Canadian wool: Meeting the challenges

Canadian wool: Meeting the challenges

Canadian wool: Meeting the challenges
Story by Jenn MacTavish

Many Canadian sheep farmers are struggling with the challenges of wool, which unfortunately is seen by some as a by-product of sheep production.

The challenge with wool, in part, is because in recent history, the versatility of wool has been pushed aside for the convenience of synthetic materials. This has led to a decrease in demand for wool, especially from breeds raised in Canada.

As Morgan Moore, Chair and acting General Manager of the Canadian Cooperative Wool Growers (CCWG) puts it, “While fine wools are still moving fairly well, with good pricing, there is very little demand for the stronger wools.” A sentiment he says is echoed by US wool sellers who are “sitting on huge inventories of wool.”

Despite the challenge, there is a not-so-quiet wool revolution taking place across Canada. Wool is a wonder fibre that can be used for everything from clothing to home décor, to home insulation to gardening. And in a world that is grappling with environmental challenges, wool is emerging as a solution.

Designers, retailers, and consumers are starting to actively seek out wool as sustainable alternatives to synthetic products. Canadian farmers, wanting to contribute to a more sustainable future, are joining this movement and are recognizing the potential to diversify their income by tapping into wool markets.

In keeping with the Canadian sheep industry though, meeting the rising demand for product is met with challenges. Processing and sales at a scale large enough to make a difference remains a hurdle due in part to a lack of consistent supply both in terms of quantity and quality. There is a lack of investment in modern machinery and infrastructure. In addition, the supply chain is siloed, there is a lack of skilled labour, and there are shipping issues.

Despite these challenges, there are a growing number of farmers, processors, and retailers that recognize that the Canadian wool industry has a lot to offer and that everyone has a responsibility and role to play in helping it reach its potential.

The CCWG, for instance, with an increase in the amount of wool they have on hand, is working on a large-scale wool pelleting project, with the plan to have it up and running by late spring or early summer. “With current world prices, we think the pellet market will provide better returns to the producer for some of their hard-to-sell wool,” says Moore.

Individual farmers are also piloting their own ideas and using their resources, time, and money to put wool products on the market. As Romy Schill, an Ontario sheep farmer and founder of the Revolution Wool Company puts it, “producers understand the value of improving skirting on the farm, but why would they change their practices if they’re not getting paid more for their product?”

Schill acknowledges that what she is doing is not for everyone. “Most producers do not want to manage their wool, they want someone to buy it.” But for that to happen, “more people need to put skin in the game and do processing and sales at a big enough scale to make a difference.”

Schill and the sheep farmers across Canada who are producing their own wool products “should be celebrated and supported as they fill a niche market for those who want access to locally grown wool,” according to Jane Underhill, industry strategist and founder of OA Wool Inc., wool agent and broker managing the Canadian wool supply chain.

OA Wool Inc. offers an on-farm wool programme to help farmers improve the quality of their wool clip. Once the wool is deemed to be supply chain-ready, OA Wool chaperones the wool through the supply chain for white label (companies that buy product and rebrand it as their own) and private label clients. They now work with their suppliers to provide knitting wool, blankets, socks, and other cloth, and they serve as a vendor of yarn on cones for the commercial knitting and weaving industry. Milo & Dexter is a Montreal-based company which, last fall, launched three pieces made exclusively from Canadian wool: a toque, a sweater, and a vest. Their commitment to transparency and natural materials reflects a growing trend in consumer preference.

Joining Milo & Dexter in wanting to provide consumers with natural materials is Sasha Jardine of SteMargScot. Jardine is a microbiologist who used to work at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto and became “disenchanted with the chemical options we have.” So, she launched SteMargScot, a company that provides outerwear that is free-from plastics and founded in the ethos “made with love in Canada.”

“We used to rely on wool, and it is slowly being erased. We’ve forgotten about the efficacy of wool,” says Jardine. SteMargScot sources wool from a small family-owned mill in England, as Canada doesn’t have the processing to make melton (wool that is woven in a twill form with a felt-like smooth surface). Local, however, is the “gold standard” and Jardine is actively working to source Canadian wool and a processor closer to home.

Bringing together wool farmers, fibre artists, and mill owners is something that Anna Hunter, Chair of the Canadian Wool Collective, is passionate about. In 2020 she conducted a small research project that found that the biggest hurdle for fibre farmers is marketing.

“They didn’t have the energy to reach out and find more consumers,” Hunter said, and so she built a website ( as a place for farmers and consumers to go and find each other. This led to monthly online coffee houses with people “showing up because they love wool and they want the industry to thrive.”

As this community of fibre enthusiasts grew, their conversations ultimately led to the formation of the Canadian Wool Collective, which is a registered national non-profit with a volunteer board of directors. Their goal is to promote and profile Canadian wool. In essence, the Canadian Wool Collective is “rooted in a grassroots movement of people being passionate about wool and tired of waiting for existing industry infrastructure to catch up.”

Hunter believes that “if we could capture or encourage bigger investment into the wool industry, or find a way to inject what fibre artists spend on Canadian wool back into the industry, we could see a real shift.” She adds that “knitters and fibre artists want all the wool, not just merino.”

The Collective is currently gearing up to launch the Canadian Wool Certification Program which is an initiative to create a nationally recognized logo representing wool and value-added wool products that were grown and manufactured in Canada.

The Campaign for Wool Canada’s mission is to rebrand and revalue Canadian wool, advocate for the domestic industry, and foster demand for homegrown luxury. Led by Matthew Rowe, the Campaign for Wool has been instrumental in spearheading a wave of new initiatives to rebuild the Canadian infrastructure for wool production such as:

  • First Canadian Wool Standard: a comprehensive guideline released by the Campaign for Wool, setting standards for the industry
  • Shearing Plan: A national strategy for shearing, proposing a cohesive training program for shearers to enhance the quality of wool
  • Upholstery Plan: Exploring the feasibility of creating 100% Canadian wool upholstery
  • Branding and Marketing: Short films like the “Fabric of Canada” series, showcasing the unique stories behind Canadian wool, aiming to build a cohesive national brand
  • Point of Sale Kit: Supporting retailers with hang tags, signage, and postcards that narrate the distinct stories of Canadian wool
  • Rug Designs and Spinning Yarn Speaker Series: Collaborative efforts to promote wool.
  • Canadian Wool Month reception in October with Holt Renfrew featuring fully traceable knitwear.

“What has been exciting is that when you reflect on what we’ve done in the past ten years it’s amazing. With little resources, we have helped create something that is rebuilding the Canadian infrastructure, creating products, and partnerships that didn’t exist before,” says Rowe.

The commitment to telling our story better, and success stories such as the Campaign for Wool’s achievements in the past decade showcase the potential for rebuilding the Canadian infrastructure. The proactive approach to developing new opportunities has not only garnered increased media attention but has also led to collaborations with companies internationally. Along with investment into the Campaign from “forward-thinking organizations such as Ontario Sheep Farmers, Alberta Lamb and Briggs & Little signifies a positive shift in the industry’s dynamics,” says Rowe.

Briggs & Little is a 167-year-old mill in New Brunswick that faces challenges meeting increasing demand while maintaining their commitment to local sourcing. They are a totally integrated mill that purchases their wool from local farms and from the CCWG. They process the wool into pure wool yarn and wool nylon blends of various weights. Most of their wool goes to the knitting and crafting consumers for outerwear or sweaters. Leah Little, who operates the mill with her husband and two of her sons, says that “While we would love to have more local wool, we do have to order wool from the CCWG three to four times per year.”

Though COVID demand rose 25-30% and was “so high we couldn’t keep up with the orders,” things have quieted down in the last six months. Despite this current slow-down, Little says that “demand only seems to be increasing.” However, even if they wanted to expand production, their machinery, which is now antiquated, already takes up all the space they have.

Maddy Purves-Smith, who runs Custom Woolen Mills in Alberta with her husband and mother, agrees with Little that consumer demand is increasing and it’s not just because of more people crafting during COVID. “Consumers are aware of the shortfalls of synthetic fibres and are starting to appreciate the benefits of natural fibres.”

Custom Woolen Mills operates antique, industrial revolution-era machines that spin yarn in a way that mimics hand spinning. “There is a lot more play in the finished yarn than something spun on a modern spinning frame,” says Purves-Smith.

Despite the growing demand that they have seen, Custom Woolen Mills is not interested in expanding their production as they have what works for them. Their machinery allows them to custom process and support local farmers.

Farmers do not have to focus on direct-to-market sales to support the wool revolution. Purves-Smith says that it’s important for farmers to “keep their sheep nice and clean and to pay attention to genetics and the breeds they are using.”. She is suggesting that there be a strategy to make the product more consistent that could be marketed more aggressively.

Interest in Canadian wool is extending beyond the usual suspects. Mary Richardson, a cultural and social anthropologist, is currently developing a research project with a fellow researcher and anthropologist in the Lower St. Lawrence region of Quebec. They are wanting to better understand the pathways that wool takes from farmers to market.

Integral to this research will be speaking with farmers and gaining a better understanding of their realities. What are their obstacles, what are their issues, what do they have to contend with? “You can’t make anything with wool until you have farmers that can provide that wool and you have to understand their constraints and their realities,” says Richardson.

Her interest in the Canadian wool industry grew out of her passion for felting and not wanting to “work only with New Zealand Merino wool”. She started looking around for who is raising what breeds of sheep and how to make wool from those farmers work for felting. And soon her research brain took over and she began asking questions around “why aren’t we doing more with the wool we have?”

The Canadian wool industry is at a pivotal moment, with a growing awareness of the need for sustainability and a renewed focus on innovation. While challenges persist, the collaborative efforts of farmers, organizations, innovators, and enthusiasts are paving the way for a more sustainable and prosperous future.

After working in the sheep industry for over 20 years, Jenn MacTavish is now focusing on writing, knitting, reading, and travelling.

This article was originally published in Sheep Canada Magazine. 


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