Farm to Closet:
Do You Know Where Your Wool Comes From?

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Published on September 3rd, 2013  |  Discuss This Article  

Portrait of a sheep and her lamb in the shearing shed of Estancia Monte Dinero, Argentina

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:

Lambs grazing on Estancia Punta Lagarda, Chile

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!

Freshly sheared wool

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]

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Comments: Farm to Closet: Do You Know Where Your Wool Comes From?

  •  Comment from Robin Lynde

    You might also be interested in http://www.fibershed.com : The mission of Fibershed is to change the way we clothe ourselves by supporting the creation of local textile cultures that enhance ecological balance, and utilize regional agriculture while strengthening local economies and communities.

  •  Comment from Allison

    Isn’t the whole purpose of farm to table to also reduce the amount your food traveled? It’s not just knowing where something came from but also reducing the amount of energy consumption it takes to get to you. Therefore, while you are knowing where your wool comes from, it still seems a bit extravagant to travel to South America to get it. I would think you would want to find something closer to reduce the amount of energy used in getting the product to you.

    •  Comment from Megan

      You are absolutely right – travel is an important factor to consider when looking to shepherd the process along from beginning to end, as minimizing energy consumption is a key component of the true “farm to table” (or, in this case, to closet) movement. To clarify, I did not travel to South America to retrieve my wool. One of the ranchers kindly mailed a small amount to me so that I could try it out. The goal of this journey was not only to learn the process of going from sheep to shawl, but also to understand my role in supporting the efforts of ranchers in Patagonia, where raising sheep is at the heart of the economy. Sustainable practices are only one part of the solution with restoring native grasslands and revitalizing a way of life. Without a market for their wool, the ranches will not thrive. By knitting with this yarn, I am actively supporting grassland restoration and an at-risk industry in a part of the world that needs our help. It is often just as important to see how our actions impact far-away places as our own backyards.

      •  Comment from KIrsten

        I think this is a wonderful article. We have an avid fiber arts person here in Colorado who is starting a FiberShed program that I hope to tie into with the environmental education center I am director of. But this is an important point, we can also support areas such as Patagonia that need a market and give support on a global level. Especially as it supports ecosystem restoration. It is all about balance.

  •  Comment from Paddy

    When my husband & I traveled to New Zealand, we purchased a couple of Icebreaker wool shirts as souvenirs. Every Icebreaker product has a tag with a code you can use to trace the NZ farm where the wool was gathered.

  •  Comment from Kathleen

    My concern is also for the animal. I have stopped buying wool products due to the Museling sheering process. I’d like to see attention directed to this cruel process.

    •  Comment from Bob

      I find it interesting the author is critical of US sheep producers for something that happened 200 years ago, yet chooses to support Argentine shepherds who did the same thing.

      New Hampshire and the Patagonia region of Argentina are not comparable environments, nor are the sheep husbandry practices (in this case grazing management) similar.

      There are thousands of acres of Nature Conservancy land within 10 miles of my ranch in West Central Minnesota. I would be willing to sustainably rotational graze that land for them. But like the Argentine shepherds, I would need to be able to do this on scale and manner that will allow a profitable and sustainable living.

      Additionally, I have the ability to work with a local commercial woolen mill (less than 150 miles away) to complete the farm to fabric concept. There are also garment manufacturing facilities nearby. Few places on earth have the ability to complete this entire loop from farm production to finished garment in a commercial setting with less distance traveled than available to me.

      There are willing shepherds like me right in your own back yard, but it will take more than a few acres and a couple head of sheep doing a small scale demonstration project. To be sustainable, there needs to be financial profit for the shepherd and long term commitments.

      It is up to the Nature Conservancy to lead by example and show the rest of the world they are committed and practice what they preach with their own lands.

      •  Comment from Jeanne Carver

        Hello Bob….I’d love to talk with you. Please contact me through Imperialyarn.com I’m not sure how this posting stuff works….I don’t read blogs. A friend sent this one to me. I’d like to speak to Megan too. My husband served on the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board for 8 years, as well as on the board of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Why? Because of the change in thinking and implementation of practices he put into place on our desert ranching operation beginning in the late 1980′s (deeded land not public land). Practices that have facilitated the return of viable runs of spawning steelhead in our streams….an indication of health of the landscape system (watersheds or cachements). We’ve become a poster child for sustainable agriculture regionally and nationally in the U.S. Actually…holistic grazing and ranching practices have been around for a long time. That didn’t help our markets….when after the same wool buyer who had been purchasing our wool clip for 110 years (that’s not a typo), stopped buying in 1999, as they moved their processing and manufacturing off shore. Since 1999, we’ve fought our way forward, finding a way to market what we harvest (natural wool in addition to our other sunlight harvests)in order to maintain the vital presence of sheep on our landscape. Grazing animals (well managed)are a critical part of the health of an ecosystem. Little did we know that our practices on the ground would become a vital part of our marketing. I can tell you some stories. Lots of stories. I can share my letters with Yvon of Patagonia (founder, owner and CEO)…who actually visited us here on the ranch. I wanted someone to understand how important it is to work close to home on the massive problems we have here in America, in addition to working on problems abroad. He understood, but it did not turn out that the “corporate inertia” at Patagonia could change at that time. The timing was also hard…it was during the terrible recession a few years ago. So….it was a lost opportunity. And today…they’ve forgotten us and moved on. It’s more exotic to work in South America….
        I respect Yvon greatly…..but we’ve had our own hard hard journey here in this country, and it’s not over. We’re still working to secure a good and steady market for ourselves, and a few other U.S. producers, doing our small part, and supporting the few processing/manufacturing value chain partners that remain in this country. (We’re currently spinning wool in 3 U.S. mills, we have projects in 3 different U.S. knitting factories, and we’re weaving fabric and cutting and sewing apparel all in the U.S. too, and we’re one family ranch.) We’re working on a timeless process, that has gone on for thousands of years, that we’re all called to honor (food, clothing and shelter – everyone gets it with food now, so next are clothing and shelter). Most everything about the U.S. government today (policies / regulations) works against us (family farms and ranches; small businesses).
        It would be a lot easier to just quit, but I won’t. The Nature Conservancy does some good work. But as with everything, they only know what they know. And they’re most familiar with their own projects. Taking a “project approach/view” can be very limiting, but it feels good.
        I don’t see The Nature Conservancy “leading” agriculture forward as an industry in this country or anywhere else, unless they build strong relationships within that industry. That’s how change will happen. There are pockets of this happening, but I don’t know if it’s a focus. Jeanne

        And p.s….looking briefly at some of the next couple comments, is evidence of how little most people today know about agricultural practices. It’s no one’s fault. Society “advanced!” Ha! Too bad we don’t know the negative consequences of our actions sometimes for decades. For the author and the people posting, shearing and mulesing are completely different.

        •  Comment from Rosemary McGrath

          Jeanne, congratulations on the Ralph Lauren/Olympics uniforms contract! I watched OPB’s features about your operation last evening and was so deeply impressed with what you have accomplished and the way that you have done it. It encompasses sustainability, history, sense of place, as well as some very creative problem solving. Congratulations and keep up the good work!

  •  Comment from Dawn Gettig

    Great article.
    I was told merino wool is something I should not purchase because it is a cruel process… see here http://www.peta.org/living/fashion/shocking-wool-facts.aspx.

    I didn’t see anything mentioned in your article about this so do you know how sheep are treated when merino wool is processed by Patagonia, Inc. or other companies in the United States?

    thanks in advance for your comment.

    •  Comment from Megan Latour

      Hi Dawn – My personal understanding is that shearing is actually very important for sheep. Most breeds of sheep grow wool continuously, so shearing is a necessity for the animal’s comfort. The ranch featured in the article uses a precise hand-shearing method passed down for generations that minimizes both stress and disease. These videos (http://www.nature.org/photosmultimedia/shear-salvation-videos.xml) provide an inside peek at life and work on the ranch. If you have any concerns about the purchasing practices of any particular company, you may want to contact them directly for more information.
      -Megan Latour, The Nature Conservancy

  •  Comment from elaine french

    Readers and TNC supporters might be interested in learning that every year in Idaho we celebrate the Trailing of the Sheep, a festival dedicated to preserving the culture of sheep ranching and including exhibits of clothing and food derived from sheep. This year it will be October 11-13 in Hailey, ID.

  •  Comment from Joan Stockinger

    RE miles traveled and carbon footprint. It turns out to be more complex when you dig in. The total carbon footprint of food (and wool likely) is what we want to minimize. Turns out that production accounts for a far greater portion of the energy/carbon than does the transport after harvesting. And so we find in some cases, a lower carbon footprint for product that has come from a very favorable growing area farther away. And of equal importance, the efficiency of the transport is an important factor, not just the miles. A 40,000 pound truck from California to the Midwest uses less energy per pound of food, than does a 2,000 pound truck driving around from farm to farm and into the city here in the Midwest. The semi will back haul another product to California; the local truck likely goes home empty. So the carbon foot print of those tomatoes from California, on the transit alone, might be lower than a regional / local product. There are plenty of other reasons to buy local. And a larger local grower with a bigger truck can match the California product in transport efficiency – some estimate at about 16,000 pound loads.

  •  Comment from ACORN

    Kathleen is right…THE CRUELTY THE ANIMAL ENDURES IS NOT WORTH THE WOOL!!

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