Understanding the organic behind the wool.
Technically wool is organic, but the processes involved in turning the fiber into soft sweaters, mittens and heavy winter coats renders it a far cry from the original plush coats of fluffy sheep. Unfortunately, a large percentage of wool fiber comes from farms where pesticides, insecticides and chemical inputs have become the norm that are depended on.
Conventional wool farming also often involves a toxic and cruel procedure called “dipping,” in which sheep are submerged in pools of chemical parasiticides. Not only does dipping have severely negative effects on the health of the sheep, but studies have found that these parasiticides can cause changes in human nervous systems. Disposal of the dipping liquids can also contaminate ground water, looping right back into the entire process.
Wool production is classified as livestock production, and organic wool farming requires strict adherence to a set of rules and standards. This means farmers cannot use any chemical inputs on their fields or their feed crops and must steer clear of chemical based insecticides and pesticides. The fiber bearing animals can only be fed 100% organic grains, graze on organic pastures, cannot be vaccinated with anything synthetic, and should be well-managed and cared for.
Wool farmers must therefore control parasites without chemicals, keep pastures clean and provide good nutrition for their livestock in order to keep them as happy and healthy as possible. Sustainability is also practiced through organic wool farming, as stocking ratios are set so that the land can regenerate itself and sustain its environment and the animals grazing on it. Mills that process the wool must also be free of synthetic chemicals and demonstrate water consciousness, methods that are not deemed viable in the world of fast fashion.
However, thanks to the efforts of farmers, textile producers and designers that understand the importance of sustainable livestock management and production, organic wool can make its way into our closets. Wool is an extremely versatile option for apparel, since its natural cell structure allows it breathable qualities that can be applied for warming or cooling effects, especially when blended with other fibers.
Jasco is a fabric producer that has noticed this and has been providing fashion designers with eco fabrics made in the USA since 2005. One of their most popular products is their range of organic wool, which is sourced by the likes of Carrie Parry, Helena Fredriksson, Rolando Santana, Nicole Bridger and Araks. New York City based designer Eviana Hartman of Bodkin has also favored organic wool in her contemporary designs, featuring it in her fall collection for German label Hessnatur.
The Fibershed Project in Northern California fully integrates the concepts of organic livestock management and fiber production. Three of the farmers in Fibershed produce wool through sustainable methods and a high level of animal care. Farmers Jean Muir and Sally Fox raise Merino sheep that produce extremely beautiful, fine gauge wool in a range of natural colors, while Julie Rosenfeld keeps a very healthy flock of alpaca and Alisson Arnold obtains fluffy fleece from her angora rabbits.
Their wool can be purchased either as raw fiber, yarn or finished garments online at the Fibershed Marketplace. These farmers demonstrate the versatility in wool types that even one breed of sheep can produce, as everything from the rainfall to the grass quality and food type in a certain area will affect the type of wool that the animals offer.
Imperial Knits in northeastern Oregon produces wool by considering the impact of each part of their production process. Although not certified organic, their methods are often more sustainable and considerate of the land than what certification guidelines require. They have integrated a no plow method that has improved soil tilth and radically reduced their use of fossil fuels.
Imperial Knits transports their wool to a family-owned mill in Alberta that uses no sulfuric acid, chemicals or extreme heating in processing the wool, nonetheless producing beautiful, fine quality wool. Imperial Knits yarn can be purchased online and in yarn shops nationwide alongside creative director Anna Cohen’s gorgeous patterns. Make sure to check out her next runway show at Portland Fashion Week in October.