The Journey of Canadian Wool

28 February 2024
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I climb the narrow stairway to a small room that holds the general store and post office for Thetis Island, British Columbia, where I live. A strong smell of otters comes from under the building. It is Friday afternoon; the post office will not be receiving any more deliveries this week. I didn’t get a package pick-up notification card in my mailbox, but I’m waiting for a box of wool to come back from processing at the mill, so I’m going in. Just to check.

Lis, the postmistress, greets me with a smile. She knows what I’m waiting for and she modulates her voice to ease the panic I feel when I hear the news. “Only one of the boxes came in. Don’t worry; the next one will come. They just got separated in shipping.”

I smile back. “I’m sure you’re right.”

The box that did arrive is large; twenty by thirty inches, and, indeed, it is marked “2 of 2” and there is no box with a matching “1 of 2” marking. Lis again tells me not to worry. I agree and set my heart against fear. Before leaving, I ask to borrow a box cutter and slip it between the flaps of the box for a glimpse of what is inside. Identical tubes stuffed with white Bluefaced Leicester roving processed and packed at Custom Woolen Mills in Carstairs, Alberta.

I heft the box onto my shoulder and navigate my way carefully down the narrow stairs, through the liquor store, down more stairs, and out to my truck. Access is not ideal for picking up packages, but Thetis only has about 400 full-time residents and we’re lucky to have a post office at all.

I feel excited. This order has been over a year in the making, and I have invested over a thousand dollars and many hours into it. I raise my own flock of fibre sheep but this fibre came from an elderly farmer down the road. He raises Bluefaced Leicester sheep but processing and marketing the wool in the current economy is not his cup of tea. I pay for shearing plus some extra and I buy his entire clip every year.

It is also the first batch of wool I have processed using the cold soak method before shipping the fleece. I started by skirting the fleece as usual, on a large grate (actually an inverted wire fence panel), then submerged it in a garbage can full of cold water for at least twenty-four hours. After drip drying on the fence panel, much of the dirt has gone, and the fleece weighs about half of its original weight. This makes a big difference when shipping costs so much and there are no local mills.

Many wool mills have a substantial minimum weight per batch, especially for spinning. Custom Woolen Mills has a minimum of twenty pounds (nine kilograms) finished batches for spinning (no minimum weights for carding only), so we save up similar fleeces for a batch of yarn and send them off. We generally experience a weight loss of thirty to forty percent at the mill so we try to send at least forty pounds (eighteen kilograms) of raw fleece.

A small pile of wool locks in browns and whites is on a makeshift table made from an orange grated fence. A large bucket is next to it, over half full of dirty water.

We have found planning and cash flow to be bigger challenges than we expected. If you want several different weights of yarn in several natural sheep colours, you’re looking at hundreds of pounds of raw fleece, which needs to be shorn, skirted, bagged, stored, shipped, and then paid for. And this is a significant point. We’re currently paying between twenty-six and forty-two dollars per pound for spinning. If we send in several batches of forty pounds each, this requires quite a large cash flow. Especially because processing wait times are around six months—and sometimes longer—so you don’t know when you’re going to have to pay.

It is also hard to decide which mill to use. Since environmental sustainability is our main goal, we tried to find a service as geographically close to us as possible. But for us, like many, this still means going out of province. There is also the comparison of cost and of process. Is the mill worsted or woollen? Worsted is drapey and dense, better for longer staple-length fibres. Woollen is squishy and light, better for short staple lengths. And mills all seem to use different formulas to calculate the cost of processing. Some calculate price by finished weight, some calculate by dirty weight only, and others calculate washing costs based on dirty weight and then shift to clean weight for the rest.

The missing box of roving does eventually arrive. I pick it up feeling grateful. Bringing it home, I set the additional tubes of white roving onto a shelf with others. From here, they will be weighed into 100-gram lengths, dyed, braided, and shipped to makers. All part of the new sustainable textile system rising around the world.

Photos courtesy of Emily McIvor.

Copyright © Emily McIvor except as indicated.
Head shot of Emily McIvor. It's a selfie of her in a brown coat and green knit hat, on a gravel road with a dog in the background.

About Emily McIvor

Emily McIvor is a sheep farmer, dyer and wool broker focusing on regenerative pasture management, circular wool washing systems and other climate adaptive practices, Emily’s deep motivation is creating environmentally sustainable textile systems. She is co-owner at New Wave Fibre and founding board member of the Canadian Wool Collective.

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