Happy British Wool Week!
Because I am a veterinary student, the importance of supporting the British wool industry is an issue close to my heart: the low price for wool from Scottish Blackface sheep burdens the farmer economically, lowering profit margins, and in turn depressing the financial resources available for veterinary costs. Personally, I think a welfare issue has arisen as a result of the devaluing of Scottish wool, and if I end up staying in this country to practice once qualified, I perish the thought of balancing the cost of treating a sheep with its worth as a product.
The fact is, Scottish farmers of Blackface sheep make a loss from sheep shearing: the cost of hiring a shearer to perform the necessary duty of removing the wool from a flock of sheep in preparation for the warmer summer months, is higher than the price the wool will catch at market. Admittedly, the wool is of poorer quality because it is attached to a breed of sheep grown specifically for meat, but if there is no financial incentive to increase wool quality, why bother? I don’t want to turn this into a debate or lesson on free market economics or sheep genetics, so I will try to keep it simple. Sheep need shearing, farmers need to pay for the service, and meanwhile the wool they gain from the experience is worth very little, so it actually causes a loss.
I learned about the Scottish sheep industry before I took up knitting, so from the moment I started making decision about yarns to use, beyond the cheap acrylic found in the bargain store, I want to buy home-grown stuff. I also love the idea of supporting an old industry rooted in a nation’s culture: the famous Harris Tweed, for example, traditionally derives from Blackface wool. Additionally, buying Scottish wool while in Scotland cuts down on airmiles, especially since so much wool is imported from Australia and South America. Back in the States, I try to buy American-produced wool. I’m really looking forward to trying BrooklynTweed’s new Shelter yarn next summer, which answers my desire for at least attempting to make wool a ‘green’ item.
The problem with Shelter, though, is it’s price as a luxury yarn. I can’t imagine making a full garment out of it, as lovely as it looks, simply because I can’t afford to. This argument between cost and ethics can be applied to all areas of my globalized, wealthy ‘Western’ lifestyle, which has given me a lot of privileges at the expense of so many people, and I’m nowhere near deciding where I stand on the issue. I want the cheapest yarn I can find – who doesn’t? – but I don’t want to sacrifice my morals as a result. Still, if Scottish wool is next to worthless, exactly what is preventing me from having the inexpensive, environmentally friendly(er) wool that I dream of?
While the price is off-putting, I think Shelter is on the right track, by mixing finer and more luxurious fibers with hardier and less delicate ones. Scottish wool is not known for its quality, but I can’t help but believe it would be suited for a blend with a finer wool, to produce a high quality and comparatively inexpensive product. Currently, ‘Merino’ and ‘Bluefaced Leicester,’ both British sheep breeds, are well known terms in the knitting world. As British wool-consumers become wiser about the quality of their wool in relation to its breed of origin, why shouldn’t they come to realize that a ‘merino-blackface’ blend may have its benefits? This is an idea I base entirely on possibility: I would love to research this idea more fully, and even try mixing fibers myself to see what compromises I can make between luxury and economics. If I could just take up spinning….
Before I end this essay, I must mention that, while not from the Scottish Blackface that I so laud, New Lanark produces a wonderfully strong, yet reasonably soft Scottish wool that I used for my favorite cardigan, Manuka. Luckily, it comes in a variety of tweedy-colors that make my heart melt, and gosh is it inexpensive! If you live in the UK and are looking for DK or Aran, claim a bit of the country’s history back and knit with New Lanark! Furthermore, if you’re ever near the Scottish Borders, New Lanark is a World Heritage Site that has a gorgeous location and a lot of interesting history to share. It’s worth a trip, for sure.