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American Wool: Alive and Kicking

When Ralph Lauren’s product development team chose wool from Imperial Stock Ranch in Oregon to make sweaters for the 2014 US Winter Olympics Team, it was a sign of better times for the American wool business.

While wool is a very small part of the global textile trade, it has recently gained popularity for hosiery, base layer, and outdoor sportswear, as well as benefiting from a renaissance in hand knitting and crafting. Australia dominates the global production and marketing of sheep’s wool, while China is the largest buyer; the US produces less than 1 percent of the world’s wool.

The US has a proud history of sheep ranching and wool manufacturing, including long-established woolen mills such as Pendleton, Woolrich, Johnson and Faribault. But as the US apparel business moved overseas, so did the facilities used for processing high-quality wool. Worsted yarns for fine woven suitings and base layer knits are spun from finer, longer fibers that must be combed in order to create worsted wool tops. By 2010, there was only one wool combing facility remaining in the US: Chargeurs Wool in South Carolina.

In addition, consumers wanted wool products that were easy-care, which requires a process called “superwashing.” The superwash process uses a mild chlorine solution to descale the wool tops, preventing shrinkage when washed and dried; but there was no facility for superwashing left in the US.

“It was a nightmare,” says Diego Paullier, commercial manager for Chargeurs Wool US. “We started sending our wool tops to the UK and China for superwash processing.” Not only did this scenario add cost to US wool, it made it impossible to offer wool products entirely made in the USA.

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After years of watching domestic demand for American wool decline, the domestic wool industry was rescued by its biggest customer–the US military, which consumes about 20 percent of American’s wool. Wool is preferred for dress uniforms, and has increasingly been used for technical, high-performance base layers, due to its fire-resistant and antimicrobial qualities.

The Berry Amendment requires all textile products and processes used by the Department of Defense (DoD) to be entirely based in the US, and the DoD wanted its personnel to wear easy-care wool. In 2009, the Sheep Venture Company (SVC), owned by the American Sheep Industry Association, won a Small Business Innovative Research Grant from the US Army to evaluate shrink-proofing processes for wool. In 2010 the SVC purchased superwash equipment for installation at Chargeurs.

The superwashed wool is spun into yarn by US worsted spinners including Burlington, Kentwool, Hanora and Jagger Bros. Blends of short wool top with other fibers are also spun by National Spinning, Pharr, Tuscarora and others.

American mills such as Burlington and Alamac American Knits then create fabrics for the military and for commercial apparel, enabling a complete supply chain for wool products that are Made in America. “The American consumer is finally keen on Made in America, and Chargeurs’ superwash was the missing link,” points out Kentwool’s director of sales, Tom Perkinson.

Paullier estimates that Chargeurs business has grown by 10% since the superwash line commenced in 2011. “Superwash has been good for the whole wool chain,” he says, “and Made in America has been very important for us.” Today some 50 to 60 percent of American wool clip is utilized in the US.

Along with allowing apparel makers using American wool to capitalize on their MiA credentials, the wool supply chain also provides transparency, connecting consumers with the ranchers. Roberts Ranch in Wyoming, whose wool is used by hosiery knitter Farm to Feet; Lehfeldt Ranch in Montana, which produces for base layer knitter Ibex; and Montana’s Helle Rambouillet, which partners with lifestyle clothing manufacturer Duckworth, are producers of American Merino wool.

Graham Stewart, a wool industry veteran and founder of Duckworth, explains that American Merino has more crimp, loft, and natural stretch than wool grown in other parts of the world. Paullier also points out that American sheep are non-mulesed. “Our ranchers treat our sheep well,” he says.

American sheep ranchers are cautiously optimistic that the demand for their wool is making a comeback. While wool prices are currently down compared with a few years ago, Paullier believes that as long as the economy holds, we will see prices rise. Wool is a luxury fiber,” he explains, “and the supply is small. Its consumption depends on the economy of Europe, the US, and developed countries.”