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Wooly Mammoth: Outdoor industry leads way in rising demand for North American wool

What's the difference between North American and New Zealand wool? A lot, even among the same breed of sheep. Find out where U.S. wool can compete.

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A resurgence of interest in American wool has given Little Bo Peep good reason to relocate her wandering pets.

Rita Samuelson, international wool/pelt marketing director for the American Sheep Industry Association, notes her phone has been ringing persistently with companies requesting wool from U.S-based sheep.

“‘I want to use American wool. What do you have?'” they ask, Samuelson said. “They go out and seek it.”

Although she deals with a range of different industries, many of the companies making inquiries have a foothold in the outdoor industry.

“The outdoor industry wants high performance in products and wool naturally does things that man-made fiber tries to do,” Samuelson said. “Wool is multifaceted. It’s odor resistant; it breathes; it has a number of characteristics that are important to an active person.”

Wool is a rock star among outdoor fabrics — that’s no secret — but why are outdoor brands increasingly going after American wool? It represents a possible shift, not without some challenges, in a market that has until now focused on New Zealand, Australian and even South American wool.

Evolutionary advantages
Ask those leading the North American wool charge, and they won’t mince words: It’s simply better. The folks at Voormi, a Colorado-based apparel company that makes everything from base layers to shells out of wool, say they have evolution to back up their claim.

Timm Smith, director of Voormi’s brand marketing, points out that many animals of the same species, including sheep, living in different locations, adapt to survival in their specific area. Even within the same breed, sheep residing in New Zealand’s warm, maritime climate have wool different from their brethren living in a more extreme climate, like that of the Rocky Mountains.

“It has a lot to do with weather and feeding and all these things that go together with how that cut wool is going to grow on the sheep,” said David Petri, marketing VP for American wool sock company Farm to Feet. “They may end up resulting in different grades of merino wool because of what they were exposed to weather wise and the other environmental factors.”

North American wool, supporters say, is more rugged than the wool from abroad, and it can better stand up to a beating from the elements, qualities outdoor consumers look for. Fellow American wool-exclusive brand Duckworth has noticed the same attractive qualities.

“We have great, great wool, particularly in the Rocky Mountain states where we have cold winters and hot summers,” Robert “Bernie” Bernthal, Duckworth president and co-founder, said. “This environment creates some of the best wool in the world.”

North American wool is also known for having more crimp and resilience than outsourced wool, characteristics that translate into key garment features like loft and strength. Natural stretch is another benefit, so products don’t require added chemicals or Lycra, which break down over time, to move comfortably with the body.

Wool sourced in the United States also has a natural shape memory, meaning that when a garment is worn it forms to the body’s silhouette, and then returns to that shape even after washing. When it “dries out, it recoils and returns to it’s original form,” Bernthal said. “I’ve found wool shirts end up being like a good pair of worn-out jeans.”

Made in the U.S.A.
Most of the companies taking the time to source wool here are choosing to keep production stateside as well.

With the reintroduction of shrink-resistant treatments to the United States three years ago, it’s possible to keep the entire production chain — shearing, spinning, knitting, treating and manufacturing — within U.S. borders. Samuelson points out the importance of shrink-resistant treatments: “Of course people don’t want to dry-clean those garments. When you’re going to be active, you want something you can throw in the washing machine.”

American production also leaves a much smaller environmental footprint. Obviously far less resources are used when wool is shipped from Montana to North Carolina and back than when American or non-Amercian wool sails to China for production and then back to the United States for distribution.

Admittedly, cut and sell costs are greater here than in China or Vietnam, but Bernthal believes that by eliminating the transportation element, expenditures generally net out equally since raw materials, yarn spinning and knitting costs are comparable regardless of location. Shorter lead-time is another key benefit of American production. Companies can go from inspiration to product in months rather than years.

“Our whole domestic supply strategy is really built around our desire to do things in a more agile way,” Voormi’s Smith and company founder, Dan English, said. “[We can] take this year’s wool and produce it into garments in the same year. That is a very difficult process for the super large countries.”

And of course there’s the advantage of keeping more jobs in the U.S., and providing work in the rural, often “economically challenged” areas where the sheep are raised, English added.

Its just not the little guys following the trend, either, big names like Woolrich have made commitments to include some 100 percent American wool and manufactured lines, including a goal of making more than 50 percent of its Woolrich Woolen garments out of American-made wool by 2015.

U.S. sheep hurdles
There are hurdles to count with these sheep. In the past, the United States has been known for its courser varieties of wool (great for carpet, not for baselayers), as opposed to the fine, soft strands bred in other regions of the world, namely Australia and New Zealand. The American Sheep Industry Association’s Samuelson likens it to the difference between whiskers and human hair. Ask any woman who’s kissed a guy with a budding beard, and she’ll tell you that those scratchy little strands are prickly against the skin. Compare that to the softness of Rapunzel’s locks, and the difference is significant.

What’s different today is that U.S. sheep farmers are breeding sheep ready to contend with fine wool (a somewhat arbitrary categorization, Samuelson admits, but defined by the American Sheep Industry Association as 18-20 micron) found anywhere in the world. They just can’t produce super fine (14-17 micron) wool, yet.

Another possible downside to North American wool is its tendency to have more of what’s called “colored wool,” dark strands that will refuse to accept dyes of lighter hues. So brands looking to bring soft pinks, pastel yellows, even pale blues into their product line might end up with the odd dark strand amidst the lighter tones.

Moving forward
The reality is the North American wool industry has a really (really) long way to go before it reaches the production levels seen in Australia and New Zealand. The two wool-producing behemoths together churn out roughly 60 times more wool per year than the United States. They have massive associations endorsing the wool, publicizing its attributes, encouraging brands to choose their product.

There’s a lot of catching up to do. But with monitored quality standards, EPA-certified processes and a skilled labor market, there is definitely potential for growth.

“I think you will still find innovation and excellence in merchandising [here in the U.S.],” Samuelson said, “that you won’t find in other parts of the world.”

–Courtney Holden