Local wool – Where does it go? By Martha Polkey and Gretchen Frederick

There isn’t one answer.  Some small-scale fiber producers harvest their wool clip for sale to fiber enthusiasts; a few have a soup-to-nuts operation, transforming their farms’ fiber into finished products that they then market. One or two have launched into a farm-branded fabric with designers producing high-end goods for the luxury market.

But the majority of wool from the region’s farms has typically been marketed through commercial “wool pools.” This consists of a pre-arranged time and place for farmers in a region (sometimes by county) to bring their fleece to be examined, pooled together, and purchased by a commercial wool merchant. Typically, the wool pool is organized by either a wool growers association or the state Cooperative Extension and run by volunteers. This wool is sold in bulk for manufacturing purposes, not to “makers.”

Volunteers load wool into the baler at the Maryland Wool Pool in 2014, at the state fairgrounds in Timonium.

The price the buyer will pay is set beforehand and varies by grade of the fleece. Fine, white, clean wool gets the highest price; per-pound price drops fast for other types of wool. Colored wool has no commercial market and has an extremely low price, if it is even accepted.

As we encourage people in our Chesapeake Fibershed to buy and wear local fiber, it raises the question of how much wool is out there and how is it being used.

According to 2019 U.S. Agricultural Statistics Service data, there are about.10,750 sheep farms in the states our region includes (Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York) generating more than 760,000 pounds of raw fleece a year. That’s a lot of wool.

The early 2000s was one recent period in which the price of the wool was so low per pound it didn’t even cover the cost of shearing and the fuel it took to drive it to the collection site. The price got better for a few years…maybe a dollar a pound or even $1.50 for premium fine white wool. Even then, many producers did not bother to join in a wool pool because their wool was of a different type, which still had an extremely low price. Some sheep producers, for whom meat production is the primary source of income, switched to hair breeds to try to make a profit.

Much of the United States’ wool harvest is exported. Recent trade wars and other disruptions have cratered wool prices. In 2020, for example, there was no buyer for many of Virginia’s pooled wools. In 2021, the buyer paid 2 cents a pound for that Virginia wool. Consequently, some wool producers skipped the pool altogether or threw away the fiber, as they saw no other way to market their wool.

The Maryland wool pool ended in 2017. The volume of wool brought to it had declined over the years, as did the number of potential bidders. The pool’s baler (used to compress the fiber into tight bags for easier shipping) was sold to the New River Valley Sheep and Goat Club in southwest Virginia; that organization is working to expand markets and opportunities for selling the fiber and its membership has dramatically increased.

In 2020 the Virginia wool pools collected wool, but with no buyer, the fiber was warehoused. In 2021, Mid-States Wool (which purchases most of Virginia’s clip from wool pools) reported collecting 31,777 pounds from six wool pools (Augusta, Christiansburg, Clarke, Farmville, and Orange in Virginia, and Asheville in North Carolina). It sold for 2 cents a pound to Chargeurs, a global diversified group which has a scouring facility in South Carolina.

So not only are farmers not making a fair return on their wool, locally we’re not seeing much of it. To find local wool, we can start with fleece sales at fiber festivals. For most of us, this is the most accessible path to the fiber and also provides the best price to the farmer. But despite the frenzy we often see at the festival fleece barn, this only taps into a small amount of the wool produced in the Chesapeake Fibershed.

As mentioned above, some small niche farms have been successful selling wool directly to makers, or offering value-added products such as yarn, blankets, and socks, that they create from their wool, sometimes buying additional fleece from other farms if they aren’t producing enough themselves. The fiber festivals are full of vendors who fit that definition. Now, with online shops and social media outlets, they can create a year-round sales channel for themselves. But unless the farmer is also a fiber artist with knowledge of what spinners, felters, knitters, and weavers want, and is effective at marketing to them, their fiber will just take up space on the farm—or end up in the compost pile.

The American Livestock Conservancy, which works to save endangered breeds of domesticated livestock, started a very successful program, Shave ‘em to Save ‘em, to connect makers with fiber farmers directly. The goal is to give rare breed sheep, with wool that the commercial wool market considers worthless, a market to help breed numbers grow. It has increased knowledge about these breeds’ fleeces on the part of makers, and increased the knowledge of the farmers about what those fiber artists want and need in a fleece, thereby improving quality.

Since the value to farmers of their wool has been so low for so long, they often do not take the time follow simple management practices that greatly improve the quality of the fleece, such as when to shear, mowing pastures to prevent burrs and other vegetable matter from contaminating the fleeces, and handling of the fleece once sheared. Makers who do value the fleece and show interest in buying at a fair price have a pretty amazing positive effect on both the quality of the fleece in future years and the attitude of the shepherd.

We encourage you to connect and learn about the wool available to you at your local farms and support them. Let them know the qualities you’re seeking. If you’re looking for a specific wool type or wool product, let us know and we can help you find it. That still leaves a lot of wool out in those barns for us to find uses for, but that’s a topic for another day.

3 thoughts on “Local wool – Where does it go? By Martha Polkey and Gretchen Frederick

  1. Very informative article; thank you. I know it’s come up in previous Ches. Fibershed conversations, but am I understanding that there is a need for more local milling operations? If we had more local milling operations, could that better serve the farmers?

  2. Gretchen,

    This is an excellent article regarding local wool and the struggles that local farmers and wool producers have. In my spinning classes, I encourage students to check with the local wool producers and support them by buying local whenever possible. The variety of local wools available is simply amazing and can suit every need. Kudos to all of you.

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