Although organic food is becoming common, organic wool is a product in its’ infancy. Markets are small, there are few processing facilities, and regulations haven’t been agreed on. What wool is being produced is coming from meat flocks, not wool breeds. Without regulations, when products are marketed as “Organic Wool” the label means far less than the consumer might assume.
When we first sheared our sheep, we were at a loss as to what to do with the wool. Unwilling to throw it away, we shoved it into a pillowcase under the bed until winter brought time for projects. We looked into buying a spinning wheel, but the prices were far outside of our range. I had read that the first “Saxony Wheel” was made in the 1500s by a woodcarver who undoubtedly had fewer resources than I do, even with my simple shop and few tools. Then, he had to invent the thing from the ground up, shooting in the dark, while I could look and copy from spinning wheels in the neighborhood. I am somewhat mechanically inclined, about average as a handyman, and I was able to come up with a design that is simple to build, simple and dependable to use, and takes up almost no space in the house.
The accumulation of unsalable wool from the production of lamb for meat increases overall storage needs and overhead costs. The reason many wool growers store this kempy wool is simple; there is no existing market for kempy wool, as it has no textile value, and thus is considered an agricultural waste. During the 2010 growing season the price of kempy wool was seven cents per pound. At Turner Farm, Bonnie Mitsui and Melinda O’Briant, Garden Manager, resolved to address the wool storage problem by using the wool as a mulch in vegetable production.
I heard through the fiber-vine that the mill I used was shutting down because the owner was retiring. After much hemming and hawing, my husband and I decided to purchase the equipment. I created a business plan, secured an equipment loan, and moved everything to our small farming town of Halsey, Oregon. The retired miller, Janelle, has been an amazing mentor. After the last year and a half, I can safely say that I now understand my equipment and how to get it to process fiber at its best.
Imagine – a beautiful fall day in the Northeast. The air is crisp, the foliage shining red and yellow and orange under a clear sky. Now imagine yourself surrounded by a phantasmagoria of color and texture, a dizzying array of handmade things combining beauty and utility in remarkably unique ways. Add some delicious food to this picture, and throw in a diverse crowd of enthusiastic folks. Mix all of this together, and you have set the scene for the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival.
Have you been staring longingly at those wide eyed alpacas you see out to pasture on your way to work? Or maybe you’ve been mentioning to friends that you would love to have a couple sheep whose wool you could use in your knitting, crocheting, or weaving. If these thoughts have crossed your mind, you are in luck as author and fiber farmer Chris McLaughlin’s new book Raising Animals for Fiber gives an informed overview of owning your own fiber flock.
In the last century, the increased number of larger farms and ranches, coupled with much of the textile industry moving overseas, has resulted in few wool mills that serve small flocks. However, Valley Oak Wool & Fiber Mill is one rare such business. Located in Northern California, this mill takes raw, unwashed fleeces, and processes them into batting, roving, and yarn. Importantly, wool mills such as Valley Oak Wool & Fiber Mill serve to bridge the gap between farmer and sheep, and crafter, textile, and wearer.