. They also helped educate people about the flavor and variety of things— that it really makes a difference. I’m hoping fiber artists pick up the idea.
“If there isn’t a market for that animal, that breed is going to go out of existence.”
It’s not as if the American
Sheep Industry Association has
been sitting on its haunches
counting sheep while the
industry slides. In addition to
pushing exports and increased
production, ASI has darned an
important hole in the U. S. wool
manufacturing: superwashing. For more information please visit: American Sheep Industry USA ( www.sheepusa.org/), Thirteen Mile Sheep and Wool Co. ( www.lambandwool.com), North American Wool Cooperative ( www.northamericanwoolcooperative.com/#), Fibershed ( www.fibershed.com), Solitude Wool www.solitudewool.com/).
Big ag It’s not as if the American Sheep Industry Association has been sitting on its haunches counting sheep while the industry slides. In addition to pushing exports and increased production, ASI has darned an important hole in the U. S. wool manufacturing: superwashing.
In the aftermath of off- shoring, U. S. plants could no longer shrink- proof wool. So even if a company— or the U. S. military— wanted to produce washable wool products, they couldn’t. “It was the only piece we were missing,” Orwick explains. “And with socks, they have to be washable.”
In 2011, ASI had a wool- top chlorine/ polymer shrink- resistant treatment equipment line installed at Chargeurs Wool USA in Jamestown, South Carolina, the last commercial- scale topmaking plant in the U. S. The move not only made it possible to produce washable- wool goods from soil to sock in the United States, it reduced the carbon footprint of many goods and shored up manufacturing schedules for U. S. firms.
The new plant makes it possible for companies like Ibex to use U. S. wool in the manufacture of their high- tech products.
“The $ 20 wool sock is a boon to our business,” Orwick explains. “The sock industry maintains a lot bigger share in America. People want performance socks and wool is a key fiber. It’s huge for us. Thank God for $ 15 to $ 20 retail socks.”