By Hypatia Francis
Towards the end of the 19th century, both the United States and Canada were opening up the West. With western expansion, came a rise in wool production. Cotton might have been king on the East Coast, but in the West wool was an important part of the economy. “Wool production was vital,” says Jeanne Carver, who runs Imperial Stock Ranch in Oregon with her husband Dan. “In the early days of Oregon’s settlement, Oregon was the second leading state for wool production in America.” Sheep-raising had changed as people moved west, and was being done on a much larger scale than before. Sheep ranches like Carver’s, founded in 1871, were much larger than anything back east. “At one point Imperial Stock Ranch was the largest wool producer in Oregon, with 85,000 head of sheep,” says Carver.
But elsewhere, the death knell of the wool industry was already sounding. In 1855, a Swiss chemist by the name of Georges Audemars was granted a patent for something he called artificial silk. Audemars had discovered how to make cellulose nitrate by dissolving the fibrous inner bark of a mulberry tree, and chemically modifying it. By dipping needles into this solution and drawing them out, Audemars was able to make the first threads of synthetic fiber. His method was too slow and impractical for commercial production, but it laid the groundwork for those who followed.
In the early 1880s, British chemist and electrician Sir Joseph W. Swan began a series of experiments in which he forced a liquid similar to Audemars’ solution through fine holes into a coagulating bath, creating filaments. Swan realised that his filaments could also be used to make textiles, and at the 1885 International Inventions Exhibition in London he exhibited fabrics his wife had crocheted using the new fiber. At the same time, across the English Channel, Hilaire de Chardonnet, Comte de Chardonnay, had recently patented a cellulose-based fabric that came to be known as Chardonnay silk. Unfortunately, this artificial silk, while beautiful, was also very flammable and was soon removed from the market. However, many people were working on finding alternatives to natural fibers, and soon more practical methods, as well as less flammable materials, were being produced. By 1910, the first commercially produced artificial silk (better known today as rayon) was available in the United States.
Meanwhile, wool producers were only just beginning to catch up with the modern economy. Before 1914, wool was marketed in Canada in a fairly haphazard manner. Most wool was handled by dealers, junk merchants, traders, and even butchers, who acted as middlemen between the growers and the manufacturers. The growers had little or no alternative but to accept the price offered.
Photo courtesy of Faribault Woolen Mill, www.faribaultmill.com.
As a result of recommendations made by a special commission appointed by the Canada Department of Agriculture to investigate the sheep and wool industry in Canada, Great Britain, and the United States, the Livestock Branch began grading wool in 1913. The commission also recommended that Canadian wool be marketed on co-operative lines. In 1914, wool growers began to organize associations for the co-operative marketing of wool and by 1916, 26 associations were handling the growers’ wool. Wool growers, like wheat growers, or dairy farmers, held a certain amount of clout back then.
The early 1940s were a golden age for wool production in North America. American wool production peaked in 1942, with 56 million head of sheep in the United States. Every American family could have had a sheep or two of their own that year. And there was no shortage of demand for wool. The United States had recently joined in World War II, and wool was needed to clothe American troops. The peak came a little later in Canada, in 1945, just as the troops were coming home. The future looked bright for the North American wool industry.
But while North America experienced an unprecedented period of optimism following the second world war, a period still haloed by the golden glow of the American Dream—homeownership, a car in every driveway, the baby boom, and a building boom—the wool industry quickly lost momentum. With the war over, demand for the fiber dropped. Woolgrowers, who had once held a certain amount of political and economic clout, didn’t hold the same sway as industry. “Suddenly we started producing things with oil that we hadn’t made before, just to keep the factories churning,” says Jeanne Carver. People wanted to put the past behind them and look to the future, and wool didn’t fit in with modern ideas of futuristic space-age technology.
Tom Redpath works as a shearer, traveling throughout Quebec and Ontario. However his first job, back in the early 1970s, was with the Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers, marketing Canadian wool, and running their stockman supplies outfit. “At the time,” says Redpath, “the Canadian government was putting a lot of interest into growing the sheep industry in Canada.” Over a ten to fifteen year period, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Agriculture Canada was working on developing a new breed of sheep, one that would offer high fertility, had good mothering characteristics, would thrive in cold Canadian winters, and perhaps save the already failing sheep industry. But the breed, the Rideau Arcott, wasn’t a wool sheep. Instead, the emphasis was on meat production. Already, the industry was shifting towards mixed-use sheep.
The 1980s—the decade of shoulder pads, neon colours, and big hair—wasn’t kind to the North American wool industry. Things were changing, and fast. David Ritchie is the general manager of Green Mountain Spinnery, in Putney Vermont. “When we started thirty-something years ago, there were many more mills running in the U.S. than there are now,” he says. Across North America, larger mills were shutting their doors. Wool was being shipped overseas, mainly to China, for processing.
Wool producers began to feel the crunch. In 1999, Imperial Stock Ranch, which had sold its raw wool for 130 years, suddenly couldn’t find any buyers. Jeanne Carver launched the successful yarn line, Imperial Yarn, and was able to keep the sheep portion of the ranch operating. But not all sheep growers were able to survive the changes wrought by the disappearance of large North American mills. “Between 1996 and 2000, more than 26,000 sheep growers went out of business in the United States,” Carver points out.
That trend has continued to this day. Lee Mode, a sheep farmer in Vankleek Hill, Ontario, sums it up. “Ninety percent of wool in this country is sent overseas, and cleaned overseas, and brought back.” In the 1950s and 1960s, a sheep farmer could sell his fleece for $1.10 per pound. By 1993, that price had dropped to $0.10 per pound. Prices have since come up a little, but only to $0.50 per pound. which, as Mode points out, doesn’t go very far when you consider that the costs associated with raising sheep, from animal feed to vet bills to paying the shearer, have all gone up. “It just doesn’t pay.”
Photo courtesy of Faribault Woolen Mill, www.faribaultmill.com.
Those who work in the wool industry, either as sheep growers, or as wool producers, do so because they are passionate about it. It is a labor of love. But with that passion comes an insight into how things went wrong for the wool industry in North America. “We got so rich in this country, that we thought we didn’t need to make things for ourselves anymore,” explains Carver. “And that was the beginning of the end of the wool industry.”
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.