Looking at textiles from the sheep and wool perspective

Sue Blacker's picture
18 February, 2016 - 10:14 | Sue Blacker

 

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Full of the joys of a New Year, I was pleased to see that the thinking people were busy.  In January, both the Oxford Farming Conference (big guns, big business, big numbers, big results) is held, as is a newer alternative version called the Real Oxford Farming Conference (sustainability, innovation, new models, less is more).

Both conferences have a place in the thinking processes for the future of agriculture, whether for food or other crops and both get publicity beyond the farming press, with usually a government minister attending and speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference and both attended by influential organisations and individuals.  Even The Archers go, though of course Brian and David go to the Oxford rather than the Real Oxford ...

So I eagerly awaited news of thinking on sheep farming and wool production .... and saw nothing ... so I went to both websites and searched for sheep and wool.  There were some references at the Oxford Farming Conference, to speakers whose enterprises included sheep or to study visits to Australia and New Zealand and there was one talk about genetic improvement on a Welsh farm.  At the Real Oxford Farming Conference there was even less, with one talk on big estates of the future from several Westcountry landowners, the head of The National  Trust and the head of the Country Land and Business Association.  I listened to the big estates audio recording, thinking of the great monastic sheep and wool estates of the past, and wondering whether I would hear of this continuing and developing, and there was no reference to sheep and wool ...

So I conclude that sheep and wool are either so well organised and successful that they don't need study and thinking, or that they are so unimportant economically, environmentally or agriculturally that no-one is thinking about them at all.

We do know that wool constitutes a mere 3% of the total world textile market, with cotton and artificial fibres very much more important, and cotton did begin to eclipse wool from the eighteenth century onwards, with artificial fibres eclipsing both in the late twentieth century.  Flax/linen and silk have been less important, along with hemp, although linen was the other main option to wool a thousand years ago.  Natural fibres in general are seeing a rapid demise ...

In researching this piece, I sought statistics on different fibres (without having to spend a fortune on commercial research) and was delighted to find a wonderful resource, Art Quill Studio, where Marie-Therese Wisniowski is director and specialises in art-cloth, using wonderful designs and surface treatments.  In late 2014, she wrote a blog which included a large amount of data on world production and consumption of various fibres and it will be of particular interest to people interested in dyeing.  It includes graphs and charts taken from a presentation in 2011 at Deauville, of AFCON, by James Mills of Tecnon Orbicon.  AFCOT is the French Cotton Textile Association.  

 

We also know that sheep are uniquely well suited to managing land otherwise unable to be of value other than for hunting.  Even forestry cannot exist where sheep can go ... We also know that sheep meat is sustainable and very significant in the total meat consumption globally.  And on top of that there is the benefit of wool, which can be local pretty much anywhere and continues to be the most sustatinable and high performance fibre on almost every criterion.

Very oddly, a portion of blame has been ascribed to sheep for recent flooding in the UK - apparently due to over-grazing, despite the fact that the floods have arrived as sheep numbers have declinde!  Sheep are also accused of contributiing a great deal too much methane to the global greenhouse gases, although they are not as numerous as other animals and don't consume anywhere near as much feed crops.

Some of the numbers in the presentations I have mentioned show the world population rising, and with it the world consumption of textiles, at a greater rate, although one hopes that re-cycling (for which natural fibres are very useful and effective) will alleviate this - also we can hope that people will seek more durable and classic textiles, aiming to make them last rather than just consuming them briefly and then disposing of them ... and yet wool, and other animal fibres in particular, can be made into items which last decades, and are still in excellent condition, unlike artifical fibres ...

So let's hear it for sheep and wool!

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