Wooly Business: Stephany Wilkes tracks the fall and potential rise of the U.S. wool industry

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Stephany Wilkes, Raw Material

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.