Wooly Business: Stephany Wilkes tracks the fall and potential rise of the U.S. wool industry
When Stephany Wilkes became a knitter in 2007, she walked into a yarn shop and asked, “Where’s your local yarn section?” The shop attendant pointed her to a single brand of U.S.-made yarn. Nine years later, when I walked into a yarn shop for the first time, much had changed. I had several U.S.-made yarns to choose from -- even some Michigan-made yarns -- but found myself asking another question: “Why is this so expensive?”
The answer, as I later found, is that milling wool grown in the U.S. is so costly that most ranchers either send their wool overseas to be processed or use the fleeces as compost. Due to decades of adverse agricultural and trade policy, the cost of processing wool in the U.S. is very high. Wilkes' book, Raw Material: Working Wool in the West (Oregon State University Press, 2018), tells us how the bottom fell out of the U.S. wool industry and also shows us the way back to environmentally beneficial and economically profitable U.S. wool.
As for Wilkes, once she learned that a key factor in the high cost of U.S. wool is the lack of qualified shearers, she did the only logical thing: became a shearer herself. Raw Material is Wilkes' account of her unlikely career change from a software engineer at a San Francisco firm to a self-employed sheep shearer and wool classer. Along the way, she introduces us to many of the people who are working against the odds to bring U.S. wool back to life and make wool profitable for farmers and affordable for handcrafters.
I got the chance to talk to Wilkes in advance of her November 5 appearance at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Q: I knew some of the stuff about local yarns and supply chains, but much of the info in the book was completely new to me. I learned a lot -- not only about the textile industry but especially about sheep shearing. That was an education. You start off the book with a description of getting the crap kicked out of you by a sheep. I’m reading and thinking, “Wow, this woman has some tenacity.”
A: [laughs] I’m glad that some good could come of that day!
Q: [laughs] It definitely gets your attention! My first question for you is that you ultimately made this career shift, but you describe your struggles with learning how to do it and just how hard it was for you to do sheep shearing jobs. What was it that kept you coming back to sheep shearing?
A: I wish I knew and I still ask myself that question. [laughs] A couple of things. It has gotten easier; every year, every 100 sheep, you get better. It’s like knitting, you’ll always be learning how to get better and improve your technique. And second, there is still the biggest need among the people with the fewest sheep. Those are the people who have the hardest time finding a shearer. It’s the same amount of work to drive out and set up for five sheep as it is for it is for 100. It’s very tempting to say that I’m not going to make all this effort for the smaller jobs, but that’s still where the biggest need is and I still think that I treat myself fairly. I want people to have sheep, steward rare breeds, learn about raw fiber, and to use sheep for fire control and mowing lawns. Those are all the things that I care about more than those really difficult days when I feel really close to giving up. They keep me coming back. And the animals and the customers are lovely. And even on the worst days, I’m still in beautiful places and it beats office work by a long shot.
Q: I was reading through your website and I found the phrase “urban hubris,” which I really like. We’re seeing lots of people who are raised in urban environments and who are fascinated by this back-to-the-land thing and want to do it -- either livestock agriculture or farming. What would you say to an urban person who says, “I’m just gonna Green Acres it”?
A: I feel like I sound mean when people say, “I’m gonna Green Acres it” because now I feel like it’s irresponsible. Plenty of people leave the city and get a farm and it turns out OK. But in the way that we talk about privilege, we assume that it’s OK with the land or the animals if you screw up. I used to think of it as a more harmless thing to do, but I now understand the consequences of getting these living beings and not being able to take care of them. I see that a lot in my work. People see one or two sheep on Craigslist but don’t know how to feed them properly or vaccinate them or de-worm them or anything. People think it’s like getting a cat or a dog sometimes. ... Now I feel a tremendous responsibility toward these living beings and would tell people to go get some education before you get the land. That’s not to say that people don’t do it, but I take it more seriously now because these living beings are no longer abstract to me.
Also, when I said urban hubris, I think it’s this idea that we can do anything. Californians in particular -- people here really will try anything themselves. It’s a wonderful cultural attribute, except that sometimes people don’t know what they don’t know. Now that I know more about farming and ranching, I feel that it was almost derogatory for me to assume that I could just walk in and do it. I don’t know how agricultural labor ever came to be called unskilled. … There’s a class thing going on there, too. I had no self-awareness and said, “I can just walk in and do this,” but nobody is going to say, “Well, I could just show up in an office and write computer code.” [laughs]
Q: I think that one of the more insidious aspects of any sort of privilege is the assumption that wherever you go you belong there. You don’t have to do anything to deserve to be in the space. I have a little bit of an agricultural background, and to me, the idea of just buying some land and becoming a farmer seems incredibly daunting.
A: Right, and we don’t say that about other things. We don’t say, “Oh, I’m just going to become a truck driver.”
Q: Exactly -- we know that we need to be certified in that before we can do it. I do have a friend who is from this area and was the president of a national nonprofit in New York City for 20 years. She decided that she wasn’t going to do it anymore, and she came back and took part of her family’s land and she runs a dairy business now with specialized dairy sheep.
A: Oh, wow, if you’re going to farm with dairy, sheep are so hard.
Q: Right! She grew up on a farm, so she had more of an idea of what she was getting into, but watching her go through that process was interesting. It took her a few years just to get to the place where she could build a creamery. She spent so much time learning from other people, and there were so many steps in the process and it was really slow going thing. It’s possible to go from Manhattan from Chelsea, Michigan to be a dairy sheep farmer. But it takes a long time.
A: In our world, you can go to a coding boot camp and be able to contribute meaningfully at a job faster than I think you can as a sheep shearer [going to shearing school]. I don’t feel like I was any good until I sheared 100 sheep. And those 100 sheep took me longer than all of the other sheep I have sheared combined. [laughs] It’s slow going, and in this world we’re just so used to things being fast.
Q: And those 100 sheep, like you were saying, those were not hypothetical sheep. They weren’t practice sheep, they were actual sheep that need to be sheared. From the very first one, it’s the real world.
A: And you can really see them. In the position you’re in with them, you can feel them breathing, you can feel if they cough, you can feel if they’re uncomfortable, you’re looking right into their eyes. So the idea that they’re these nameless, faceless livestock is a tough thing to maintain when the full force of their being is in your arms and in your face. … The language that’s usually used to describe them -- docile, stupid, following -- none of these metaphors are holding up for me anymore! [laughs]
Q: I want to transition now more into the economic part of your book. You talk about your own story, but you’re weaving it into a much larger story about the American textile industry, its decline, and the resurgence in the past couple of decades in which people are starting to market all U.S.-made yarns. I enjoyed the tour through that, as well as learning about how much work it takes to even make it possible. The Bureaucracy chapter [in which you follow the Gilbert family through their struggles just to start a fiber mill] is so frustrating!
A: Thank you because I was thinking, “This is the most boring chapter,” but it’s so true! [laughs]
Q: That was one of the chapters that stuck with me the most because it was so eye-opening. So I do have a question that I have been thinking about a lot lately, not just in connection with your book, but in general. I live in Ann Arbor and you live in San Francisco, so we both see the same thing all the time. A new luxury economy has been created that is based on ethically produced goods. And sidenote: How awful is it that buying ethically produced things is a luxury?
A: Oh, yes.
Q: I’m asking because you’re in the trenches with people trying to change an industry and make things more affordable by changing the supply chain And that work is so hard. Just building one mill is so hard. So a couple of questions. The first is what would you say knitters, weavers, or anyone who is interested in U.S.-made fiber, but for whom it’s just not financially accessible? And my second question is: It’s great that there are these businesses that are employing people and selling things at their actual value, not subsidized by exploited labor or environmental destruction, but what happens when there’s a recession and people are no longer able to afford to pay $20 or $30 for a skein of yarn?
A: I drive around a lot and I feel like since the Great Recession, very visually on the landscape, there are times when I literally feel like I’m driving from the District to the Capital. I can see the wealth disparity in this country now. In my dad’s area [St. Clair Shores, Mich.] it’s all dialysis centers and opioid rehab and personal injury lawyers, and then I come to San Francisco and it’s like … this is so different. There’s a lot wrapped up in the affordability question. ... The things that are less expensive cost less because, right, we all know, along the way somebody is paying. The dye effluent is being dumped in the river, but the company isn’t having to pay the $2-3 per pound of dye waste to clean it up, the wages are lower, and we’re not paying the emissions costs on the container ships. If we had to start paying for all of these things, that less expensive price would go way. Which wouldn’t actually help the knitter, because now we don’t have wage growth either. … We used to have an economy in which we made things here and they cost more, but there was also an expectation that wages ... would keep up with the cost of things. They historically used to a little bit better. And also, people just used to have fewer things. You know, there’s just a lot tied up in it.
A lot of things that we see start with a luxury lead and then become more normal. Organic food did this, even though it’s still expensive, but you never used to see organic food at Walmart. So on my more hopeful days ... I think maybe these things will get mainstream enough as we achieve volume levels to drive the price down. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, because I don’t know there’s not going to be to be a recession that’s going to knock out the leading wealth you need for that. So I don’t really have an answer.
Even though the ideal is a local new product, we also have a ton of existing product out there. I used to unravel a lot of wool sweaters and rewind the yarn. And I think that is probably more sustainable than anything you can do. And that doesn’t help people selling wool now, but I used to go to Goodwill and unravel a sweater and then just soak the stains. Some people dye them. We have all this existing stuff and all the carbon has been emitted, all the dye has already happened. There are a lot of good things you can do.
There’s something I see more people doing which is a whole different proposition -- and I am by no means suggesting anyone doing this; this is not directional, this is just something I’m seeing. There’s this great group on Facebook called Dirty Fleece Done Cheap where a shearer shears live. He Facebook livestreams his shearing, shows the fleece as it comes off, my friend Kirsten writes on a little piece of white paper all about the fleece, and they kind of auction it off live. The farmer gets more money, and the shearer gets a cut, and people get an entire fleece for like $40. Really fine wool. Now, you have to process the entire thing, but that fleece, which is 10 pounds or 12 pounds, is enough to make many sweaters.
But it’s a whole different level of labor and a lot of people don’t have that in their lives. Like you’re working two jobs, you have two kids, you’re knitting to get relief. So I really try not to judge people. Knit for the enjoyment and do the craft for your enjoyment. I get a little pissed off because everything’s on the consumer. We put everything on the consumer’s choice, and nothing is happening at the policy level where the real heavy lifting should be happening on the part of the companies.
I’m trying to say -- crafters, don’t beat yourselves up about every choice. We’re aware of these issues, but it’s not solely your responsibility to fix them. We have to look at wage growth, we have to look at carbon taxes, we have to look at a lot of things. It’s not just the consumer’s responsibility and I’m just really getting tired of the fact that, especially for women who do most of the shopping, it’s just more mental and emotional overhead labor that we’re expecting people to do without fixing problems down the line. These are systemic issues that take a long time to fix, so don’t beat yourself up because you bought a $1.99 Knit Picks yarn. You’re still making something. … If wages were keeping up with the cost of living, you would be able to buy U.S. yarn, and that is not your fault.
Q: Knitting was my first actual hands-on hobby. And I didn’t really understand the preciousness of textiles until I learned how to knit.
A: And how could we right? We live in a society with so much cheap stuff, it’s hard to feel like anything has value. You can hardly blame people. It’s a disposable culture. It’s not a precious value culture right now.
Q: And even if my price point is going to be Knit Picks, the fact that I am knitting makes me aware of textiles, makes me aware of wool, and gets me interested in that topic. ... I’ve taken sweaters apart and you can get what you want sometimes, but it’s labor intensive. And now that I work full-time in a really structured environment, I just have less of that time than I used to when I was making my own schedule and I could just take three or four hours to rip apart a sweater. And thank you for reminding me, which I already knew, that yes, it’s not my fault!
A: And even if you’re knitting with Knit Picks -- don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good because it is so much more important what’s happening when you start knitting. You’re taking the time. People are relieving tremendous anxiety and maybe bringing themselves a little comfort. You can bring yourself into a space where you can think about things that maybe you couldn’t think about before. And it’s tough because -- should people not knit until they can buy the perfect thing? That would be terrible.
When I was writing this book, I really didn’t want to come across as a person who is being prescriptive. It’s really hard to do the right thing. And the Gilberts with the mill are so emblematic of that. You can be the most earnest, committed person, willing to do all of the work and it’s still so hard. We have such a long way to go, and I have to put things in the long span of time for myself to not go crazy sometimes. It took us a long time to actually get where we are. As I say in the book, there’s this big rift between urban dwellers and rural dwellers. We’ve had an agriculture policy that basically helps destroy agricultural towns. We’ve had wars, we have had a change in fuel costs, we have had a complete shift in recent decades the way that things are manufactured and where they are manufactured. ... It has taken us a long time to get where we are since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and it’s not going to change overnight.
But in a way, some things change sooner than I thought. The mill is running now, they sold a lot of roving at a fiber festival this weekend, it was pretty affordably priced, and that didn’t used to happen five years ago. You’ve got to take the wins where you can get them, but basically, this is a life’s work and I hope things are a little better before I die. That’s the timeline we’re looking at. Otherwise, it would become too depressing, too insurmountable.
Q: If a problem was hundreds of years in the making, it’s probably going to take hundreds of years to solve it. And that’s for all types of problems, not just this type of problem. I don’t know if you know of Joanna Macy. She is an author and activist and spent some time in Sri Lanka with a Buddhist activist group. They had a project to undo the negative effects of colonialism, and they’re like, “This started 500 years ago and here’s our 500-year plan for solving it.” And when you hear that, you realize that you can be part of a collective solving of that problem.
A: And it’s so important to think of the future, too. We are so limited to thinking of our own lifespans, and this is for a long-term future. I think we don’t think about those people in the future enough.
Q: Getting back to part two of this question, so you’re working with people all the time who are offering luxury goods for sale and fortunately right now have a lot of buyers for that. But is there any talk about, What do we do if that dries up? What are our plans? What are alternate models?
A: In terms of the individual yarn businesses that I’m aware of … the people who have 100 sheep, can only make so much yarn, so they don’t need a lot of wealthy people. That’s the interesting thing about it -- they don’t need a ton of people, they just need a certain number. I have a lot of insight into their finances and they’re making like $30,000 a year that they live on. They’re not getting rich. They’re feeding sheep, caring for sheep, the vet -- they have a lot of expenses. … They’re covering their costs and paying themselves a little bit to cover groceries and their mortgage. So they do worry about it, but at that scale, they just don’t need that many people. There’s a sort of security to that, but it also limits the growth. They have land that can only fit so many sheep, so they’re in a maintenance mode. So until they can get more access to land and increase the number of sheep they can have, which drives the number of fleeces you can have, they’re kind of at their capacity. So milling costs are their concern, but they’re like, “Thirty-five bucks a skein is literally wholesale plus enough for me to live on and feed the sheep.” And that’s the scary thing about it because you wish they were making double.
So, getting to that scale problem, one of the things we did in the past year was form a cooperative. I had a very strange day last year. I always think I can tell how my life is going to change, but it changes in seconds, and not ever by my own doing. It was the very first day of the really bad fires we had last year, the North Bay fires. … I’m working on two other books right now and one of them is about fire, landscape, and grazing because it was such a monumental thing that affected so many people. That was the day I literally opened my garage door to drive to Robin [Lynde]’s and a flaming ember landed in front of my garage door. A couple of hours later, I was elected president of an agriculture cooperative. And I’m not a farmer, so I’m literally like, this a birth by fire day.
We formed an agricultural cooperative because of a lot of those scale limits. We still don’t know all of what we’re going to do. I dipped my toe back into the tech waters to help build the Fibershed Marketplace, which is like an Etsy for the farmers, but the marketplace is owned by a cooperative, so if the marketplace if profitable, the members get paid out. We’re looking into things that are getting in the way of scaling. So we’re thinking that maybe we should have a wool pool where people put wool of like types together so we can achieve the mill minimum and have them milled at a lower price.
The hardest thing for ranchers is that they can’t bear all of that risk and all of that work. For Lani [Estill], she feeds the sheep, she shears, she has to send 10,000 pounds of wool to get it milled, and she has to pay for all of that. That’s a tremendous amount of risk. She has to pay to get all of that yarn made, and it’s being held as inventory. Until she sells that yarn, she’s at tremendous financial risk, and has to have the cash up front to be able to achieve the discounted rate at the mill. So we’re thinking, what volume do we have to hit for things to get less costly to make, and can we do that for our members? Where are the sticking points and will coming together help solve some of those things? I don’t have the answers, but maybe we can make a collaborative yarn with yarn blends and say “These three farms are in this yarn” and … the co-op has a yarn line.
We’re taking cues from the food movement. There’s a wonderful food co-op in Wisconsin called Fifth Season Co-op. They pool vegetables from a ton of Wisconsin farms and they do the processing. They flash freeze them and sell them to institutions -- grocery stores, hospitals, etc. So that co-op does the value-add work. And then the farmers get higher prices and it’s a farmer-owned co-op so the profits go back to the community. So that’s one of the things we’re looking into and I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but we’re trying to reduce some of that risk by looking at the co-op and helping scale up. Because right now, as I said, those folks aren’t really struggling and don’t need a lot of wealthy people to stay at their $30,000 income, but they also can’t grow and they bear a lot of risk in paying all the costs themselves, so there’s still some stuff to alleviate there. It’s all such an experiment! I don’t know what’s going to work or not work.
Q: That makes sense to me. There’s a trend right now for single-batch yarns, yarn that comes from a specific flock, but what are ways to change the narrative around that? To say that actually, for farmers it’s better if we combine different types of wool from different flocks and it makes a really cool yarn. It seems like there are ways to intervene in that -- saying, “Hey, what you thought was the best is the literal sheep-to-skein thing, but actually this [model] might be better for farmers.”
A: And Robin is a mini version of that. She buys small batches of wool from her neighbors and blends them with hers and sends them off to the mill. So she’s doing that at the small level and it does make the best sense. And the traceability is still there. And that’s what I tell people -- just because you are blending doesn’t mean that you lose the traceability. There is actually a really good system in place for raising wool. You’re recording how many pounds each farm contributed to a bale, each bale has a label, you have a grower number. There’s a really good system in place for ranch-level traceability and flock-level traceability. Every animal has its own tag for disease reasons.
When I am shearing, often the process that happens is that I flip the sheep, look at its ear tag, call out the ear tag number, somebody writes it on a notecard, I shear the fleece, they get that fleece, it goes in a bag with the notecard, and we know exactly which sheep every fleece came from. So even if you blended a yarn, you could still say, “This yarn is from Ida and Periwinkle.” I think you can still get a yarn with all the benefits that people care about with better attributes of blended fibers. … And our hope is that, like I was talking about before with cost, if we can achieve that on a bigger scale, we can drive down the cost of U.S.-made yarns.
Q: As a consumer, I’ve been knitting for almost three years now, and even in that amount of time I’ve seen a lot of companies [selling all-U.S. made yarns] pop up.
A: When I start the book, there aren’t any choices, and that just isn’t true anymore.
Q: I was visiting my family this summer near Charlottesville, Virginia. There’s a really cute yarn shop there called Ewe and they sell only U.S. made yarns.
Q: It’s a very small shop, and their stock is limited, but what I mean by that is that they might offer 50 or 70 different types of yarn. So it’s not really limited. You can go in and find anything for a project that you need.
A: That’s so encouraging to me because that person has decided that there’s enough to sell to make a profit.
Q: Yes -- and they’re in really pricey real estate, so it’s obviously working for them. And if it’s working for the yarn shops, then it’s working for the yarn companies. I can’t imagine that 15 years ago that would have been a thing.
A: No, I never saw things like that at all.
Q: And I visited another yarn shop there, but wasn’t really taken with their offerings. They had a lot of luxury yarns there, but I’m not interested in cashmere even if I could afford it. And actually, as a consumer what I am interested in most is where my yarn comes from. Oftentimes I can’t buy yarn from where I want, but there are more and more people like me for whom that’s the first thing we’re thinking about.
A: Just that leap is so enormous. Don’t ever discount or diminish that because even asking the question or having the thought is such a great step.
Q: I just want to wrap up with one last question and a joke. I wanted to run this joke by you because people who don’t know enough about sheep don’t think it’s funny, but you may know too much about sheep to find it funny, so I wanted to see what you thought. But the question is, What for you is the most important story you want from readers to take away from this book?
A: It’s two sides of the same coin -- the people we least expect are doing the most good for the environment and the people we blame for environmental destruction are doing the most good. I was so ashamed of how wrong I had been. I hear that meat is bad and farmers are bad and agriculture is bad and it is just so different from that. Everything is not industrial agriculture.
And I get accused a lot now of going over to the right wing or something because I appreciate what farmers are doing but there’s also a ton of funding behind it now. … There’s a lot of robust field science and soil carbon samples and it’s kind of inarguable to me, but I had to see it first with my eyes. We’ve got to stop [blaming farmers for environmental destruction] because agriculture is a key to helping us address climate change in a really affordable, doable way. The capacity of our soil is being eroded -- it’s as if we learned nothing from the dust bowl. I hate to use this kind of language, but we have 50 or 60 harvests left based on our rate of topsoil depletion, but that soil has so much capacity. We need soil to grow, it can hold so much carbon that doesn’t belong in the ocean where it’s acidifying everything.
The thing I tell people about is the 4% per 1,000 acres goal, which France came up with at the Paris Climate Summit. If we just increase our carbon stock by 4% every year, we can actually negate the CO2 emitted by human activity. We can be drawing down as much as we’re putting out, which while we’re trying to figure out how to stop emitting so much can be a really great thing. So that’s very doable. Think about this -- there are 537 million farms in the world. You don’t even need to achieve consensus. You only need some small number of those farms to adjust a couple of the things they are already doing and the carbon drawn down could be enormous. We’re not going to get there if we believe that agriculture is inherently bad and has nothing to offer us.
It is expensive to take 10,000 pounds of compost and spread it across 3,000 acres. You have to pay for the compost, for the labor to do it, but farmers are doing this. They don’t have to do it, expensive for them to do it, and yet there they are, trying so hard to sink carbon into the soil. And some of them vote the way you wouldn’t expect because they understand that fundamentally carbon is money. So for me, that was the most important story because it was the biggest surprise, and especially on the heels of this IPCC report that just came out. If you’re going to take anything away, it’s to change how we talk about the work that farmers are doing and that we value it more for the climate change mitigation potential it has. And wool is a carbon sink -- 50% of wool is carbon.
Q: We’re so used to big agriculture and we’re finding out that a lot of people don’t even know fully the extent of the evils of big agriculture, not even thinking that [alternate forms of agriculture] have enormous potential to do good, and there are people out there doing it right now.
A: And it’s so hard. They’re planting hedgerows in 112 degrees and we’re like, “Maybe I should buy a hybrid.” [laughs]
Q: And here’s my joke, which some of my coworkers who were not knitters did not like. Why do sheep hate going to bars?
A: I don’t know. Why?
Q: Because they always get carded.
A: [laughs] That’s so good.
Q: I’m glad because I have to tell this joke to someone who will appreciate it. Feel free to tell it whenever you’re doing a talk.
A: I’m going to text it to the Gilberts right now.
Emily Howard is a library technician at the Ann Arbor District Library, where she can often be found knitting on her lunch break.
Stephany Wilkes presents "Raw Material: Working Wool in the West" on Monday, November 5 at 7 pm at the Ann Arbor District Library's downtown branch in the fourth-floor meeting room.