MEET THE NEW CROP OF SUSTAINABLE WOOL PRODUCERS
Wool: Canada won’t be a powerhouse in the industry, but can play to its strengths
Canada’s wool industry has long faltered in the face of global trade and cheaper synthetic textiles. But a new crop of sustainably minded producers is working to bring this fuzzy treasure from our farms into our homes, Kat Tancock reports
Fashion designer Wave Weir has long preferred working with natural-fibre textiles such as wool. They fit her ethos of sustainability not just because of where they’re sourced, but because they’re comfortable and practical – and last as long as her timeless designs. She herself opts for two layers of wool in lieu of a synthetic raincoat and still wears a wool-knit shirt she made for herself 40 years ago. Despite her efforts to keep the environmental impact of her business low, for a long time, she had to import these materials – they just weren’t available in Canada. But when she returned to her native Ontario in 2005 after a decade producing and selling her designs in Nova Scotia, she was optimistic the industry had changed. “I thought, surely after 20 years I can just buy from within my fibreshed,” she says.
It didn’t take long for Weir to hit a dead end. After some research and industry conversations, she soon knew why. “I learned the plight of the farmer,” she says. “We have farms. We have wool. We have consumers and artisans wanting the product. The bottleneck was in processing.”
Weir had discovered what many have known for decades: Canadian sheep farmers are in a bind. While the vast majority of our sheep are grown primarily for meat, they still have wool that needs to be shorn – and getting that done costs money. Then, the market value for those fleeces is so low and sales channels so difficult to access that many choose not to bother selling them at all. Instead, they compost the fleeces or even burn them – a process that requires an accelerant such as diesel or gasoline. Even for those who raise sheep specifically for their fibre, the small number and size of local processing facilities has made it hard to maintain a viable business.
Luckily for the farmers – and for sustainably minded shoppers, too – there’s a movement afoot in Canada to revive our national wool industry and make better use of this oft-squandered resource, linked to a global push to provide alternatives to the environmentally damaging mass textile industry. (Witness Isabella Rossellini, who recently Instagrammed a selfie with alpacas while attending a farm-to-fashion conference in New York State.)
Across the country, entrepreneurs are investing their time, money and sweat equity into building up our processing capabilities so we can turn this fuzzy gold into textiles we can be proud of, based around regenerative farming practices that treat the land like gold, too. And they’re hoping that shoppers, makers and manufacturers looking to shift to more-sustainable textiles will join them.
“Less than 150 years ago, we had the ability domestically to process the majority of all clothing and textiles we consumed,” writes Anna Hunter in her book Sheep, Shepherd & Land: Stories of Sheep Farmers Reinvigorating Canadian Wool. Now? There are three larger mills processing exclusively Canadian wool – Custom Woolen Mills in Alberta, Briggs & Little in New Brunswick and MacAusland’s on PEI – plus 40-odd small and medium mills, most of which are “mini mills” with very limited capabilities.
A longtime knitter, Hunter had her epiphany about the state of the industry when she opened Vancouver yarn store Baaad Anna’s in 2009 and couldn’t find any local wool to sell. “I wanted a 100-mile yarn store‚” she says – a knitters’ version of the 100-mile diet, where you eat food grown and produced within a 100-mile radius of your home. “I was so confused as to how there were all these sheep farms, but no wool.”
Six years later, she sold the business and relocated with her family to a 140-acre farm in Manitoba now called Long Way Homestead. Sheep followed, then the realization that there truly was an infrastructure gap. So in 2018, she took a risk (and took out “quite a large loan”) and opened her own mill, the only one in the province; she both buys wool from farmers and processes it on their behalf.
Now, Hunter keeps her flock of Shetland sheep small so she has time for the mill and her advocacy and education work, teaching about things such as sheep breeds, sustainable textiles and the history of Canadian wool. She has even created a website, canadianwool.org, that provides a province-by-province listing of farmers selling wool products. “We’re trying to create a connection between producers of wool and consumers,” she says.
When you walk into the barn of a sheep farm and see the wool stacked up, “there is a real sense of anxiety,” says Jane Underhill. Underhill is on the board of and leads strategy for national organization the Campaign for Wool, which has had the backing of none other than King Charles since 2010. She also runs Laine OA Wool, a consultancy specializing in “managing the Canadian wool supply chain from sheep to shop”; she’s spent years “knocking on barn doors” and researching ways to get more Canadian wool processed into higher-quality goods. Now, she works as an agent and broker, supporting and connecting farmers and buyers as well as shepherding the production process.
Underhill’s vision for the future of Canadian wool is in sharp contrast with the “myth-building,” as she calls it, that it’s worth less than the cost of shearing. “We have a niche quantity of high-quality wool,” she says. With only about 850,000 sheep out of a global population of well over a billion, Canada is never going to be a wool powerhouse, she adds – nor should we try to be. Instead, we should look to our strengths.
The most common sheep breeds in Canada tend to produce medium-micron fibres, meaning their diameter is in the middle of the possible range. They’re different from breeds developed specifically to be as fine as possible, such as Merino. But while these thicker wools (known as “strong”) are often coarser, fibres from Canadian sheep are relatively soft for their size, Underhill says, which she attributes to the skills, practices and knowledge of our farmers. This kind of wool is valued for its robustness and suitability for upholstery, flooring and outerwear.
Case in point? One of the Campaign for Wool’s many projects has been a collaboration with interior designer Sarah Richardson and bespoke carpet maker Creative Matters to create a line of hand-knotted rugs featuring 100-per-cent Canadian wool. Next up: a collaboration involving Vancouver’s Colin Campbell Carpets and Burritt Bros. Carpet & Floors, and Coast Salish weavers Squamish Hereditary Chief Janice George and Willard (Buddy) Joseph of the Squamish Nation. The capsule collection is to be soft-launched this fall. “It’s a first step toward manufacturing Canadian wool carpets,” Underhill says.
One of Underhill’s many clients is Topsy Farms on Ontario’s Amherst Island, no newcomer to selling products made from its wool. “We were among the first online stores, taking credit cards through our website while there was still dial-up internet,” says co-owner Jacob Murray. Nowadays, their website’s offerings include yarn, wool pellet fertilizer, sheepskins and lambskins as well as a variety of bedding, pillows and blankets. One of their blankets, the “forest green and grey checkerboard,” achieved international fame earlier this year when it was featured in an episode of HBO show The Last of Us. Predictably, it’s sold out, though they expect to be restocked before the end of the year.
A few years ago, the team at Topsy decided to take things up a notch with the goal of controlling their supply chain, to go from raw fleece to finished blanket with their choice of designs and sizes, targeted to their market of engaged farm fans. That’s how the Shoreline blanket was born. A designer visited the farm, took photos and pitched ideas based on the surrounding landscape; Topsy’s first choice was a design Murray describes as “the farm in blanket form: green from the pasture, slate greyblue from the beach rock and a darker blue from the sky and the water.”
The blanket was a hit. “We had 100 in the first run, and they sold out in a day,” thanks in no small part to preorders that helped them with up-front capital – it’s a solid year from shearing to finished product, he points out. And while there are more on the way, he anticipates they’ll sell out, too. “The demand for our wool products surpasses the existing capacity to supply,” he says.
Topsy is a big supporter of local economies, and wanted to keep as much of their manufacturing in the region as possible. “We really believe in the Canadian wool industry,” Murray says. But while planning out their production process alongside Underhill, they realized there was no facility in Canada with the capacity to weave and finish their blankets at the quantity they required. The solution for now is to weave them in France – a good option from the quality point of view, but not where Murray would like to be sending his product, for both environmental and community-focused reasons. “If I could snap my fingers and have one thing change, it would be to manufacture the blanket start to finish within a fivehour radius,” he says. “That would be the best thing.”
Mini mills are a good option for farms with small quantities of wool and time to wait, Murray says. What’s lacking in Canada right now are facilities that can handle the 1,500-plus pounds of raw wool Topsy or other farms might send them and take it from washing to spinning and knitting or weaving, right under one roof and within reasonable time frames. Which is where designer Weir comes in.
She toyed with opening a mini mill, then came across an opportunity to buy a larger one. After some hesitation, she went for it. “Some of the equipment is over 100 years old,” she says, but it’s still going strong and has a capacity she “couldn’t have dreamed of.” Wave Fibre Mill opened more than a year ago in Seguin, Ont., and is able to spin everything from fine thread to a mediumweight yarn, with a loom on-site, too. “We don’t know of another mill that goes from raw fleece to finished garments,” she says.
As for Hunter’s Manitoba mill, it recently celebrated its five-year anniversary, which she describes as “a really big deal” as they reflect on their successes and look toward the future. In that time they’ve processed nearly 12,000 pounds of wool, about two-thirds for their own goods and onethird to create products for more than 100 different farms and businesses.
“It’s a drop in the bucket,” she wrote in a recent issue of her newsletter, but it’s one more drop than there was before, and a sign that change can happen. And it should, says Weir, because wool has so many qualities that make it worth cherishing and using to its fullest potential. “We don’t have to be naked and unfed to be sustainable and responsible,” she says. “Nature has provided us with everything we need to survive on this planet. Wool is one of those things.”
Globe and Mail