How the West was Wooled: Part 3
By Hypatia Francis
Wool is everywhere, from knitting magazines to wool shops to clubs and klatches. A quick look at any popular online decorating blog will tell you that one of the must-have items for your house is a Hudson Bay blanket, that familiar white wool bed cover striped with bands of blue, yellow, red, and green stripes. A walk past any hipster-owned boutique shows a window full of wool products. Wool is what's hot.
Photo courtesy of Green Mountain Spinnery.
The return to wool is part of a larger trend, a return to simplicity. Huggett has noticed this among her own clients. “I do know that there is a movement towards finely handcrafted objects,” she says. “I think of it as a foil to this device-dependent age—a dose of low tech in a high-tech world.” In an attempt to escape from a culture of technology and disposability, people are going back to basics. They’re buying vinyl records, clothbound books, and wool sweaters. The wool sweaters in the hip boutique windows in my neighborhood aren’t cheap, nor is a Hudson Bay blanket. Even buying enough wool to knit your own sweater will set you back. So, the wool industry must be doing okay these days, right?
The problem is that, while the demand for wool may be there, the infrastructure to support a domestic wool industry isn’t. The last fifty years or so weren’t particularly kind to the wool trade in North America and in the latter half of the 20th century, demand for wool dropped. The large mills that had sprung up during the early 1900s began to close, which in turn meant that many wool producers either had to ship their fiber abroad for processing, or switch over to raising sheep for meat production. By 2003, the United States, which boasted 56 million head of sheep in 1942, saw numbers drop down to below seven million, the lowest they’d been since the early 1800s.
Photo courtesy of Green Mountain Spinnery.
But while the large mills have shut down, smaller mills have continued to operate. David Ritchie is the general manager of Green Mountain Spinnery, in Putney, Vermont, a wool cooperative that, as he points out, doesn’t follow the industry’s path. “When we got started 33 years ago,” he explains, “the industry wasn’t sourcing local wool.” According to Ritchie, the choice to work with local wool was an obvious one. “We knew there were sheep right outside the door.” And Green Mountain Spinnery has kept that tradition, sourcing wool mainly from New England and Quebec, as well as some from the western United States.
Over the past few years, Ritchie has seen more and more people taking an interest in where the wool they are buying comes from. “More and more people are trying to buy local,” he observes. “These days people buy a skein of yarn, and they know the name of the sheep.” Clearly, there are knitters who care about where there wool comes from.
Still, it has become increasingly difficult to buy truly local wool. Huggett,whose inventory is a combination of yarns from large Canadian distributors and indie dyers, makes a point of trying to source North American wool. “We try and buy as many Canadian-produced yarns as possible,” she says. “Unfortunately, for the most part, we have no way of knowing where the wool in these yarns comes from.” While a yarn may come through a Canadian distributor or indie dyer, Huggett explains that the base yarn may have originally been sourced from non-domestic mills, who in turn source their wool from all over the globe.
This is not true of all wool companies. As Huggett notes, there are companies, such as Brooklyn Tweed, which offers wool that is 100 percent raised, produced and processed in the United States; and baa ram ewe, which offers 100 percent Yorkshire wool and U.K. alpaca. These companies and others like them are working to revive their local wool industries. And they are filling a niche, serving a demand for local wool.
But there remains the question of what customers are willing to pay. While there are brands that specialize in wool that is raised, produced, and processed in Canada or the United States, this comes at a price. According to Huggett, “most of the yarns processed and produced in North America fall into the luxury category and their price point puts them out of reach unless the customer appreciates the ‘value added’ in buying locally.” Buying local is not as much of a priority for the average customer as look, feel, color, and price. As Huggett puts it, “In our throwaway, discount-obsessed society, price is a huge barrier.”
Ritchie has noted a change over the years. “The knitters out there, the people using the wool, are so much more sophisticated,” he says, noting that knitters are becoming more aware of where their wool comes from, and are making choices accordingly. Huggett agrees that there are people for whom supporting local wool is a priority. “There are customers who appreciate and will pay extra to work with locally sourced wools,” she says. “But are there enough of them to support the industry? Not yet.”
It’s hard to believe that only a hundred years ago the wool industry was in its heyday, that there were so many sheep that they literally changed the landscape in parts of the United States, and that a sheep farmer could make a comfortable living raising sheep for wool production. We’ve come a long way since then. Today, wool producers in North America are struggling. When asked what advice she would offer knitters who are interested in supporting North American wool producers, Huggett responds with two words: “Buy it!” While she acknowledges that buying enough local wool for a large project might be too expensive for some people, she suggests trying a small project using North American wool. “No matter what our budgets,” she says, “we all have to support industries that we don’t want to see disappear, to the degree that we can.”
Hypatia Francis is a Montreal-based editor, writer, and translator. When she isn't wrestling with split infinitives, she likes to travel, cook, and read long, mind-improving books. While Hypatia is an enthusiastic knitter, she has yet to get beyond the stocking stitch.