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Lampoon /Transition – International wool sourcing: transparency is required now more than ever

A rough touch could be more precious than the finest merino but a short and local supply chain is needed to grant that the sheep are sheared with no suffering 

Raw wool – a special waste

It all started in 1987 when was no more supply in Italy. Then the real crisis arrived in the 1990s with globalization. Raw wool is officially categorized as an animal by product and in normal times it was always collected by local merchants who then distributed to the textile industry in Italy and in Europe. Unfortunately many european manufacturers have closed due to market competition from Asia therefore the wool now has to be exported to these markets. In rare cases small flocks produce wool in areas that it is not convient for the merchant to collect, and although it is an illegal practice, this wool is sometimes abandoned, and then can it is referred as a special waste. The wool that remains raw has no value and is not collected by anyone unless it is destined for washing. So it accumulates and after a few months when it becomes a special waste, the disposing of it involves considerable costs. Wool is a natural and durable fiber produced by sheep all over the world, known for its thermal properties. Despite these characteristics, the percentage of its use in the production of clothing is minimal, and in decline. wool is used in many sectors. Wool use has probably not decreased in clothing, but there has been a growth in the use of synthetics for fast fashion, which does not require the quality that wool products offer (sustainability, longevity…). The world’s population has also grown in third world countries. Wool has been used since the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans, who seem to have continued a tradition and practice older than themselves and widespread among the populations of the East, North and West. Since the eighteenth century, it has been replaced, in some uses, by cotton, and today, it shares most of the world market with this fiber. Like the cotton trade, the wool trade is regulated by a series of institutions, markets, customs, classifications and contracts that vary from country to country in production and consumption. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, raw wool was supplied by the sheep farms of Spain, England and Germany. With the industrial progress of technology and the expansion of facilities, increasing quantities were also obtained from large flocks introduced in transoceanic countries. It is estimated that, starting from the second half of the last century, production – due to the expansion of breeding facilities, the improvement of breeds and better per unit yield – has almost doubled. From 1909-1913, it was at 14,289,000 quintals. It declined during the war and was reduced to 11,828,000 quintals in 1921, only to rise again and reach 17,265,000 quintals in 1932. The greatest increases in production were recorded in Australia, South Africa, the United States and Argentina; overall there were declines in Europe, in particular in Russia.

Wool classification and production

Depending on its origin, treatment and use, raw wool is classified into major categories, which are necessary for international trade. Merino wools come from the special merino breed – a breed originally from Spain. They are the finest wools, those with the smallest fiber coarseness, and are used in the textile industry. Crossbred wools come from crossed breeding of any breeds. It is estimated that merino accounts for about forty percent of world production, crossbred wools thirty-five percent and carpet wools twenty-five percent. However, the trend varies from country to country. South Africa produces exclusively merino wool, Australia about eighty-four percent merino wool and sixteen percent crossbred and New Zealand almost exclusively crossbred wool. The wool industry produces about 1.16 billion kilograms of clean wool per year, from a global flock of more than one billion sheep. Despite the large amount of fiber produced, wool represents a small percentage of global textile consumption. In clothing production, only about one percent of the fabrics used are wool or wool-based. The main wool producers are China, Australia and New Zealand. Australia is the largest exporter of wool, while the largest importer is China. The United Kingdom, Iran, Russia and South Africa also produce significant amounts of wool. Global production is valued at approximately 7.6 billion dollars per year.

Arachne or Textile making, Philipp Galle, 1574

Sheep shearing in Italy

Today, wool is still considered a resource, but when it becomes a ‘special waste’ it has to be disposed at a high price. Wool is biodegradable in normal conditions, and does not easily ignite. Sheep must be sheared at least once a year for its own wellbeing. If, at one point in time, the wool supply chain was crucial to Italian regions, today it has been abandoned. The problem is quantity: in Italy we are talking about minimal quantities of wool, with difficulties in finding people willing to work in these supply chains. For big companies, used to importing wool from abroad, Italian quantities are sample quantities, with a fallout – in terms of costs – that is, as a consequence, very high. In most cases, large producers do not care if the wool is pure-bred wool from native animals, a rarity in Italy. Wool is considered a mere commodity. What counts are the technical standards, to be respected regardless of origin. Wool production in Italy lacks the superior fineness of selected merino breeds that inhabit the endless plains of Australia and the Cape Colony. In many breeds, characteristics derived from the infusion of merino blood can still be found, but the production of wools clearly traceable to the merino type is scarce, with almost all production belonging to crossbred types, prevalently fine and medium wools. Of the 90,000-100,000 quintals of washed wool obtained from national production, about 20,000 are suitable only for mattresses: all the wool from Sardinia, part of that from Sicily, Piedmont and Lombardy, and the wool from Lecce and Altamura. A sheep produces about 1.5 kilos of wool per year, but only seventy percent is recovered for processing. Farmers are paid between twenty and fifty cents per kilo, an insignificant price, which increases more than sixtyfold during processing. It suffices to think that a cloth from Australian superfine merino wool of 1 by 1.5 meters, obtained from about 800 grams of treated wool – which is equal to 1.5 kilos of dirty, freshly sheared wool – can cost fifty euros per meter. The costs increase in the case of the packaged product. Sheep shearing usually takes place after the cold season and therefore varies from country to country. In countries of large-scale production, it is done with the help of mechanical shearing machines. In Italy, shearing is usually done by specialized personnel who pass from one flock to another. The yield varies according to breed and flock management and the kind of pasture. The preparation for sale includes grading (the operation of dividing fleeces, or their parts, into batches), packing and pressing the wool into bags, weighing and marking. Grading is different from sorting, which is done at the factory and involves different parts of the fleece, and has a direct and immediate relationship with the industrial use of wool.

Mulesing – A controversial practice

Sorting is done at the farm or in the shearing station, and is used to separate more or less valuable products or parts; fine wool from medium and ordinary wool; white wool from yellowish wool and so on. Sorting has no precise rules. In Australia and South Africa, it is carried out with great care by specialized personnel, while in South America and other countries, it is rather neglected. Seventy-five percent of the international trade of raw wool, estimated at about nine million quintals, and fifty percent of wool production, is fed by the production of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and supplies the industries of Europe, Japan and the United States. Among the European countries, England is not only the largest consumer market. France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Czechoslovakia and Poland are also strong importers. France and Belgium have few washing plants and import large quantities of greasy wool to be re-exported after being washed. Italy consumes all of its imports and exports only a portion of its production. Outside of Europe, Japan has increased its imports in the last decade and it is almost exclusively supplied by Australia. Shearing can be a respectful and cruelty-free process if done right. While wild sheep naturally shear their thick wool coats in the spring but they live in difficult conditions in the poorer areas of the world. Domesticated sheep have been bred to have an unnaturally thick coat that never stops growing. For these sheep, shearing is critical: it allows them to better regulate body temperature, prevents parasites and infections, and can give them more mobility by preventing overgrowth. The reality of the wool industry is more alarming than just shearing. Profit is the main reason – shearers are usually paid by the volume of wool they produce, not the number of hours they work. The result is a process that emphasizes speed, very often at the expense of the animal. Mulesing, the practice of skinning the flesh of a sheep’s hindquarters without anesthesia, to combat flies, is one example that occurs in Australia, but it goes beyond sanctioned practices: general violence is also common. Multiple investigations by PETA (most notably those in 2014 and 2018) have uncovered footage of widespread animal abuse, including kicking, beating and punching, blunt force trauma, and open wounds to the skin, ears, and genitals. This does not mean that all shearers treat their animals this way: no doubt many are caring and attentive. The commodification of an animal inevitably shifts a person’s focus from ‘I care about the life of the animal’ to ‘I care about the paycheck’, a perspective that is steeped in the animal’s final fate, of being slaughtered for meat at the end of its life cycle (as is usually the case with sheep). This objectivist mentality is the underlying problem with all animal industries, and the reason why violence emerges in practices like shearing that, in theory, should be harmless.

Pasture expansion raises environmental issues, including deforestation and habitat degradation of native species. A 2013 study titled Globalization of the Cashmere Market and the Decline of Large Mammals in Central Asia, published in the scientific journal Conservation Biology, showed that pasture expansion for goats used in the cashmere industry was the main driver of declining wildlife populations in Central Asia. Many of these animals native to China’s Tibetan Plateau, Mongolia, and India were already endangered. Combining these issues, as with all livestock industries the wool industry leaves behind a significant carbon footprint. According to a 2017 study on the relative environmental impact of a wide variety of materials used in the fashion industry, wool was one of the worst performing fibers (ranking fifth after leather, silk, cotton, and stick) due to significant greenhouse gas emissions caused by sheep. Perhaps there was a time when using animals to create textiles was the best and only option. The next step could be to embrace the looming commercialization of lab-grown biotextiles – but this is a whole other topic. For an industry, using millions of hectares of land around the world, producing toxic waste and carbon emissions, and causing suffering to billions of living creatures, doesn’t the alternative sound more appealing?

Wool

Is the textile fiber obtained from sheep and other animals including cashmere and mohair from goats, qiviut from muskoxen, hide and fur clothing from bison, angora from rabbits, and other types of wool from camelids. Wool consists of protein together with a small percentage of lipids. In this regard it is chemically quite distinct from the more dominant textile, cotton, which is mainly cellulose

Alessia Tu

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us

check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]

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