My predilection towards wool might be a family trait. I have a small photograph of my Dad fishing on a Southern California beach with his uncle Guy in the late 1940s or early 1950s. My Dad is dressed in short sleeves and blue jeans; Uncle Guy is wearing a Stetson hat and a Pendleton woolen shirt. Uncle Guy was originally from Iowa and had lived briefly in Montana before coming to Southern California. As my Dad tells it, Uncle Guy usually wore Pendleton shirts – regardless of the season.
Some of Uncle Guy’s fashion preferences must have worn off on my Dad. Some of my earliest memories of shopping with my Dad include going into Baer’s Clothing in Sonora (a real old-fashioned, small-town clothing store – you could enter through the display windows in the front or the shoe department from a back street). Baer’s carried Stetson hats, Justin boots, Levi’s 501s (including an enormous pair that hung on the back wall as an advertisement). They sold dress clothes as well – suits and ties, Arrow shirts (under a sign that read, “Custer’s last shirt was an Arrow”). And they sold Pendleton shirts. I can distinctly remember my Dad buying classic Pendleton board shirts and pearl-snapped western shirts from Armand Baer.
My Dad has given me a number of these shirts that no longer fit him – including some that are older than I am. To me, one of the great wonders of wool is that it lasts so long. As a wool producer, I sometimes wish our product didn’t wear so well – maybe we’d sell more of it if it wore out more quickly! As a consumer, however, I definitely find value in wool. Even at $135 (the cost of a Pendleton shirt today), wool is a bargain! A $135 wool shirt that will last 50 years is still a better deal than a $40 cotton shirt that might last five!
The benefits of wool go far beyond longevity and economy, however. Wool is naturally fire resistant. It is also resistant to bacteria (which means it doesn’t stink like my cotton shirts after one day’s wearing). It can absorb up to 30 percent of its weight in water and still retain its insulating properties. The cuticle cells on the outside of wool fibers have a waxy coating, making wool water repellent. Wool is a renewable and biodegradable fiber, as well. The wool that we sheared from our sheep last May, which is by now likely turned into carpet, was the product of the grass our sheep consumed – a much smaller (and more sustainable) production loop than polyester or other man-made, petroleum-based fabrics!
I can’t bring myself to wear Pendleton shirts through the summer months like my Great-Uncle Guy, but I do wear wool socks every day of the year. I always look forward to the first chilly day of autumn, when I can break out my wool shirts again. Like my Dad, I’ve outgrown a couple of my Pendleton shirts – much to the delight of my daughters, who now get to wear them! As a sheep producer, I take great pride in producing something with such longevity!