Closing the Data Gap Is Key to Revitalizing the Domestic Canadian Wool Economy

16 December 2020
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The original business plan for my yarn store in East Vancouver, Baaad Anna’s Yarn Store, was to operate on the “100-mile diet” principle. I wanted to only sell yarn and fibre that was grown within 100 miles of Vancouver. I figured it wouldn’t be that hard, as there were many sheep farms throughout the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, and no shortage of wool being grown.

Well, after about four weeks tracking down farmers and trying to set up wholesale accounts, I was faced with the fact that there wasn’t actually enough yarn to fill one shelf, let alone an entire store. I quickly changed my business plan to focus on locally dyed yarn, but that was the first moment I realized there was a serious disconnect within our Canadian wool industry.

Canada produces about three million pounds of wool a year – this is the wool that is collected by the Canadian Cooperative Wool Growers (CCWG), and does not include the wool grown by small- and medium-size farms. CCWG pays farmers based on the quality of the wool, usually between $0.35 and $3.00 per pound. These rates are determined by the global wool market and often aren’t enough to cover the cost of shearing the sheep. CCWG then sells wool on the international market, with about 70% going to China and another 20% to the Czech Republic, India and the U.S.A. Only 10% is processed and sold here in Canada. Once our wool is purchased, it is blended with similar types from around the world, processed in factories, and shipped back to Canada in the form of knitting/crochet yarns, textiles, and other products. It is almost impossible for the consumer to purchase Canadian-grown and -manufactured yarn or clothing from retail stores, large or small.
Sheep face, up close.

Image description: Sheep face, up close.

The Canadian wool industry is stuck in a Catch-22 situation with no indication of a turn-around coming and no leadership to propose better solutions. Canadian farmers and producers have no incentive to grow better, cleaner wool, because they are not financially compensated for a better wool product. Without a better wool product being produced in larger quantities across the country, there is no incentive to invest in innovation or to build the infrastructure needed to process that wool. We are not building new textile or wool mills, and the operations that do exist are struggling to meet the demand or simply cannot put out the quantity being asked of them.

With no predictable or substantial access to domestically produced fabrics or textiles, Canadian designers and fashion houses cannot source local fibres for their designs and clothing lines. Thus, consumers do not have local wool products that are available, affordable, and widely recognized throughout the country. Without consumer demand, there are limited options for scaling up the Canadian wool industry.

Our wool-buying and -selling body, CCWG, continues to market Canadian wool on the international stage even when global wool prices are at rock-bottom and don’t encourage any kind of growth within the Canadian wool industry.

However, small- and medium-size wool farms are not counted in national statistics and are disregarded as “niche” markets – despite the fact that interest in knitting, crocheting and other fibre arts has grown significantly in Canada over the last decade, according to yarn suppliers.

The first step in building more resilient domestic fibre systems is to talk to farmers, ranchers and small and medium mills across the country. By focusing research on those that are providing wool to our fibre economy but often aren’t counted in national surveys, we will be able to discover the gaps within available infrastructure. These data could provide the backbone of a national strategy to adequately address these gaps and promote the growth of the Canadian wool industry.

Here’s an example: Many Canadian sheep farmers in central and eastern Canada raise sheep breeds that produce a more coarse or down type wool, which is not necessarily the wool best suited for textiles. It is, however, excellent for home insulation and wool bedding. There are already companies in Ontario and Manitoba manufacturing insulation and wool bedding, but because there is no domestic infrastructure to process enough of the kind of wool they use to meet their demand, they import wool from New Zealand and California. If there were increased capacity to process wool in Canada, farmers could be paid a better wage, the carbon emissions of international transport would be eliminated, and more money would stay within the Canadian economy.

There is so much creativity within small-scale fibre economies across Canada, as seen in the work of the Upper Canada Fibreshed, the PEI Fibre Trail, and the work we are doing in Manitoba with our wool mill and advocacy efforts for wool production and consumption. Unfortunately, there is very little momentum at the national level to support an alternative supply chain. By creating a scalable model that focuses on innovation and regionality, we would have the opportunity to stop the current cycle of export and import, and build a stronger domestic textile economy.

Fibreshed organizations already exist across Canada to promote and advocate for local textiles, local labour, and local colour within specific regions. The underlying focus of the Fibreshed project is to promote textile production within a framework of climate-beneficial and sustainable agriculture practices. This includes education around the textiles we consume, the farming practices used, and the labour that we rely on to meet our increasing demand.

If we were able to fill the gaps in our knowledge and understanding of small- and medium-scale fibre raising and processing in Canada, we could go a long way to reestablishing a healthy domestic textile economy. Grounded in a grassroots network of farmers, producers, and consumers, I have begun to conduct research that will help to inform capacity-building within a framework of climate justice and sustainability, making sustainable textiles and yarn as available as local organic food.

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The articles, tutorials and patterns we publish about Canadian fibre and textile arts, crafts and industry are made possible by our members.

Copyright © Anna Hunter except as indicated.
Anna Hunter holding two lambs.

About Anna Hunter

Anna Hunter is a first-generation sheep farmer and wool mill owner in Eastern Manitoba, Treaty One Territory. Anna, her husband Luke, and their two sons moved to Manitoba from Vancouver, BC, in 2015. She started a small sheep farm, raising Shetland sheep for their beautiful wool. In 2018 they established a small-scale wool processing mill – the only one of its kind in Manitoba. They process wool and fibre for themselves and other farmers. Anna is passionate about building community and connecting rural fibre farmers with urban consumers, fibre artists and crafters. Anna believes that regenerative agriculture and climate beneficial food and clothing is integral to moving forward as farmers, fibre artists and Canadians. To learn more about Anna and her farm/wool mill, check out longwayhomestead.com.

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