The Hidden Powers of a Sheep
Not only is wool unusually cozy and durable, but its creators (the sheep) can help regenerate the soil, along with the world’s drying, fire-prone landscapes. The good news: a wool revival seems to be underway.
By JUDITH D. SCHWARTZ
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in our Winter 2018 issue. It is being republished as originally written, without new reporting.
In the early 19th century, 70 percent of the forests in my home state of Vermont were cleared, primarily for sheep farming. Vermont’s “merino mania” had begun just a few years earlier, in 1809, when William Jarvis, U.S. Consul to Portugal under Thomas Jefferson, took advantage of Spain’s turmoil under Napoleon’s invasion to import 200 of Spain’s prized Royal Escorial flock. It turned out that our rocky soil and hilly terrain suited sheep farming just fine; Jarvis soon smuggled in more and more Spanish sheep, and, for a time, Vermont became the center of the American wool trade.
At its peak in 1840, the industry supported more than 100,000 sheep in the town of Bennington, where I live. Our own property was reportedly once a sheep farm. We still have sections of stone wall that marked the pasture boundary. Today there’s barely a handful of small sheep farms left in the county. So, too, with the wool industry at large. Across the country, wool mills—once an American mainstay—have all but disappeared.
And yet, there are stirrings of a wool revival. The wool sock industry is thriving (witness the rise of Smartwool and Darn Tough). Shoe companies, too, like Allbirds and Baabuk (both launched on Kickstarter) feature wool sneakers and walking shoes; even brands like Nike and Converse have niche wool products.
Wool’s renaissance is arising for three main reasons. The first is that wool is, quite simply, one of the most efficient materials on the planet. Nothing is toastier than wool, yet its insulating properties also keep you cool. Wool is also durable, fire-resistant, entirely natural, suited to a variety of uses, infinitely renewable, biodegradable (within a year vs. up to centuries for synthetic fabrics), and unlike synthetics, it won’t stink when you sweat. Furthermore, wool is relatively animal friendly, despite PETA campaigns to the contrary. [See Craftsmanship Magazine‘s story, “Eco-Fashion’s Animal Rights Delusion.”]
Second, when local wool operations are revived, that tends to rejuvenate a local economy—and the culture of craftsmanship that can surround it. “The more people are turning to technology, the more they’re also returning to homemade,” says Tammy White, who runs a small, multipurpose farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont, called Wing and a Prayer.
Third, wool’s creators, the sheep, can do a tremendous amount to help the local ecology. When managed wisely (through methods that I’ll explain in a moment), livestock can actually regenerate infertile land, and the plants that should be growing on it; those plants can then pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and bury the carbon in the ground where it belongs. This approach can also help to keep wildfires from spreading at the speed and scale that have been devastating states like California, with increasing frequency thanks to climate change.
Few animals do this job more easily than sheep. Is that enough to turn around an entire livestock industry, and revive fashion’s appetite for wool?
In coastal California, says Rebecca Burgess, “when we began evaluating the wool supply, we saw more wool being stored in barn rafters and ditches than we saw moving into products.”
The first setback to Vermont’s wool trade arrived with the end of protective tariffs, in the 1840s, which plunged wool prices by half. This was quickly followed, in 1869, by the Transpacific Railway that opened access to cheaper wool from larger western ranches. Then came competition from overseas.
By the mid-20th century, Australia was “riding on the sheep’s back” and the U.S. wool market was going nowhere. Australia now commands about 25 percent of the global wool market. (New Zealand, the U.K., South Africa, and Argentina are also top producers; the U.S. is third.) Once clothing made of synthetics arrived, wool was deemed bulky, scratchy, a hassle to wash, and too much bother all-around.
While a few American manufacturing icons, like Pendleton and Burlington Mills, still process their own wool, and a scattering of smaller operations have kept humming, only two large, first-stage wool processors remain in the U.S.: Bollman Industries, in Texas, and Chargeurs Wool, in South Carolina.
Yet there are still plenty of sheep. According to the American Sheep Industry Association, which has been the nation’s trade association for sheep farming and wool production since 1865, roughly 5 million sheep still roam hills and pasturelands in every state. That is quite a drop from the industry’s peak, soon after the invention of polyester, of 33 million in 1960. But still, if one proverbial black sheep can produce three bags full, where does all this wool go? Apparently, not always where it should, or could.
Consider the situation that Rebecca Burgess, founder of Fibershed, an organization trying to revitalize local clothing production, encountered in California. “In 2013, when we began evaluating the wool supply on the coast,” Burgess says, “we saw more wool being stored in barn rafters and ditches than we saw moving into products.”
This sounds bizarre, but there’s a reason that wool gets ditched. To begin with, wool comes in various grades. In the U.S., our finer wool—the kind used for undergarments, soft sweaters, and high-end suits—is typically grown in warmer states. The coarser wool—best for rugs and upholstery, or even farmyard uses—is generally grown in cooler areas like Vermont, or coastal California, which is the region that Burgess was studying. Still, most California sheep ranchers aren’t raising their animals to produce just mulch or insulation.
When Burgess and her research team looked more closely at California’s wool supplies, she found that the state’s sheep ranchers produce enough wool (3.1 million pounds in 2013) “to provide an item of nontoxic bedding or a performance level garment for approximately 6 million people on an annual basis.” Extrapolating from a sample of small and mid-sized ranches representing about a third of the state’s wool production, Fibershed estimated that 79 percent of the state’s wool was of sufficient quality for some kind of clothing. This suggests that the materials for some pretty nice outfits were piling up in compost heaps.
Burgess is determined to revive local textile production operations—not only for wool but for other environmentally benign materials like linen and hemp. “I want to make it possible for every Sierra Club member to stop wearing plastic,” she says, “so they can stop going out to enjoy nature wearing stuff that destroys it.”
The cause of these lost opportunities is exactly what has crippled so many sectors of the American economy in recent decades: our inability to compete with cheaper production costs overseas (or to prove that paying more for higher quality products that last is cheaper in the end). Today, between 50 to 60 percent of domestic wool is shipped overseas for processing, says Rita Samuelson, marketing director for the American Wool Council.
China is now America’s biggest customer for wool, but at prices so low, Burgess says, that the process of baling and shipping is only worthwhile for large-scale ranchers. Lani Estill, who ranches the high country on the California/Nevada border, is saddened that her wool couldn’t be turned into clothing without traveling first to China. “All of that production cycle was lost from the United States,” she says. Not to mention the carbon footprint arising from the transport, and from China’s smokestack production methods.
The situation is even tougher in Vermont, given the state’s coarser grade of wool. Dave Martin, in Underhill, is getting so little for his wool that his best option is to bag it up and truck it to an annual “wool pool” in the middle of the state, where it’s picked up by a wool consolidator. Between the $4-per animal shearing fee and the wool pool’s 40-cents-a-pound selling price, his labors still amount to a loss. But at least, he says, “It’s not sitting in the barn.”
Kimberly Hagen, who raises 30 to 40 sheep near Montpelier, helped secure a USDA grant to explore alternative markets for the state’s raw wool, for uses like insulation and upholstery. (She got inspired after learning that Europeans and the Japanese will pay a premium for renewable insulation.) Hagen has also received inquiries from auto manufacturers and children’s car seat companies, who are looking to shift away from plastic. But the logistics of processing wool for these markets have yet to be worked out.
This situation is exactly what drives Burgess to revive local processing operations—not just for wool but also for all kinds of environmentally benign materials that yield “fiber,” such as linen, hemp, and locally harvested, plant-based dyes. “I want to make it possible for every Sierra Club member to stop wearing plastic, so they can stop going out to enjoy nature wearing stuff that destroys it.”
Burgess is the author of a book on regional dyes called “Harvesting Color,” and another due out next year on ecology and local economic development. In 2010, she launched Fibershed with a personal quest: to slash the environmental impact of her own wardrobe by limiting herself to 100-percent locally-produced clothing.
After studying the clothing industry, Burgess discovered that wool resources were being underutilized in many regions of the country, particularly in rural communities with high unemployment rates. Inspired by the benefits that could be had by rebuilding a local fashion infrastructure, she started experimenting in her own neighborhood, Marin County in California.
Burgess gradually built a network of farmers, ranchers, mill owners, designers, weavers, sewers, knitters and spinners. Some efforts to build new mills and production facilities have been generously funded while others have stalled for lack of financing or skilled workers. Nonetheless, in less than a decade Fibershed has been able to launch 54 affiliates, with operations stretching from the U.K. to the Netherlands and the Balkans.
When sheep and other grazing animals are absent, landscapes tend to degrade—a story being written across the world’s prairies, steppes, pampas and savannas.
Just recently, Burgess launched a project called Climate Beneficial Wool. Sheep ranchers, and the companies that use their wool, earn this certification by adopting an approach to ranching that puts land health first.
This standard is tricky to define because most ranchers and farmers believe they’re already caring for their land—that they aren’t overgrazing, for example. “You can do that one year,” says Samuelson of the American Wool Council. “But the next year you’re not going to be able to come back to it. Every rancher knows that.”
From all indications, this is true—within the limits of what the American landscape now offers. The problem is that, after the generations of abuse that our agricultural lands have suffered, there isn’t a lot of fertility left in the soil, even when farmers and ranchers use the land lightly.
At issue here are some very basic but often ignored principles of biology. Central among them is the cycling of carbon, the building block of life. Working with the carbon cycle instead of against it, which has been the sorry norm for generations, is the key to productive land, the health of sheep and any other animals that graze there, and ultimately the quality of the wool that sheep provide. It also offers a largely ignored means of dealing with climate change.
Here’s how it all works. Carbon is always cycling through the air, the soil, the ocean, and living things like plants and animals (humans too). When sheep and other grazing animals eat, they make use of the organic carbon that is in all plant matter. As they move through a landscape—defecating, urinating, and stomping down the foliage under their hooves—the animals return organic material to the earth, enriching the soil. These connections reflect a new scientific understanding that grasslands and grazing animals co-evolved; in fact, when these animals are absent, landscapes tend to degrade—a story being written across the world’s prairies, steppes, pampas, and savannas.
Of course, if livestock aren’t well managed, all that stomping can be harmful, especially when done by heavy animals like cattle. But sheep are lighter of foot, and more careful around fragile streambanks. (“Sheep don’t like to get their feet wet,” says Paul Rodgers, Deputy Director of the American Sheep Industry Association.) Wherever the grazing occurs, once grasses are nibbled, the plant’s response is to release carbon compounds (sugars) in the root zone. As the soil grows richer, it sustains smaller creatures—worms, dung beetles, fungae, and millions of different microorganisms.
The material that these organisms, and plants, leave behind as they all grow and die is called soil organic matter, or “SOM.” And it’s the heart of what makes land fertile. (In 1920, before the dawn of industrial agriculture, SOM levels across the U.S. averaged between 6 and 8 percent of our topsoil. They now average around 2 percent, with some areas below 1 percent—way below what’s needed for soil fertility.) SOM is also nearly 60 percent carbon. The more SOM there is in the ground, the healthier and more robust the plant life; healthier plants pull more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and drive more carbon into the soil.
When the soil absorbs more carbon than it loses, ecologists and policymakers call it “carbon sequestration.” The whole process works out beautifully as long as a landscape remains covered with robust plant life. If it doesn’t, another cycle takes over—one that diminishes fertility, dries out the soil, encourages imbalances in the plants, and increases vulnerability to wildfires. This, unfortunately, is exactly what’s happened in California.
“That’s the reason for our golden hills in the summertime,” says Burgess, referring to the annual grasses that took over as California’s native perennials got overgrazed. Why do the different grass species matter? Perennials remain alive year-round, keeping the dirt moist and the ground cover relatively green; annuals die every year, turn golden brown, then regrow the following year from the spread of their seeds. During the dead phase, those dominant but dry, golden grasses provide the perfect tinder for wildfires.
As Burgess forges ahead with her campaign for a more regenerative approach to rangeland management, she’s partnered with The North Face to create the world’s first woolen product certified to be climate positive. It’s called the Cali Wool Beanie (not a bad gift for the holidays; see my “Resources” sidebar below), and it’s made of wool from Lani Estill’s Bare Ranch. To revive her ranch, Estill has begun composting, changing irrigation processes, and cover cropping. Once all these practices are in place, the ranch expects to offset the CO2 equivalent of emissions from 850 cars, some 4,000 metric tons a year.
It’s a beautiful concept: the camaraderie and playfulness, the charming setting, the cuddly animals, the homespun economy. But can it all be scaled up beyond this small community? Reluctant as I am to admit it, I don’t even knit.
In the midst of all these new ideas about how to run sheep, and grow wool, a lot of ranchers are opting for an easier route—avoiding the hassle of wool altogether.
For centuries, ranchers have raised sheep primarily for their wool, and only secondarily for meat. Now it’s generally the reverse, with wool increasingly becoming a byproduct. The market has shifted so dramatically, in fact, that farmers are increasingly opting for “hair sheep”—a collection of breeds that have almost no woolly fiber, and thus don’t need shearing.
Interestingly, hair sheep could be considered the most natural breed of the species, since the original wild sheep grew mainly hair, shedding it during summer; domestication is what bred sheep to grow piles of wool. Natural or not, the population of hair sheep has steadily risen. Today, between 25 and 30 percent of the nation’s herd consists of hair sheep breeds.
That increase will slow if people like Tammy White have any say in it. At her Vermont farm, Wing and a Prayer, each animal has a story. And every one of the 56 sheep, 10 angora goats, nine alpacas, four mini-donkeys, one hog, four dogs, and nine cats is a rescue. Some sheep are refugees from meat farms; two alpacas joined the herd when their owner faced cancer treatment. Point to anything with a wool pelt—be it Shetland, Wensleydale, Cotswold, or Merino—and White will happily share its history, and exactly how it found its way to her affections.
On a recent, bright, late-August day, I followed White to a fenced field near her farmhouse. “This is the Boy Band,” she says, “rams and wethers [castrated males].” Because they’re spared of pregnancy and lactation, White says, “males are excellent fiber producers, since all the energy they conserve goes into the production of fabulous fiber.” That fleecy wool, she says, is a sheep’s “life work.”
Wing and a Prayer is a bucolic place, 20 acres of verdant woodland and pasture. White runs the farm solo and revels in the opportunity it gives her to be creative. “It’s a great time to be a fiber farmer,” she says. “I’m like a chef out here making recipes for yarn. Maybe I’ll make sock yarn out of this fiber. Maybe this sheep wants to be fingering lace weight.” She shows me her dye garden, a patch bursting with plants like Hopi amaranth (magenta), Japanese Indigo (blues) and zinnias (various colors). She’ll also raid her own food crops: If beets are likely to get woody “I’ll grate them up and make a cinnamon color.”
White hands me a basket and invites me to pick calendula flowers (for a deep yellow dye) while we chat. Small farms like this, she says, also foster community. Once a year, an older fellow treks down from northern Vermont to shear the sheep and goats; another comes in May for the Alpacas. To process the fleece, White has been able to turn to several small mills nearby. One mill, she says, is especially good with Alpaca; another with fisherman-knit sweater yarn. The closest (Battenkill Fibers, a multi-stage operation in Greenwich, N.Y., that’s become a model for regional milling) “really understands my flock.”
It’s a beautiful concept: the camaraderie and playfulness, the charming setting, the cuddly animals, the homespun economy. But can it all be scaled up beyond this small community? Reluctant as I am to admit it, I don’t even knit. Still, just by being here it’s easy to feel part of something—a kind of warmth that goes beyond even the balm of fine wool. Whatever it is, many others seem to feel it as well.
White now has 23,000 followers across several social media platforms. She has a gift with names and tells a good story. “I was a marketing major,” she says. “It’s not wasted.” Her signature yarn is “Thelma and Louise,” a Cotswold-and-Mohair blend that’s been featured in knitting guides. Many of her followers get caught up in ongoing farm drama: the ewes’ pregnancies and births (broadcast via her “LambCam”), the periodic loss of a beloved lamb, the cycle of New England weather.
Ten years ago, when she first started her cottage business, White says, “I could have insulated my house” with the wool she couldn’t sell at the local farmer’s market. Now, with the growing hunger for alternatives to mass production, she says she can hardly meet the demand. Pointing to skeins of yarn hanging in her dyeing area, she says, “All of this yarn was pre-sold in May before the animals were shorn.” This, despite being priced at $25 per hand-dyed skein—more than twice what it costs White to produce it. “Farmyard yarn” used to be looked down upon, she says. “Now farm yarn is cool.”