LEBANON, Ore. – Skirted and scoured, picked and carded, pinned, felted and spun are just a few steps wool goes through before it gets to you. The sheep, from which the wool comes, don’t care because they are now lighter and cooler. You care however, because it’ wool that allows you to walk around in warmth and style. Whether the label reads Gucci, L.L. Bean or Auntie Ann, it all starts with wool from the sheep.
Every spring (and sometimes again in the fall), these living sweater factories are brought in, sheared and sent back out to eat more grass and grow more wool. No killing, no drilling no fracking. It’s the sustainable way.
Once the wool has left the sheep, it is skirted (the “junk wool” and vegetable matter removed), rolled up and bagged and taken to the mill. It’s in the mill where the spin begins.
While there are many fiber mills around the world, we visited Snow Peak Fiber Mill & Yarn Shop located in the small town of Lebanon, Oregon. Owner Kathy Thompson, who caters to the small sheep producer who sells both locally and on the Internet, explained what happens when the wool (now called a fleece) comes to her.
“Once it comes in, we scour it (wash) in 180 to 190 degree water with a special soap and place it in thin layers on drying racks to dry,” Thompson said. “What happens after that depends on how the client is going to use it. We have a machine that picks it (fluffs it up), one that cards it (blends it) and one that combs the fibers all one direction (the pin drafter). We even have a machine we call the “Bat Mobile” that makes batts that can be left as batts or made into felt.
“We can spin the wool into yarn for knitters or return it as roving (carded but unspun) for spinners. We have some customers who just want it as clouds (fluffed) so they can use it for stuffing for pillows or toys. We are a full service fiber mill and can provide products that our customers need.”
Wool is extremely durable. It retains shape, repels moisture and resists wrinkles, soil and flames. Because of its many attributes, it is used for items such as boots, carpets, blankets, sweater and coats. It is used to make undergarments because it is smooth and soft next to the skin and it’s used by the military because it is flame retardant. Wool is often blended with cashmere, alpaca, rabbit and lama to provide stability for these and other fibers.
Thompson, who never knows what is going to come in through the door next, says the variety is one of the things that excites her about her work.
“We have a client who brought us 11-pounds of hair from the wolf he raised after rescuing it as a pup while working in Alaska. We blended it with some Alpaca and Wool to make yarn and then wove it into three blankets and 23 pillows.
According to some estimates, there are more than 1,000 breeds of sheep worldwide with more than 50 breeds in the United States alone. These happy sheep are out there sustainably eating and sleeping and growing more wool.
Though Kathy Thompson recently sold her equipment and is no longer in business, this story acurately reflects the sheep to shawl process./Ed.
Caption for cover photo: Rob Orr, carder, fluffs a cloud of wool; photo by Jan Jackson.