Wool: Finding your market

by Tamara Scully

The fleece sheared off your sheep has to go through a lot of processing before it becomes a pair of socks, a baby blanket, a coat or a carpet. But getting that wool from sheep to sale isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition.

Understanding the various wool marketing channels, how to access them and what qualities impact the pricing and use of the fleece is imperative for all producers. Dr. Lisa Surber of LM Livestock Services addressed the wool supply chain in a recent American Sheep Industry Association webinar, “The Nuts and Bolts of Wool.”

While North America is an exporter of wool, with more than 70% of our domestically-produced commercial wool supply sold oversees, the demand for domestic wool is growing. The sock industry has rapidly expanded in the past year, with many brands touting their grown and sewn in the USA origins. Another game-changer was the recent introduction of the superwash system, which rounds off the wool fibers via a specialized washing process, making them less itchy and less likely to shrink or stick together.

Sheep producers both large and small can access the commercial wool market supply chain via various channels. Growers lacking in volume have some alternatives for pooling wool and selling into the commercial market. Direct market channels via farmers markets, on-farm and internet sales and fiber festivals are rapidly expanding and playing an increasingly important role in a domestic niche market, Surber said.

Wool markets

The commercial market is all about objective measurements, with microns, yield, length and strength of the fiber and the amount of vegetative matter (a contaminant) being important. Vegetative matter below 3% is acceptable, but below 1% is ideal. The fineness of the fiber, measured in microns, determines the grade of the wool. Each grade of wool has a minimum length. The yield is the percentage of useable fiber. Other factors important in the commercial market include the uniformity of the clip, the preparation of the wool and the breed of sheep.

“Fibers have a lot to endure,” Surber said. “They need to be long and strong,” so measurements of the diameter, fineness, uniformity, staple length and staple strength are crucial factors which buyers will consider.

Producers selling into the commercial market either have to be large enough to garner interest from field buyers, who operate primarily in the Western U.S., where there are larger sheep operations, or they can opt to sell into local wool pools, available throughout the country, which aggregate wool from smaller producers.

Buyers who sell directly to brokers or mills can do so in a direct bidding system. Buyers need to have a core test on the wool to ascertain its quality. Bids can be collected from interested buyers, and the grower has a right to accept or reject bids. If the market price isn’t acceptable, growers often stockpile the wool until the market improves. A certified core test can be done by four university labs, or by one commercial laboratory in the U.S. Quality features are objectively measured in a core test.

Wool auctions are another option, where warehouses put similar lots of wool together with the goal of helping small growers increase the sales price and profit from their wool. This wool is typically sold in lots greater than 44,000 pounds and is a common way for growers in the Midwest to collectively sell their wool.

Most of the commercial market wool is eventually sold to overseas buyers, warehouses or mills. The cost of transporting the wool by ship overseas is much less expensive than over-the-road transport across the country, Surber explained.

Small producers can also sell directly to consumers or specialty buyers, via fiber festivals, direct farm sales and farmers markets. This expanding niche market is often overlooked by the commercial wool sector, but it shouldn’t be, as it is a lucrative market with over one million adult needle art enthusiasts who spend on average over $860 annually on local or specialty small batch wool products. This market wants local wool, wool that is special and wool that tells a story.

“This is a really important topic that all of the wool industry needs to be thinking about,” Surber said. “It’s foolish to think that we can ignore this type of volume of people who are interested in wool.”

Adding value in this niche market can be done on many levels, all of which have a cost, both in terms of time and money, Surber said. Raw fleece, washed and carded wool, dyed wool, batting, felt sales and spun yarn sales are all in demand, and allow producers to diversify and add value, targeting a wide variety of people. Finished hand knit sales are also very popular, and Surber’s observed that many small producers are not able to keep up with the demand they’ve created for finished goods.

Maintaining quality

“All wool has value,” Surber said.

But many small steps can be taken to enhance that value. Well cared for sheep produce high-quality wool, and taking steps to safeguard the fleece from common concerns will increase its value. By taking small steps, producers can increase the quality of the wool and capture more of its value.

Contamination is anything that is not wool. Contaminants detract from the value of the wool, and both the type of contaminant and the level of contamination are important. Fleece contamination can be vegetative matter, fibers from other animals or paint or other marking materials used for branding. Grease-based stains won’t scour out of wool, so any oil-based products, if applied later than shearing time, will not wash out, Surber cautioned.

Shearing quality can impact fleece value. Black fibers in white wool is a common issue with smaller growers, as is vegetative matter. The type of packaging in which you store your fleece can impact its value too.

One contaminant is becoming more prevalent: polypropylene. Now found in tarps, twine, hay wrap and netting and bags, it is becoming a primary concern. As it frays, the polypropylene fibers end up in the wool and are very difficult to remove.

“It affects how that wool is able to be processed further down the process chain,” Surber said of contamination. “The more we can do to eliminate or reduce those contaminants, the better off we are.”

Pricing is reflective of the quality of the wool. The foundation of all pricing is the breed of sheep, and the type of fiber that breed produces, Surber explained. Fine wool, from all origins, has increased dramatically in price in the past 18 months, while an overabundance of coarser wool, along with quality issues, has caused its value to decrease.

“All of these factors ultimately affect how you are going to be able to market, and then ultimately the price that you’re going to receive,” Surber said. “In any avenue, quality is key.”

Surber sees promise in the resurgence of wool happening today. The benefits of wool are many. It is natural, biodegradable, renewable, durable, elastic, odor repellent, breathable, insulating, moisture-wicking and flame resistant. Today’s consumers are seeking natural products, and local farm products are in demand. Wool meets both requirements.

“We just need to become wool innovators again,” Surber said.

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