Caroline Fryar on Processing Wool…

Continuing on with our Juniper Moon Farm theme for today and the story of how raw wool from the farm gets processed, this selection of words and pictures comes from Caroline Fryar whom you may remember from this post a couple of days ago. In this post from Caroline we learn about the Maryland Wool Pool, where sheep farmers can bring their wool for sale. We have previously discussed on WOVEMBER how working closely with sheep and wool can shape one’s perception of the value of this textile – indeed this principal is a central tenet of WOVEMBER and the Closing the Gap theme of this year’s WOVEMBER blog-posts – and in her account of visiting the Wool Pool, Caroline touches once again on this important topic. If we understand where our wool has come from and the work that has gone into producing it we can really recognise its value. Caroline differentiates in her reflections on visiting the Wool Pool between industrially produced woollen clothes and “fast fashion” – a distinction that’s important and complex and thoughtful, and one which we shall revisit when we consider what it means to Wear Wool, later this month.

A few days ago, Erin and I drove up to Maryland to spend the day at the Maryland Wool Pool.

Despite what you may be thinking, it’s not a swimming pool full of wool. It’s where all the wool producers in Maryland and the surrounding states are invited to bring whatever wool they have and be paid a fair price for it (more on this later).

By the time Erin and I got there – about 9 am – the pool was already in full swing. Let’s walk through the process.

First, the farmer backs his or her truck up to our skirting/grading table. The fleeces are dumped out of their bags, and we take a look at them. They’re placed into one of five categories:

Finewool (for suits, sweaters, and items to be worn close to the skin; $1.10/lb)
Mediumwool (for outerwear; $1.00/lb)
Coarse / Longwool (for rugs and homewares; $.95/lb)
Nonwhite (any breed with a black or red face has a fleece that’s classified as nonwhite, since the little flecks of face and/or leg hair won’t be able to be dyed. These fleeces are used for items that won’t be dyed; $.90/lb)
Short (any fleece shorter than 3″. Used for stuffing and felt; $.70 lb)

The price, of course, changes from year to year – the commodities’ market can be pretty variable. The price of wool was apparently down from last year, but still way up from the average price that’s been seen in years past. This year’s highest bidder was the Chargeurs Scouring Plant, which is just north of Charleston, SC.

Erin and I didn’t know enough to class the wool– it takes a lot to become a certified woolclasser – but we learned a ton. By the end of the day, Emily or David Greene would turn to a fleece and ask us, “What do you say that one is?”

“Medium?”

“Medium!”

and we’d whisk it away.

We spent most of our time carrying fleeces from the table to different bins, and then carrying the bins across the warehouse (oh my Lord they were heavy when they were full– we’ve got the callouses to prove it! David built them all for the wool pool out of aluminum in the ’60s – something we learned after complaining that they should have been designed to be lighter!) to the five giant piles of to-be-baled wool.

The wonderful thing about the wool pool, though, was how open the whole thing was. Do you only have 10 sheep? or maybe run a flock of 150? or maybe you sheared all spring through, and ended up being given over 3,000 lbs of “junk” fleeces?

Either way, the wool pool will take what you have to offer (I think we only turned down one fleece; a super-cotted old Lincoln), bale it up, load it up via forklift onto a tractor-trailer, and send it out to the commercial market.

It touched me quite deeply to see the rows and rows of wool bales, weighing between 300 and 400 lbs apiece, all lined up. Even though, for most sheep producers, wool is a byproduct (the primary product being lamb. A dollar a pound for wool just isn’t enough by itself to sustain the flock, let alone the shepherd!), this is still a year’s worth of physically and emotionally taxing work for a whole state worth of shepherds.

Friends, I was humbled to see it.

That said, we weren’t overly precious about it. Lydia ran back and forth down them; we each hopped up on one to eat our lunches: But it did make me think.

I think I sometimes forget, if something is sold in a chain store, that it was produced by real people, or that it was touched by human hands at all. In my eagerness to source my food from our own garden (if not farmers’ markets) and my durable goods from hand-makers who produce their goods in small batches (a fantastic argument for which can be found here), I forget about the very-real farmers who do sell to grocery stores, or that any of the Maryland-raised wool that I touched might well end up being sold as sweaters at Target or the Gap.

It’s been too simple for me to look at a mall and sneer at the nearly-identical shops, lobbing easy insults (also, at 23 years old, I’m still a grade-A sneerer) – these shoes are cheapo knockoffs; this dress was industrially produced; I’ll bet that was made in China; this is designed to be thrown away after one season! And while I still believe that homegrown and handmade is better, I don’t think it’s a black-and-white matter of hand – vs machine-made, and I certainly know that I won’t so quickly look past the fact that these goods, however cheap, were produced by absolutely human hands, American and (predominantly) otherwise. In short, I’ll make sure to reserve my disregard for fast fashion, and my compassion for shepherds, craftspeople, and workers of all sorts.

Erin and I drove home tired, sweaty, dirty, and slick with lanolin (although we weren’t nearly as bad as last time!). We learned so much, and I consider myself very lucky to have gotten to see this step in the wool-production process first-hand. All I know is that I’m really looking forward to our next wool field-trip (there’s talk of a wool classing class at Maryland Sheep and Wool next spring)!

This post was originally published on the Juniper Moon Farm blog

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This entry was posted by Felicity Ford.

2 thoughts on “Caroline Fryar on Processing Wool…

  1. This is so very interesting and you are on the mark. Someone had to design and make the item whether it is throw-away or not. I weave and spin and now better make up a batch of handmade clothing for myself. But you did work very hard and the photos are wonderful. Helen in Wyoming

  2. Pingback: I Heart WOVEMBER! « Caroline Fryar

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