Reconsidering the Dearth of Local American Wool

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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?

I will never understand why my next thought was, “This might be something I could help with.” I had never seen a sheep shearing in real life, nor had I handled—or even petted—a sheep. I had no idea what was involved and, strangely, did not think to dig more deeply into why there were so few shearers to begin with. Curious, I searched online for “sheep shearing schools.” Though there were hardly any in the United States and just one in California, that one happened to be a two-hour drive north of my San Francisco home. I signed up for email notifications about shearing school and soon received a reply from a woman named Linda.

John forwarded me your request for information about shearing school. Our shearing school is held irregularly and generally in May. If we have enough interest, we contract with an instructor to lead the class. I maintain a list of interested people. Let me know if you would like me to include you on that list. Normally we decide in January or February whether or not to host a class. Hope this helps.

I archived the email and forgot about it. But I remained fascinated with the problem of local fiber. Additional online searches for yarn or fabric sourced, milled, and spun entirely in California led me to the 2011 Oakland Fiber & Textile Festival. Though small as fiber festivals go, it offered a beautiful selection of local fleeces and yarns.

I picked up a gorgeous blend of Black Welsh Mountain and Romney wool, made by California grower and spinner Gabrielle Menn, the very sort of yarn Parkes extols as having “crunch” in The Knitter’s Book of Wool:

There’s an important distinction between crunch (picture a freshly baked loaf of whole-grain bread) and scratch (that same loaf of bread left sitting out on the kitchen counter for a few days). Crunchy yarns are healthy and vibrant, with fibers that have persistence and personality. In a garment they stand their ground, keep you warm, and wear well.

I’d never met a crunchy yarn before, but I knew it immediately when I saw it, touched it, and smelled it. It was unlike any yarn encounter I’d ever had. Each label bore the face of the sheep from whom the wool had been sheared. Menn’s wool wasn’t dyed but was naturally a deep espresso brown: the ewe herself, not dye, made a color. The yarn smelled faintly sheepy, though not in a bad way, of clean soil, mild soap, lanolin, and damp grass. I kept catching myself sniffing it. This yarn was better and more special than the average, so why was there so little of it? Why had I found it only at this fair, not in that wonderful, big yarn shop?

Further sleuthing led me to the blog of Rebecca Burgess. Burgess had taken a personal search for local fiber and clothing to another level entirely. For one year, she committed to developing and wearing a ward-robe made entirely with dyes, fibers, and labor found within 150 miles of her Northern California home.

Because there were no textile mills or clothing factories within that radius, Burgess had to team up with local farmers and fashion artisans to build her experimental wardrobe by hand. Her yearlong project proved to her (and to me) that, all over the United States, there are still enough “regionally grown fibers, natural dyes, and local talent to provide a most basic human necessity, and one that we’ve perhaps heedlessly outsourced: our clothes.”

Excerpted with permission from Raw Material: Working Wool in the West by Stephany Wilkes, published by Oregon State University Press, © 2018.

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