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October 20, 2017
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Sheep in the hills of northern Spain. Photograph by Erin Ridley.

A few years ago, I went shepherding in the hills of northern Spain. Miguel - my farming mentor - told me that he didn't use his sheep for wool because he would spend more money processing it, than he would make in sales; I've been pondering this ever since.

Only a few years ago, these shifts signalled a dreary future for wool production, but it seems the time is right for a woolly resurrection, or sorts.

It turns out that his plight was, unfortunately, indicative of a bigger snag in the worldwide wool industry. Over the last 50 years, global wool production has dropped to its lowest level, with alternative land use options, lack of industry unity, and cost of production - among other factors - to blame. Reduced prices have even driven some farmers to resort to burning or burying their wool, because any other use would be uneconomical. Only a few years ago, these shifts signalled a dreary future for wool production, but it seems the time is right for a woolly resurrection, of sorts.

Among the textile's biggest fans is HRH The Prince of Wales who, along with the foundation he supports - the Campaign for Wool - works to promote the 7,000-year-old fibre. Its community of farmers, retailers, designers and manufacturers tout it as renewable, quicker to decompose and requiring less energy to produce than synthetic fibre - along with many other benefits. So while less natural options might be cheaper and sometimes more comfortable, the royal case is being made that the woolly wonder-product is worth returning to.

Fashion designers seem to agree, too. Vivienne Westwood - in cooperation with the Campaign for Wool - put the textile centre stage on her A/W 2012-13 runway. She explains: "Wool is one of the world's great natural fibres, famous for its versatility and comfort - warm in winter, cool in summer." It's not just a great material to wear and work with, its use also has bigger implications; Westwood adds, "These days when we are threatened by encroaching climate change, which may be unstoppable unless we do something about it quickly, wool is a very sustainable fabric." 

Indeed the "naturalness" of wool has now become a major factor to consumers in choosing it over previously more popular alternatives - a point of differentiation that the industry is eager to exploit. Explains Barry Savage, of the American Sheep Industry Association, "Natural fibre consumption is the choice of many a consumer and with improved returns to growers we need to take a[s] much advantage of that timing as we can to increase wool promotion, increase wool consumption and grow the clip." It's no surprise then that the United Nations declared 2009 the International Year of Natural Fibres and, under UN patronage, the Discover Natural Fibres Initiative works with the International Wool Textile Organisation to increase awareness of natural fibres.

Wool's revival might not just be about wool itself either, as it could also benefit from more deeply rooted cultural shifts. And no one seems to know this better than Spain's non-profit organisation Xisqueta, which, essentially, closes the loop between farmers, craftsmen and consumers so that everyone wins. The Catalonian-based foundation pays local shepherds - who've struggled to make a profit in the past - a fair price for the wool of the once-endangered Xisqueta lamb. From there, the organisation trains artisans to re-purpose the wool into products like clothes and jewellery, before finally selling and marketing the creations under the organisation's name. By facilitating the wool production process from start to finish, it hopes to bring attention to an under-appreciated profession, and also add value and richer meaning to the textile.

Vivienne Westwood A/W 2012-13.
Source: Style.com.

Vanesa Freixa Riba, who works for the foundation, says, "We want to show people all that exists behind the wool….That there's a person who herds the sheep all day long, and, in doing so, maintains the territory and a breed in danger of extinction." She also believes this is even more important given our overall lack of familiarity with what we consume, saying, "In the last decades, industrialisation has become very dehumanised…because everything is so impersonal and artificial that now we feel the need to recuperate the origin and the tradition." Add to that the fact that wool is becoming more fashionable and that younger generations are using it once again, and, she says, it's "...just the right time for this project."

This could be just the right time for the future of all wool, too; not just for Xisqueta - who says the pastors' revenues are increasing, with more value given to both their profession and the sheep - but also for the industry as a whole. The Campaign for Wool says farmers are seeing prices triple. Then, Australia - the number one producer of merino wool in the world - is, after a two-decade-long downturn, capitalising on emerging luxury markets like China and India. Now the country's merino sheep numbers are rising at five per cent per year: further confirmation that the global industry is on the rebound.

And while the International Wool Textile Organisation speculates that prospects are still a little fuzzy for 2012, with global wool prices likely to remain steady, if not dipping, the organisation also believes that this is attributable to the troubled, worldwide economy, meaning the long-term outlook is more reassuring. With the convergence of evolving fashion, culture and environmental awareness, the industry could indeed be poised to shift from struggling to surviving - and who knows, maybe someday, even thriving.

Meanwhile, I am hopeful that the next time I go herding sheep in the Spanish countryside, my shepherd friend, Miguel, will have more promising wool-related news to report.

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