Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Value of Wool

By wool, I am talking about the product of sheep, not the ball of synthetic chemical yarn at your local WallyM. store. Wool that is living, vibrant, resilient.

Wool has historically been so valuable that economies were based on it, trade laws were enacted to protect it and legislation was passed to enhance its market. Today wool is just as valuable. One 300 lb. bale of fine merino wool sold in 2007 for $250,000. It will be used to weave suit material.

Yet, tragically, the Canadian Wool Growers Co-operative -- the arm that markets Canadian Wool on a wholesale basis, pays so little to the wool grower that the value of the fleece doesn't cover the cost of the shearing -- $5 to $8 per animal depending on the size of the flock. Most small flock owners in B.C. burn their fleece in the fields. Most Canadian spinners have been taught by the older generation that Canadian wool is "trash" and that good wool comes from Australia and New Zealand. Not so!

Canadian wool is a superior premium wool, due to our harsh winter climate that promotes a long, lustrous, resilient fleece. Sheep that are raised on pasture in the summer, away from feed lots, have clean, sound, healthy fleeces.

Coloured wool fleeces have a depth of shade unmatched by chemical dyes -- fleeces in grey, chocolate, milk chocolate, brown and charcoal can be found, with colour variation within the fleece, to enhance the final garment or rug.

There are fleeces for every project -- strong, lustrous, long wool fleeces for carpets, blankets and coats; Medium fleece for sweaters, socks, mittens and hats; and lamb fleeces or soft merino or rambouillet fleeces for scarves and hats or baby clothes.

Premium wool sold directly to handspinners is less than $10 to $15 per lb., while generic wool yarns sell for a mere $60 per lb. at the retail wool shop--if you can find 100% wool yarn at the shop. The retailer makes the most money when wool is sold.

It costs the average grower, with substantial Summer pasture, approximately $125 per year to raise one ewe to lambing, simply for feed and minerals. Her fleece will be skirted to 5 to 7 lbs. which will sell for $5 to $7 wholesale to wool growers or perhaps 1/4 that depending on the world price for wool that week. Her lamb will sell for $100 in the Fall. If she had twin lambs she might earn enough to pay the farmer for his time and the shearer for the hair cut. If she has only a single lamb or there are losses or vet bills, the shepherd losses his livelihood. Its no wonder that many shepherds are selling out. This is the reality of shepherding in North America since the 1980s. It isn't a reflection of the current poor economy, it is a reflection of the variables of shepherding in the chemical age.

So why continue growing wool? Wool is an exquisite fiber -- unlike anything the chemical companies can produce. Molecularly, Nylon is a synthetic wool, but it doesn't keep you warm and it isn't flame resistant, and it feels awful against your skin. Wool is healthy, allowing your skin to breath, protecting your body from harsh elements and bacteria, and maintaining your body temperature -- cooling in summer and warming in winter.

Wool resists soiling, and cleans up easily with plain soap and water. It stands the test of time -- looking new even after 20 years of daily use. I have wool blankets that are over 30 years old and still look like new. Wool textiles are good investments that can be expected to last many decades of daily use.

Wool is antibacterial, flame resistant, insulating and cooling. It maintains its insulating properties even when wet. It takes dyes well and is elastic, with wonderful drape.

But isn't wool itchy and uncomfortable? Doesn't it attract moths? It can't be washed, can it?

All false assumptions. Some long lustre wools -- extremely beautiful wools with hard wearing benefits -- are best for outer wear but can be spun softly to be worn in close skin contact. Synthetic fibers can also be itchy. For next to the skin wear, choose fine wools like merino, rambouillet or their crosses.

Clean wool is unattractive to moths, and lavender or wormwood sachets can deter moths when wool is in storage.

All wool can be handwashed or washed in warm water on delicate in your washing machine. Wool garments require washing less frequently than synthetics. My wool blankets are washed only twice a year and maintain their good looks and freshness through their daily use.

And when its life span is over, wool can be recycled into rugs, or tapestries and then finally it will decompose, adding a nitrogen rich fertilizer for garden use -- to make more grass -- to feed more sheep -- to grow more wool. Wool is a sustainable fiber that's good for the environment and good for people.

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