Wednesday, December 12, 2018

More than the Numbers: A Few Random Thoughts on our Wool

A few of our "mule" crossbreds - Blueface Lecister x Cheviot.

This won't be a surprise to anyone who wears wool, I'm sure - but not all sheep are created equal when it comes to wool quality. For the most part, the finer the wool, the more comfortable the fabric made from that wool. Wool-wearers are familiar with Australian Merino wool; Rambouillet sheep are the predominant fine-wool breed in the American West. Fine wool is typically under 21 microns in diameter, and is generally less "scratchy" than larger diameter (or coarser) wool. Fine wool is desirable for next-to-skin garments; course wool is used for carpets. I would imagine you can guess which type of wool is more valuable!

Our wool, largely from English crossbred sheep (Blueface Leicester x Cheviot) and Shropshire sheep, is coarse. Coarse wool sheep work well in our environment, where we typically receive more than 30 inches of rain annually. Fine-wool sheep, on the other hand, are better suited to more arid climates - like the southern San Joaquin Valley or the Intermountain West.

Most of our wool is more than 27 microns in diameter; some is over 30 microns! On the commodity market, fine wool is purchased by SmartWool and Armani. Our wool is purchased by carpet weavers. Last year, fine wool commanded record-setting prices (in excess of $3 per pound). A Rambouillet ewe that sheared a 12-pound fleece returned as much as $40 on her wool. Our wool, on the other had, was worth just $0.56 per pound. An average ewe in our flock returned less than $3. We paid around $4 to have her shorn. Since I have a degree in agricultural economics, I realize that our wool wasn't profitable in 2018.
Typical western white-face (and fine-wool) ewes - shipping out
of the mountains north of Truckee.

But the commodity market and wool diameter don't tell the whole story. Our "coarse" wool is supposedly unsuitable for next-to-skin garments. Despite this conventional wisdom, I own two stocking hats knit from yarn spun from our wool. Being a mostly bald shepherd (as anyone who knows me will attest), these hats are "next-to-skin" for me - and they are perfectly comfortable (and incredibly warm). Blueface Leicester wool, it turns out, is unusually soft for a coarse wool. I wish this was reflected in the price we receive for it!

I love the fact that the wool hat I wore today on my morning walk was sunshine, rainwater, soil, and (ultimately) grass just two years ago. I love the fact that I still wear Pendleton and Filson garments that are older than I am (and that I received from my Dad). I love the fact that even today, in an era of smartphones and super computers, every woolen garment begins with someone shearing a sheep by hand. Wool breathes, resists bacteria and fire, and insulates even when wet. Wool is the ultimate renewable fiber - my sheep produce more of it each and every year!

Every shepherd who raises wool sheep should have something made from his or her sheep's wool. I'm so fortunate to have friends and family who are talented (and generous) spinners and knitters. Keeping my bald head warm this morning with wool from our sheep almost made up for the poor returns from this year's wool clip!
Renewable fiber - on the hoof!

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