Yesterday I received a year’s work in a box. The wool sheared from our flock of Tunis sheep was shipped to the fiber mill in May. After months of anticipation, it finally arrived, along with several bags of roving.
As I gently removed each bag of fiber, tagged with the name of each sheep that it came from, I thought about the delayed satisfaction inherent in farming. Coming from a teaching background, this isn’t a new concept to me. You plant the seed and it may be years before you see the tree bear fruit. In some cases, you never see it, but you have faith that the love and effort that you gave will somehow blossom into something.
As a fiber farmer, my year both begins and ends on shearing day. I take great care when shearing; the last thing that I want to do is hurt the sheep (which generally means that I end up with few bandaids), and I want to make sure that the wool is removed quickly and in the condition preferred by handspinners and fiber mills. It is no easy task, but I enjoy the process nonetheless.
After shearing and skirting, some of my fiber addled friends purchase the fleeces raw, preferring to wash, card, and process the fiber themselves. I have tremendous respect for these people (you should too– they have the patience of Job and the skills of MacGuyver), and love to connect them with the sheep that provided their fleeces.
Fleeces are then sent off to the mill to be processed into finished goods. In my case, I have some processed into roving and some processed into yarn. Some mills are able to create socks, hats, blankets, and other finished items from shepherds’ yarns, but that requires a LOT of fiber and sometimes they need to blend it with other folks’ fiber to make it work.
Before I became a shepherd, I hung out with as many fiber producers as I could. All were gracious with their time and experience; most discouraged me from starting a flock if my intention was to make any money at all. The number of shepherds who keep wool sheep continues to decline as the market for domestic wool is overtaken by imported wool. Correspondingly, the number of woolen mills in the US continues to decline, and it’s becoming more difficult for wool producers to provide American consumers with American wool. Indeed, Woolrich, an iconic woolen mill in aptly-named Woolrich, Pennsylvania, recently announced its closure, dealing yet another blow to domestic wool production.
When announcing the closure of Woolrich, the investment group cited the desire of the American public to purchase inexpensive wool, suggesting that Americans do not value high quality, well-made American products. (Had they read many of the comments by heartbroken, mulit-generation Woolrich shoppers, they may have reconsidered that opinion.)
None of these macroeconomic issues were on my mind when my package came, though. Carefully examining the yarn, I thought about the countless hours I put in to make that one skein possible. Feeding, hoof trimming, moving fence, (Ben building ever more fence), checking teeth, shearing, watering, hauling water in the snow… How can one assign a price to such a thing? How can I possibly assign worth and value to it?
Wool from small farmers represents a year’s worth of sweat equity. Many hands play a role in the making of sweaters, socks, hats– from the shepherds to the mill workers. As Americans have slowly begun to embrace the concept of slow food– the deliberate and careful consumption of food, with respect to growing practices and support of local sustainable growers– we would be wise to consider slow wool. Support your local shepherds. Hug a lamb or two. Refute the misinformation campaign against wool, and if you don’t know how your socks came to be, commit to learning. Vote with your dollars. Your fellow sheep-tending and mill working Americans will appreciate it.