Monday, March 10, 2014

Sheep Stories - Volume 4

There are a lot of sheep on the planet. Probably about half of them are part of the international wool industrial complex, which involves large-scale wool and fiber production (mostly destined for fabrics). Sheep farming is a modern agribusiness, and most farmers are not in the business of running sheep retirement homes. They face the same cost pressures and drive to large scales as, say, chicken or hog farmers. As with any other kind of animal husbandry, there are cost-benefit calculations involved, as well as animal slaughter. It's not all romantic and eco-friendly, just because the sheep regrow their hair...

This post is about some of those commerical practises that you may not know about.

In some countries, sheep are subject to "flystrike" - a parasitic fly lays burrowing larvae in the wet, manure-soiled skin on the rump of the animal.  About 3-5% of sheep get flystrike, which can be fatal. In commercial farming operations, the very painful practice of “mulesing” – removing the skin on the rump of the animal - is performed to prevent flystrike. Mulesing is performed on lambs 4-6 weeks old, without anaesthetics. The rump scars over in time, and no wool grows there. Other techniques used are tail docking (amputation), crutching (removal of wool around the rear), and dipping in insecticide.  Organic wool, of course, cannot be treated with insecticide, and docking and crutching are not particularly effective at preventing flystrike, which leaves ... mulesing. Preventative husbandry (ie. watching your animals constantly) is very effective, but makes for expensive sheep (and wool!), and is not practical on large ranches. Thanks to a concerted effort by PETA, the practice of mulesing has made media news and is now talked about in Australia (where most of the merino sheep on the planet live, and where this practise is well-established). Mulesing is far less common in North and South America as the parasitic fly doesn't live there. Bottom line: if you don't support this practise, ensure your merino is from non-mulesed sources. It's available although harder to find; most likely from somewhere other than Australia. The wool may be more expensive.

Blanket wool
“Pulled wool”  - as opposed to “virgin” or “fleece wool” - is wool pulled from a (dead sheep’s) pelt, and is traditionally used for blankets, felted hats, and warp threads for commercial weaving. Hudson Bay blankets have been made this way for 300 years. Pulled wool apparently behaves differently from “live” wool in the spinning process, and handspinners claim they can feel the difference. I've not dealt with pulled wool, so I'm not speaking from experience here myself. I'm not sure what sheep breeds are used for blankets, but I'm hoping the carcasses don't go to waste.

Persian Lamb
“Persian lamb” is a term for a newborn (or sometimes foetal) lamb’s pelt; the breed is a specific coarse-wool sheep called Karakul. The young animal is killed for its skin, which has a distinctive shiny, black, curly pattern of hair. Persian Lamb coats were once considered very posh. My grandmother had one. Obviously , it takes quite a few newborn lambs to make a coat.

North American Yarns
Yarns from North American sheep are typically from dual-purpose sheep. This means that the yarns are from sheep bred primarily for their meat, and whose wool is sold to the "wool pool" to offset the costs of shearing the animals. The economics of meat sheep dictate that you have a large herd of ewes, a small number of rams (for breeding purposes only), and that you sell the annual lamb "crop" for meat. The adult sheep are slaughtered once they stop being able to breed, which usually is at around 6 years of age. Some farmers will "blanket" or "jacket" a select number of their animals to keep their coats very nice, to sell to the hand-spinning market, if they have the contacts and/or resources to do this. Wool that goes into the "wool pool" winds up as carded batts (for stuffing or insulation) or as "rustic" yarns (grey work socks, Cowichan sweaters, etc).

Of course, we can also talk about the world of synthetics. These materials don't involve the direct harming of animals, but they typically require far higher expenditures of energy to produce. So, not only are they made of petrochemicals, the manufacturing and processing of them requires even more petrochemicals than the equivalent processing of animal- or plant-based fibers. Some more modern fibers like soy, tencel, "seacell", or "milk" yarns are essentially synthetic. The basic "feedstock" is not petrochemical, but the amount of processing required to get yarn is very similar to straight-up plastic. These materials are not "spun" in any traditional sense; they are chemically liquified and then extruded to produce spinnable fibers. This is in contrast to the traditional plant fiber (hemp, flax or linen) processing method, which does not involve chemical liquifaction, but an enzyme digestion (retting) to free spinnable fibers. Bamboo can be processed most easily by liquifying it (to produce viscose, which is then extruded), or, with more effort and thus less commonly, by retting to produce "bamboo linen". Be aware that the "bamboo" yarns you purchase are most likely of the viscose variety.

Textile Waste and Overconsumption
Only about 8% of textile waste is recovered or recycled in North America; about 13 million tons of used textiles are landfilled every year in the US (divide by 10 for rough guess of Canadian equivalent). That's about 75 pounds per person! This includes shoes, home furnishings, and clothing.  Check out this document for some really sobering statistics on textile overconsumption.

Whether or not one is bothered by any of these practises, I believe that as a fiber consumer it behooves me to know as much as possible about the production chains I support by my purchases.

Some people are disturbed by killing and/or causing pain to animals for what are essentially luxury (vanity) items (super soft yarn, fur coats, eating meat). Others are more concerned about the concentration of a huge industrial complex around a very limited set of inputs, and the lack of variety (and hence resilience) that this creates. And still others focus on the amount of (petro-) energy or chemicals that these various processes require, and make buying decisions based on that.

As for myself, I'm not an absolutist, and I recognize that my existence on this planet means that there will be environmental impacts that I cannot avoid (unless I kill myself, I suppose). I cannot isolate myself from the economic system in which I live. That said, I am not into fashion or clothes shopping and I try to avoid buying stuff I won't wear. Luckily I don't need to dress up for the office! I like wool socks and have, by now, mostly gotten rid of any other type from my drawer as they've worn out (which they seem to do much faster than my home-made socks). Maybe one day, I won't own any fleece, either. Just woolly sweaters...


  1. I'm reading your blog backwards, which is why you're getting so many comments from me. :) I'm really interested in your socks lasting longer than commercially produced ones. Do you think this is because you use harsher wools and tighter gauge on them? My store-bought socks (which I admit to preferring over my hand-knit ones; though I like to knit socks) last years...I have some pairs of socks that are more than ten years old. My husband's 100% cotton store-bought socks last around five years on average before they even start to develop wear on the ball of his foot, and it usually takes at least another year or so before it becomes a hole (at which point I throw it out. He would keep wearing it).

    1. Questions of wear and comfort and very personal, so it's very difficult to make blanket statements. This blog represents my own personal preferences, which I freely admit are completely biased!

      Personally, I prefer handknit hiking socks to commercial ones because they are thicker, mostly. They last me about as long as commercial ones (a few years). My wool daily-wear socks have no commercial equivalent; they are thicker than store-bought dress socks (which I personally no longer own). My husband wears out his store-bought dress socks much faster than he wears out the handknit socks (either millspun or handspun) that I make for him. He wears my handknits almost exclusively all winter.