Reconsidering the Dearth of Local American Wool

Why isn’t local, artisanal wool more available with our flocks of U.S. sheep?

Photo by Getty Images/BryanPhotographer.

Six countries (Australia, China, New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa, and Uruguay) account for approximately 55 percent of global wool output. But according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 3.7 million US sheep still produced 27 million pounds of wool in 2013. In California alone, more than four hundred thousand wool-producing sheep provided 2.6 million pounds of wool. However, the big surprise, the statistic that stunned me—only .03 percent of California’s wool is processed within the state. Most US-grown wool is exported, 65 percent to China and 35 percent to India. California, producer of nearly six thousand bales of wool annually (enough wool to fill twenty semitruck trailers every year), remains a net importer of wool goods.

This did not make sense to me. With sheep all over the American West, why wasn’t any of their wool available as 100 percent California yarn and, subsequently, a sweater? Why did we “import” the wool we’d grown and exported? Local food was all the rage, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, with its world-famous farmers markets and residents like Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse, and Michael Pollan, Mr. Omnivore’s Dilemma himself. Everyone wanted to know their food and their farmer and felt obliged to cook things like nettles, sunchokes, and ramps, which are wild-harvested leeks. Didn’t these same people care about where their clothes came from? Weren’t synthetic fibers at least as off-putting as a factory-farmed hamburger?

I began my search with the recently released and popular The Knitter’s Book of Wool to learn more about the domestic yarn landscape. Yarn, after all, is the foundation of all fabric. Spun and woven finely and tightly enough, the thinnest threads become fabric and, later, our clothing. In the first pages of her book, author Clara Parkes alludes to the same problem I’d noticed, but implies the tide is starting to turn:

Just as the food world is moving away from large-scale monoculture toward locally produced artisanal products, the knitting world is embracing a return to the local and artisanal. Sheep farms, spinners, and large yarn companies alike are producing new yarns . . . that represent diverse kinds of fiber. The next time you discover a new skein of wool . . . I want you to have a good idea where it came from, how it’s likely to behave, and what you should do with it.

Parkes’s book increased my appreciation for wool, and though its purpose is not to explain why local yarn isn’t already available, it does hint at some challenges, including a “severe shortage of shearers in the United States.” Though it may seem obvious, I had not realized how fundamental shearing—the act of removing wool from sheep—is to the fiber-production process. I also felt concerned: Was a shortage of shearers one of the barriers to obtaining domestically produced yarn?

8/2/2019 2:27:38 PM

Economics generates strange results sometimes. In the California gold rush, miners exported *dirty laundry* to Honolulu (not yet a U.S. territory), had it washed, and reimported it clean, because there was such a labor shortage (as well as a woman shortage). Only when Chinese entrepreneurs set up laundries in San Francisco's Chinatown did this stop.

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