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More Wool: A Prince of an Idea

It’s time to ‘fess’ up, as they say. Aunt Toby has never..ever…met HRH Charles Philip Arthur George, the Prince of Wales.
We just don’t move in the same, as we might say, circles.
But on the other hand, if we did meet, we’d have a lot to talk about.
He’s a organic gardener. Aunt Toby’s an organic gardener.
He believes in good solid architecture. I’m into barns, too.
He’s been a fierce advocate of protecting the ecology for years; moi aussi.

And he believes that the world would be a healthier, happier, warmer place if people wore more wool.

I could not have said it better myself.

As part of his job (his role, part of the ‘company’ business, as it were) is to promote British products. Whether it was his wife’s hats or his brother’s trade missions, the Windsors see it as a duty to carry the flag wherever they go – and if they can’t carry it, at least they can WEAR it. From head to toe. From hats to shoes, everything British made. And Charles became aware over the past couple of years that one of Britain’s best and most historic products, wool and products made from wool, were endangered because of the lack of support they were getting. Indeed, it had come to the point (and this same situation is found in many parts of the world, frankly) where it cost more to shear the sheep than the farmers could get back for the price of the wool. No matter how clean it was. No matter how fine it was.

In many places, not just Britain, it’s a losing proposition.
Which saddened Charles, as he would say in his extremely gracious way (Aunt Toby would not be as gracious – ticks me right off), and he is determined to raise wool to its proper place in the nation’s lives, wardrobes and housing through a scheme (as they call them in the UK), the Campaign for Wool. The point is to, through the cooperation of all the stakeholders in the product chain – from farmers, to retailers and everyone in between – to educate consumers and one another to the benefits, advantages, and just plain good of encouraging wearing and using wool. Because if people and companies choose wool, then the price farmers can get for it will go up , farmers can make a better living raising it and will expand their flocks, more young people will go into industries which support wool, more skills will be saved, the flag gets waved, Brittania rules the waves, and everyone is actually a lot warmer and the environment is a lot healthier. This week is Wool Week in the UK. The Campaign for Wool

Why sheep? Well, I admit that Aunt Toby is rather biased about raising livestock.

There are livestock which require a lot of maintenance and land to raise (cattle, I’m talking to you), versus what you get back.

There are livestock which are actually very damaging to the environment despite their other wonderful qualities (goats, I’m looking at you; the Middle East was not always a desert, but you ate up all the trees, exposed the soil and helped turn it into one).

But sheep are almost perfect. They graze down rather than browsing up – they leave bushes and trees alone and therefore do not contribute to desertification. They are very hardy creatures and really only need shelter when the weather is at its absolute worse. We’ve had sheep literally hunker down in the snow to ruminate and get covered by the drifting snow and wind. And then, due to their body heat, they can literally melt the snow right down to the ground. Wool is amazing protection and insulation. Wool has wonderful qualities that make it absolutely amazing for clothing, no matter where you live. And with sheep, you get multiple products: meat, milk for cheese, AND fiber to wear. It is no mystery that sheep were probably one of the first animals that man was able to domesticate and that fit in so well, the all-in-one family support.

And oh, yes. raising sheep doesn’t require sinking an oil well, either. It’s just the sheep, a shearer, someone to wash the fleece, card it, spin it, and knit or weave it. I’ve done all of these processes and the amount of technology you need is actually quite small.

But wool has many wonderful qualities that make it probably the height of high tech fabrics:

Flame proof – wool has a much higher flash point, which makes it very good for items such as carpeting, rugs, upholstery and curtains.
Wool breathes. When you wear it and sweat, the wool fabric (knitted or woven) can pass the moisture through.
Wool fibers are like springs, so not only is wool fabric resilient, it is also durable.
Recent innovations in processing have produced wool fabrics which literally can be thrown right in the washer.
Wool has natural UV blocking qualities.
Wool is completely sustainable. As long as there is grass to eat and sheep to eat it, there will be wool. You can’t say that about synthetics made from oil.
When wool is felted, it can be used not only for clothing, but also for the built environment. Whether you are talking about yurts in Central Asia or underlayment for carpeting in New York City, wool dampens sound, keeps the living environment warmer, protects from drafts, and actually locks up CO2.
Wool can be recycled, whether it’s from used clothing to new clothing, from used clothing down to fibers, respun and then knitted or woven into fabrics for new clothing, brocken down to fibers and used in insulation, carpeting, felt or other building materials. Wool can actually, because of the fiber structure, be reused and recycled literally hundreds of times, and over literally decades. On the other hand, if you bury it in the ground, it is completely degraded in a matter of weeks.

For those sensitive folk who complain that they are ‘allergic’ to wool, that is actually not true. The ‘itchiness’ factor is due to the type of wool. Advanced breeding and processing methods now enable consumers to choose wool so fine that they can wear it as underwear. One of the amazing advantages of sheep is that you can select for fineness of fiber – with the right choice of breeds and breeding, you can turn around a flock in just a few years from sheep that produces wool that is good for tough a flock producing baby fine fiber.

Once upon a time, HRH was considered somewhat of a crank; today he’s considered someone way ahead of the curve and he’ll go anywhere, at any time, to promote this. It isn’t just for the UK.

So, what can we do here in the United States?

Well, believe it or not, we still have people who make wool fabrics and clothing. The 2007 USDA Agriculture Census 2007 Census on Sheep and Goats
“..sales of sheep and goats and their products in the United States totaled $704.9
million, an increase of $163.1 million, or 30 percent, from 2002. These sales accounted for 0.2 percent of all agricultural products sold in the United States during 2007. The largest increases in sales were seen in California (+$19.5 million), Iowa (+$16.8 million), Texas (+$13.6 million)
and Colorado (+$12.3 million).”

The top 5 states for sheep raising are:

1. Texas
2. Colorado
3. California
4. Iowa
5. South Dakota
6. Wyoming

As for the 2000 US Census of manufacturing, 2000 Broadwoven Fabric Mills, US

“There were 78 establishments producing broadwoven fabrics of wool, mohair, or similar animal fiber in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. Of all fibers in this classification, the greatest production is in wool fiber. According to the Department of Commerce, the value of production shipments in 2000 for these fabrics exceeded $1.17 billion. The vast majority of fabrics was produced for the apparel industry.”

So, believe it or not, we’re still doing it in terms of turning wool into fabrics.

And the more we all as consumers look to value, durability and quality, and away from fast, synthetic and oil-based, the better wool looks. More bang, as we say, for the buck. Always.

Perhaps someone should ring up HRH and ask him to tea.
(photos courtesy of magic foundry and isafmedia)

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  1. Carolyn says:

    I love all forms of wool and try my hardest to buy as much of it as can fit into my apt! 😉 As a matter of fact a box with alot of it arrived tonight! So I’m on the front lines, helping out as much as I can! *LOL*

  2. Debi says:

    baaaaeeeautifully said 🙂 I LOVE wool and I LOVE sheep. This post was great and I’m glad to know it’s Wool week in the UK!

  3. Shiphrah says:

    Oyez, oyez, oyez! Wool is a miracle fiber and sheep are amazing little production engines on legs. (Well, except maybe for Dolores von Hoofen — those who know, know.) Renewable resources, which is more than I can say for oil.

    A friend complained a couple days ago that she’s already put the comforter on her bed and she’s still cold. Well, yeah, if it’s a polyester POS from your local big box. Me? I have 2 lightweight wool blankets and I’m toasty. (And our rental house is mucho drafty.)

    Go ahead and invite him for tea. He’d probably come. And he’d enjoy the tour of Chez Siberia. Balmoral it ain’t, but it’s cozy.

  4. Duchesse says:

    I love your witty and edifying love letter to wool. And Prince Charles is the most exquisitely dressed man. I’m not in agreement with all of his ideas (architecture comes to mind) but wool, functional, highly sustainable- what’s not to love?

    My mother used to make lambswool comforters, placing the wool between two cotton layers, like a down duvet. Heaven- one rarely sees them anymore.

  5. nicely detailed post, thanks!

  6. Aunt Toby says:

    Duchesse: I did a quick and dirty search and found these folks:

    These folks not only make wool comforters, but if you have an old one that needs ‘plumping up’, you can send it, they will card it, add some new clean wool and create something new for you or just make a batt so that you can make a new cover and do your own.

  7. htwollin says:

    Duchesse – There are a couple of ways to get a wool comforter. Buy one already made or (for those folks who are raising sheep), getting wool processed into batts or into comforters for batts. For anyone who already HAS a wool comforter, which perhaps has seen ‘better days’ and needs plumping up, the same places that process fleeces for sheep raisers can take your comforter, take it apart,, clean it, put it through the picker and carder with some extra new wool and voila! A new batt. Some of them will even create a new comforter for you with it as well. Search on ‘wool batts for comforters’ or ‘wood comforters’ because this list is not exhaustive. The other thing to do is check with your local Cooperative Extension or other farm services to find people who raise sheep in your area – many of them will also be getting their fleeces processed into batts and you could then buy something not only warm, but also local!

    Comforters only?

  8. Shiphrah says: Has the last mule spinner in the U.S. — not actual mules, although I suppose it once was (I’ll learn more on my fiber group’s field trip next month). They process wool for sheep farmers all over the country, as a sideline for making their own wonderful tweedy (relatively inexpensive!) yarn. They also sell batts, roving, blankets, sweaters and socks, all made from same. Nice people, too.

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