Well, it’s been a long time since I had a small blog spasm "what’s in your yarn and where does it come from?" I haven’t written anything, but I’ve thought about it a lot! —Like, are you crazy? How are you going to research this? And do you really want to start trying to make pronouncements about how other people make yarn? Well, no. Really I don’t. But I don’t want to drop it either. Best to stick to my knitting and concentrate on this from my own viewpoint. I’ll try to look at the bigger picture for context and what we do for specifics. Starting at the beginning: a sheep.
This is the scale we work at and think in. We want wool from sheep that are pure-bred, or nearly pure-bred because we are all about the differences in types of wool and why they are good. This is how a hand spinner thinks. But the world mostly thinks that wool is a commodity, and it is. The day after I wrote that blog, I decided I would begin research by starting on my own book shelf. Actually, I could only find one book that said anything about commercial yarns. Clara Parkes does a brief summary of how yarn companies source wool in The Knitter’s Book of Wool . This is a great book, (of course, Clara loves wool and I happen to agree with her) and I trust that Clara actually did research. Clara says most US yarn companies buy wool not from the farm, but from wool warehouses. They order by characteristics of fineness and length to meet their specifications then contract with mills to spin it to their design. They don't actually manufacture yarn themselves. The wool can come from one continent, get scoured on another and spun on a third. I think the what and where decisions are made based on design, price and time…like all good business decisions. I would guess the source of the wool changes when the prices do and probably where it is spun as well. These companies have to make money. I’d bet they aren't getting rich either. But how does wool get to commercial wool warehouses? I know a little about how it happens here in the Mid-Atlantic for small scale farms, and I am fairly sure it’s similar other places. It’s called the Wool Pool. I’ve never sold wool there, because from the beginning I wanted all my own wool, but Sue and I went once to our local Virginia wool pool to meet fiber producers and Sue went to the Maryland Wool Pool and worked with the graders sorting wool as it came in. It is wonderful that there is a market for wool. The problem is they don’t pay enough. Some years the price is so low it isn’t worth the gas it takes to drive there let alone pay for shearing or, (I know this is asking a lot) to help defray the cost of raising the sheep. Profit? you have to be joking. These are the prices for theMaryland Wool Pool this year (I know some years Longwool prices were 5 cents a pound):
So. Say you have 30 Romney sheep. Maybe most of them are white sheep (notice that colored wool is not wanted at any price), say 2o. Let’s guess that those 20 sheep grow an average of 10 pounds of wool which gives you 200 pounds of fleece to sell. At 65 cents a pound that comes to $130.00. Then take out 5 cents for pool expenses ($10) plus $25 for Maryland Sheep Breeders Assoc. dues (which we will not begrudge them, they put on the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival!) and you have $95 left. Know what it costs to shear those 30 sheep? Probably $175. Know what hay costs? You don't want to know and I don’t want to think about it. And what about the time it takes? At least half a day to drive your wool to the pool. Chances are, that farmer has a "real" job and had to take a day off.
This is all small scale. Some of it really really small and of course things change as the size increases. The USDA publishes wool prices and the American Sheep Industry (ASI) reports and does analysis both nationally and internationally on wool sales. What is the same is the grading: Fine white wool gets the highest price, and it still isn’t very much. Longwool (used mostly for carpets and upholstery) is way less and colored wool is pretty much never sold on a large scale. Yesterday the price for non-graded greasy white wool was 52 cents per pound.
When Sue and I were just starting Solitude Wool, a Nationally known wool man told us that we couldn’t pay more than $1 per pound and make any money. We knew (because we are shepherds) a buck or less per pound was worthless for farms. Do you know a shepherd? Chances are if they aren’ spinners or felters or connected to them, they throw away their fleeces.
We typically pay $3.00 a pound for what we consider good wool: skirted (belly wool, manure tags, neck wool out), lively, sound and of the character of the breed. We love colored wool. Sometimes we pay more for rarer wools, sometimes less. We wish we could pay more. Sue spends time with the shepherd if they are interested and helps select the very best fleeces, encouraging them to enter fleece competitions and sales where they can find hand-spinners who appreciate their value and will pay more per pound. One of our main reasons for being in business is to create at least a small market for local farms for their wool. We have hope that along with all you folks, we can begin to create an appreciation for lots of types of wool, not just super fine white wool so the bigger world will be a market for fleece.
next installment: going to the farm to buy wool in the Shenandoah Valley