We Love Sheep: The Problem with Canadian Wool

By Tara Klager
From Providence Lane Homestead

READ TIME: 5 MINUTES

Wool Sheep at Providence Lane HomesteadThe wool of one of Tara's sheep at Providence Lane Homestead

 
“There’s so much wool in Canada – why aren’t you using Canadian wool?”

Oof. That’s a question that gets asked a lot – from building supplies to home goods to garments, many consumers are eager to support Canadian producers and manufacturers. The problem is, there’s not a lot of Canadian wool in these industries. Why not?

Like a lot of answers to honest questions, the truest response is, “It’s complicated.”




Yes, Canada has a lot of sheep and – not coincidentally – a lot of wool. Unfortunately, a lot of the wool we do grow here never sees the inside of a Canadian factory. It wasn’t always like this – we used to have a thriving wool/textile industry. In fact, Dominion Worsted and Woolens in Ontario was once the largest textile mill in the entire Commonwealth, that includes countries with a deep sheep history like the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Once upon a time, we punched above our weight.

Wool processing at Custom Woolen Mills

That changed for a whole bunch of reasons – offshoring, free trade, cheap labour, synthetics and more. Now, most of Canada’s wool processing capacity is limited to mini mills – generally processing 5000 lbs per year or less - with a few larger mills in the mix. Custom Woolen Mills, one of the biggest mills in Canada has a capacity of 100,000 pounds per year. That might seem like a lot but when you consider that Canada has around a million sheep scattered on farms across the country and it’s easy to see that there’s a huge gap between what we grow and what we can process. A lack of infrastructure – from scouring (the process that washes wool) right through to a finished wool product rolling off the line – means that turn-around times are long, shipping is expensive and the range of products are limited.

Wool processing at Custom Woolen Mills
Wool processing at Custom Woolen Mills in Carstairs, AB

Canadian shepherds and farmers often sell their wool to the Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers, a wool broker that then sells that wool overseas, usually to China or India. The going rate for Canadian wool offered by the CCWG last year was .30/lb.

That doesn’t cover the cost of shearing. Oh, and shearers themselves are in short supply – Canadian youth don’t think about growing up to be a shearer, it seems.
Now as a matter of good animal welfare standards, wool sheep must be sheared. This is a cost that producers are going to incur – it’s not optional. So when sheep are sheared and producers might be able to sell it at a loss to the national wool broker to be processed overseas, what’s a shepherd to do?
In many cases, the answer is nothing. As a result, sometimes little effort is made by farmers to keep a clean and high-quality fleece. The money in sheep has historically been in the carcass, not the wool. As a result, the Canadian wool clip has an international reputation for higher levels of vegetable matter (VM), the flotsam and jetsam of the barnyard - things like poop, straw, hay, sticks and bits of poly twine used to hold bales together. When compared to fleeces from Australia and New Zealand where winter hay isn’t a thing - those animals can be on pasture range all year round - Canadian wool can look...like a lot of work.

Sheep grazing on the countryside

So we have a lack of infrastructure for processing, little-to-no economic value for farmers and a lack of clean wool to process. Even if all of those issues could be tidied up – and they absolutely could, it would take investment and education – there’s one more fiddly question...government and industry regulation.

Canada hasn’t spent any time thinking about or talking about wool so there is a huge – massive! – knowledge gap on this incredible natural fibre’s potential. Most people, if you ask them, might say wool gets turned into yarn, garments, blankets and maybe carpets. While mattresses, pillows, duvets and blankets are all regulated and accepted wool goods, other products, like wool insulation, isn’t. At least, not in Canada, not yet. Yes, companies like Havelock exist and sell their product here but their wool is all imported – from New Zealand. There are regulatory hoops to jump through to get wool approved for these innovative products so that other sectors – like the insurance industry – can provide their seal of approval.

Texture of sheep's wool

Just to recap then, we have a lot of sheep but the wool they grow has little value to the farmers, a less-than-ideal international reputation, is not currently significantly supported by industry or government regulators and the wool we do process is lumbered in small mills with lengthy wait times and a limited range of product.

Why don’t we use Canadian wool? Believe me, that’s a development I would LOVE to see. And it could happen – there are those who believe in the industry and know the potential is there. Some of the mills and producers across the country are beginning to organize and there are several campaigns going on – both here at home and internationally – trying to encourage and educate the public to bring wool to the forefront of an ethically and environmentally-sound solution for many different scenarios. From high-tech, high-performance textiles to soil health to building solutions, it’s all there – right there – for the asking.

So ask. And KEEP asking.

“Why aren’t we using Canadian wool?”


 

Tara Klager from Providence Lane Homestead


Tara Klager

Tara is a first-generation farmer originally from southwestern Ontario, who is now the shepherd for Canada's only Animal Welfare Approved fibre farm, Providence Lane Homestead. You can read more about Providence Lane Homestead by clicking here. A graduate of the permaculture design course with Oregon State University, Tara is passionate about building resilient landscapes, animal care standards, heritage breed conservation, reconciliation with our Indigenous communities and rebuilding our connections between fibre and place.

 


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