Seven years ago, on a chilly pier in Pictou, N.S., Canadians got the wool pulled away from their eyes. Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were there on a royal visit and launched Campaign for Wool Canada, an offshoot of a wider initiative.
HRH The Prince of Wales began in 2010 to address the global decline of local production.
Alerting the public to wool’s environmental and artisanal value, the campaign is slowly unravelling the truth about the value of this once omnipresent fibre in our country.
Wool is created naturally, is sustainable, and is good for a myriad of uses, not just blankets and sweaters. Once discarded it disintegrates and nourishes the earth, unlike synthetic fabrics made of plastic polymers that never fully disintegrate but instead get into our water, food sources and blood.
“The goal of the campaign is to raise awareness of the benefits of wool,” notes Matthew Rowe, CEO of the Canadian Wool Council.
Canada’s wool processing and mill operations once employed thousands, fuelling the production of numerous goods. That industry declined with the introduction of synthetics and lower production costs overseas.
“After World War Two synthetics were on the rise and the mills stopped investing in new technology,” explains Rowe.
Canadian farmers still raise sheep, but mostly for meat. Today there are more than a million primarily in Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta. They are sheared quickly and painlessly once a year to keep healthy. The majority of the wool is then sent to China where it is processed, and mass produced into items that are sold back to us.
“We produce coarse wool, not the fine fibre that commands top dollar. A myth set in that it was good for nothing, so the farmer doesn’t get a good price and it is sold cheaply to China. Farmers get a small cheque that basically covers their shearing costs,” says Rowe.
Far from being useless, Canadian wool has an elastic quality that is desirable for blending and gives certain products such as rugs more durability.
The Wool Campaign supports designers, architects, retailers – everyone involved in creation and sales. The goal is to knit together the different groups in different ways to help rebuild the supply chains so more goods can be produced locally again.
One company on board with the campaign is Creative Matters, a Toronto wall and floor covering specialist whose custom work can be seen in Toronto’s St. Regis Hotel and the Senate of Canada building in Ottawa.
Even with a broken supply chain, Creative Matters was able to launch a Campaign for Wool Collection. In 2020 interior designer Sarah Richardson partnered with the company to create the collection’s three 100 per cent Canadian wool rugs. New Brunswick’s Briggs & Little Woolen Mills, a manufacturer of wool knitting yarns that has managed to survive for more than 100 years, processed the fibres. The yarn was then woven into rugs at a fair trade facility in India.
Rugs are not the only product Canadian wool can be used for. Tough fibres are good for architectural, furnishing and industrial uses such as home insulation, wall coverings, mattresses, felt used in machinery, and sound insulation. Some innovative entrepreneurs have even used discarded clippings for fertilizer since it absorbs and retains water and breaks down naturally, similar to peat moss fertilizer.
“Products made of wool used in the home will not off-gas chemicals. They are non-polluting and actually clean the air. They also suppress noise which can be a huge problem in new concrete and glass buildings. Concert venues such as Roy Thompson Hall use wool carpets and curtains,” explains Rowe.
Although most Canadian wool is collected by farmers and shipped overseas, some livestock owners such as Carol Precious take a more artisanal approach. In 1980, Precious’ father-in-law, Colonel G. D. Dailley was the first person granted permission to import Shetland sheep directly from the Shetland Isles to Ontario. Now she raises their descendants on her 92-acre property, Chassagne Farm, in Puslinch, Ont. The wool produced by these sturdy little beasts of Scottish heritage is highly prized by local spinners, weavers and knitters. Shetland sheep grow wool in 11 distinct shades, including white, a range of greys to black, and browns.
This April, her more than 100 ewes and rams were shorn to lighten their coats for summer and to prepare the ewes for lambing in May.
“It makes them more comfortable and clean,” Precious explains.
Pre-COVID-19, Precious would attend big markets of yarns and fleeces in the fall. She would also host her own “Fleece Fiesta” where invited enthusiasts could come and purchase her wool. She’s not sure what the future holds, but throughout the pandemic she has been able to continue selling some of her sheep to small hobbyists who enjoy raising the animals and creating their own wool products.
Wool entrepreneurs who want fibres with a provenance to make their sweaters and other items often begin their research at the Ontario Sheep Farmer website (ontariosheep.org). The site’s Ontario Wool Map lists places to purchase wool by region, breed, fibre type, color and form. For those who are raising wool sheep, there’s also a map to find small processing mills by region and capabilities. Other information on the website includes listings of markets, and resources for farmers.
Canada is at the early stages of rebuilding this industry, but it seems the timing is right for the Campaign for Wool to catch on. Artisanal trends, environmental concerns and shopping local have become top of mind for many of us. Rowe agrees. “People are beginning to rediscover this amazing miracle fibre.”
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