Editor’s Note: This is the first post in our ongoing Farm to Closet series where we’re following the journey of a sheep’s wool from a sustainably managed ranch in Patagonia as it’s spun, dyed, and knit into a finished beautiful piece. Follow along!
“You made that?”
As a knitter, this is a question I hear frequently. Any given day I can be found sporting a pair of hand knit socks or a sweater fresh off the needles. No matter what the item, it tends to garner attention (and often a little petting).
Hi. I’m Megan, and I’m a knitting addict. I love creating garments with my own two hands. They can be whatever color suits me. The designs reflect my personality to a tee. Best of all, they are guaranteed to be quality. I crave natural yarns: Pure wool, alpaca, cotton… don’t even let me get started on the Holy Grail of fibers, quiviut. Anything acrylic need not apply.
My favorite, far and away, is merino. It’s crazy warm and incredibly soft – perfect sweater material for those chilly New Hampshire winter nights. This seems only natural, coming from a state where the merino sheep was once king. Between 1810 and 1840, the southern two-thirds of the state were cleared to make way for sheep pasturage. The race to produce wool in New England became so hot, it was known as “sheep fever.” The thousands of miles of stonewalls – built to keep those meandering merino close to home – still crisscross the landscape nearly anywhere you turn your head.
Although our young country’s high demand for fine merino wool kept the pockets of many New Englanders well-lined, its effect on the landscape wasn’t so fruitful. Within 30 years, those once grassy pastures nestled between the stone were now desolate, decimated from overgrazing. In order to keep the wool (and cash) flowing, many farmers packed up their sheep and hopped the newly-constructed railroad in search of cheap, open farmland in the Midwest. Without access to new fertile pasture, it’s certain that New Hampshire’s wool industry would have grazed itself straight into the ground.
But what happens when you live on one of the largest grasslands remaining on Earth and can’t just pack up and leave when the going gets rough? You’ve got to get creative, that’s for sure.
(Queue the sweeping, epic music) Picture it. The Patagonia region of South America. The tip of the world. Millions of acres of grassland play home to tens of millions of sheep. These sheep:
Although they look adorable, these little buddies are teetering on the brink of disaster. A combination of overgrazing and climate change has changed their landscape virtually to dust (desertification – a very interesting 10-cent word worth knowing). Left unchecked, there will eventually be no more pasture to munch. And then what?
Thankfully, many of the ranchers – most of whom have been raising merino and other sheep varieties here for generations – refuse to throw in the towel. Instead, they’ve banded together to form Ovis XXI, an organization dedicated to improving grazing practices across Patagonia.
Now here’s where my love of conservation and knitting really intersect.
The Nature Conservancy is working with the farmers of Ovis XXI to develop and implement sustainable grazing practices. One technique, known as holistic management, mimics the behaviors of passing herds of herbivores and actually restores grasslands by grazing more sheep. More! The sheep just graze in a particular field for less time, and that field is then left longer to recover. The science is in the timing. Talk about crafty.
Cleverly known as GRASS – the Grassland Regeneration and Sustainability Standard – wool produced from ranches that follow these practices will be certified sustainable. People love things that are certified awesome, especially when it positively impacts the environment. I know I do. Patagonia Inc. sure does – they’ve pledged to purchase the certified wool for a new line that will debut this Fall.
This partnership benefits all: Grasslands are restored. Biodiversity is protected. Farmers can charge a premium for certified wool, giving a way of life in this region a real shot in the arm. And beautiful – I mean downright gorgeous – merino will be available to fiber enthusiasts like me and you (because if you aren’t yet, you will be)!
Our work in Patagonia really got my gears turning. Even though I’ve always loved natural fibers, I never really gave a lot of thought to where my beautiful hanks of yarn came from (let alone a wool sweater I bought off the rack). Knowing where your food comes from – the “farm to table” concept – is all the rage. But what about your clothes? Can it still be done “naturally,” using old school methods? Is it possible to follow that path?
I want to know. That’s why I’m going to spin, dye and knit my way to the answer. Thanks to Ovis XXI, I’ve got my fleece in-hand. Merino fleece. Let the journey begin!
Up next: we’re getting behind a spinning wheel learning how to spin fiber into something usable. Read the blog »
[Top image: Portrait of a sheep and her lamb in the shearing shed of Estancia Monte Dinero, Argentina. Middle image: Lambs grazing on Estancia Punta Lagarda, Chile. Bottom image: Freshly sheared wool. All images © Nick Hall]