The wool sector in Europe - an upcoming Renaissance?

Interview with Laurent Moussier – agricultural engineer and founder of Transhumanz

Since prehistoric times, sheep have been selected for their wool, the trading of which has enriched medieval England. Today, the Common Agricultural Policy in Europe refers to this product as “exceptional waste”. As a result of increased competition from vegetable and synthetic fibres, distortion of competition and changes in practices that are destroying production chains, sheep's wool is now considered a by-product of sheep farming. It has also been in decline for 30 years. At the European level, industry players such as Laurent have decided to re-evaluate the wool industry. This article explains this new opinion.

Sheep, what sheep?

The sheep (ovis aries) was one of the first domesticated animals and is the result of humans selectively breeding the mouflon more than 10,000 years ago! Currently there are more than one billion sheep in the world, 40% of which live in Asia, 20% in Africa and about 16% in Oceania-Australia, with Europe and the Americas sharing the rest. There are a multitude of breeds (from 500 to 600 in the world), there are about 60 in France, 40 in Germany and more than 60 in the UK.

Over the centuries, we have tried to shape the sheep according to our needs. Foremost to preserve its wool in order to avoid seasonal moulting but also to have them grow an undercoat (wool) as opposed to hair (jar) to suit our preferences in terms of length and finesse and to have a new type of meat. There are 4 types of sheep: Merinos, known for their wool, country sheep, meat sheep and dairy ewes.
The quality of wool varies greatly not only from one race to another, but also from one breed to another. This variation is due to genetics and the environment in which a sheep lives. Breeders' practices such as mowing dates, feeding, grass or sheepfold breeding have a strong impact on wool quality.

Sheep shearing is essential for the animal's well-being. It must be done at least once a year, namely in spring, to prevent parasites such as flies or ticks from latching on to their skin. Wool is also an excellent insulator and prevents sweat from evaporating and must therefore be removed in order to prevent the sheep getting a heat stroke. But what can we do with the surplus of wool left behind by sheep bred for their meat – which is purchased less and less by European consumers? It is often given away or burnt … what a shame!

The best breed for wool: The Merino – a question of terrain and fine measurement.

The Merino is a breed of sheep originating from southern Spain, bred for its exceptionally fine wool (3 times thinner than classical wool) whose fibres measure between 14 and 21 microns where traditional wool can be up to 80 microns in diameter (but scratches the skin from 30 µ).
If most of the wool we buy in Europe comes from Merinos in Australia (where there are only 4 breeds of sheep), China or New Zealand, it is certainly because of its finesse. However, it is produced from genetic crossbreeding and designed foremost to supply the textile industry.

But there are still Merinos in Europe that provide excellent quality wool in small quantities. For instance, a Merinos d' Arles in France, a cross between a local breed and a Merino bred in Provence-_Alpes-Côte d' Azur_, Isère, Drôme, Corsica or Pyrénées-Atlantiques among other places, produces the equivalent of 9,000 km of fibre every year. To name another example, the Mérinos de Rambouillet, a prototype of wool sheep that has been bred in moderate consanguinity at the Bergerie nationale de Rambouillet since 1786, produces fine wool. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Mérinos de Rambouillet helped improve the wool properties of various breeds of sheep in France and elsewhere in the world.

In the United Kingdom, wool is produced mainly in Yorkshire and comes from various merino crosses, a large part of which come from France. Despite a 56% drop since 1990, the local market for English wool continues to flourish with 30 million kilos sold per year. Still, it only accounts for 4% of all the fibres used in the UK.

In Germany, the market for wool has unfortunately become marginal because sheep are mainly used for landscape maintenance rather than meat production. There are fewer and fewer breeders. Transhumance will certainly disappear under the combined effect of human activity, the expansion of urban areas and increasing infrastructure.
However, local initiatives such as Albmerinos (knitted clothing in Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg) or Nordwolle (felted jacket made of wool from sheep's wool from Eastern Pomerania) try to keep the sector on its feet.

What about wool?

Sheep's wool, the most widely used animal fibre, is harvested by shearing, commonly done with an electric mower. This wool is then washed, carded, spun and woven or felted. For a long time, it was fed through spindles, spinning wheels and weaving looms, and was one of the pillars of European industrial development.

Wool is a good thermal insulator, especially because it traps almost 80% of air in its own weight. It absorbs moisture easily (1kg of wool contains about 150g of water).

It is relatively stretchable, however, it hardly ever retains its original shape. Wool is an environmentally friendly material, in the sense that it is natural, renewable – non-oil-based, just like polyester or acrylic – and requires little energy to produce. In addition, it can be produced locally, which is not the case with cotton for example. Certain woollen clothes also have an exemplary durability.

Naturally greasy, wool retains dust and plant debris. But it should first be washed and dried using these methods:
1. soaking (to remove as much dirt as possible);
2. degreasing (recuperation of sheep's grease);
3. washing;
4. rinsing ;
5. then comes the drying phase (neither too much nor too little drying – if it is too dry it will produce static electricity, if too damp, the vegetable matter will unravel and part with the thread.
6. The natural fat is not completely removed during the manufacturing process. Otherwise the wool would be impossible to work with (known as scrubbed wool, which results in static electricity and fabrication problems). Most of the fat is kept for the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries (lanolin).

Desired properties of wool :
- hydro-regulating
- insulating
- flame retardant (it is the only insulating fibre allowed in discos, trains and airplanes as it does not emit toxic smoke)
- easy to clean.

The processing of wool does not require as much energy as other petroleum fibres such as nylon, acrylic or polyester: This is a sustainable product.

In order to produce wool, it is essential to card and comb the fibre, two processes that must be mastered in order to produce quality wool. Laurent tells us that it is not easy to know how these practices, which used to be a common occupation on farms, are carried out. Moreover, there are very few carding machines in France and only 2 carded woollen spinning mills still in operation ( la filature de Fonty Rougnat (Creuse), and the filature de Garrot Castres) which sell, among other things, yarn from herds raised in France.

Shepherd, shepherdess: a profession in transition

A shepherd's profession is often woven with clichés, but contrary to what one might think, this profession is getting a makeover. Historically, for 8,000 years to be precise, only men kept the herds* because of the harsh living conditions in the summer (Spartan shelters, difficult weather conditions, long walking hours, endless days punctuated by many tasks to be carried out: milking, making cheese, monitoring the herds, sometimes the attack of a bear…). Since the 1990s however, more and more women have actually been doing the job.

Europe has since then instituted health standards for the production of cheese in the mountains. These measures, which required heavy investments in a dying sector, initially appeared as a heavy blow to the sector, but they are actually helping in saving the profession. Some are taking advantage of these standards to modernize all the shelters by installing running water and sanitary facilities, and by creating a separate bedroom from the living room. One can call it a mini-revolution in the sector. It has opened up to women, who currently make up about 25% of all shephards. Read more about one of them: Béatrice our, sheperdess/cheesemaker in Ardèche

If the profession has become attractive again, it is because it is now possible to become a shepherd (or shepherdess) without living in medieval conditions. Also because one can now lead conjugal lives. In the mountains for instance, there are now shepherdesses as well as shepherds' wives.

These shepherds of a new kind often come from the city, where they have completed an apprenticeship. Their trade has become very demanding in its technical aspects: shepherds and shepherdesses must produce good cheese, care for a herd of 500, direct a dog at a distance, adapt to the weather, know about the resources and dangers of the mountain as well as about the fauna and flora. Not everyone can be a shepherd. But as for these sheperdesses, they manage so well that some farmers refuse to hire boys to watch over their herds!

The shepherding profession is dedicated to respecting the biological rhythm of the animals, therefore, the shepherds vaccinate their animals and give them antibiotics only when absolutely necessary (severe infections, serious injuries). Thus, the commonly used “animal-cruelty” argument is a poor one if it condemns all wool and sheep farmers. On the contrary, because small agricultural structures take into account animal cruelty, it is a good thing to defend local wool (and meat). It should be remembered that cases of animal abuse are most often recorded in industrial farms and not in small or medium-sized farms, which are more frequently found in France. It would be wrong to say that all the sheep that are sheared are mistreated. One particularly barbaric practice, mulesing, consists in cutting the tail of the sheep off so that the wool is not soiled by their faeces. France and the UK have outlawed this practice. Germany has forbidden it in 2013. Tail shortening and castration are permitted, however, under strict hygienic conditions and in accordance with certain animal welfare rules.

Which ecological solutions to undertake

Laurent says it's possible to process wool in Europe and in small quantities locally because there are still a few washing and carding units left in Germany, Belgium and France. Processing in larger quantities is also possible thanks to some local initiatives such as Ardelaine, a cooperative in Ardèche (France).

But if one wishes to have it combed in order to obtain a soft and fine yarn, particularly desired to bring out the fine quality of Merino wool, there is only one possibility to date: in a Piedmontese valley in Biella, Italy. It will be necessary to work in partnership with the rare museums that still have a combing machine that has not been sold to a production line in China yet, and to find spinners and knitters capable of transforming a patch of wool that has lost its quality since the 1920s.

Moreover, Merino wool from Europe does not boast the homogeneity, strength and length shown by Merino wool from Australia or New Zealand; the wool from the latter countries has become extra thin. Breeders in these countries select their herd according to the diameter and length of the fibres. But at the same time, this is an opportunity for anyone who wants to re-invent the wool sector: produce wool, certainly, but in an ecological way by implementing wool traceability. That is the new challenge.

Wool has several quality labels based on its degree of purity:
• the “Woolmark” label for wool from healthy and live sheep without any mixing with other products.
• the “pure virgin wool” label refers to wool to which 0.3% of other fibres have been added.
• the “virgin wool” label corresponds to wool containing 7% of other fibres.
• all denominations such as “100 % wool, 100 % pure wool, etc.” are of inferior quality or come from recycled wool.

Of course wool will never be a Vegan product. But for those who wish to benefit from its exceptional thermo-regulating qualities and from a fibre that is anti-odour, antibacterial and a natural flame retardant, it becomes possible to buy in a responsible and eco-friendly way. (e.g., les laines bretonnes)

Depending on the origin of the purchased wool, a more or less ecological breeding method will be supported. Herd grazing contributes to the maintenance of landscapes and grasslands, which are more efficient carbon sinks than forests: wool from grass herds should therefore be preferred in order to consume more ecologically.
But the fact that a large part of the income of sheperds usually comes from the sale of lamb meat, will leave the consumer facing a dilemma.

The following option could be a solution: consider a partnership in which the consumer pre-purchases a sheep so that it is reared only for its wool. The farmer would feed the ewe until its natural death and it would then be incinerated. This is the project that Laurent is currently working on in the Grande-Région (Belgium-Luxembourg-Lorraine-Palatinate) and in Alsace.

A big thank you to Laurent Moussier, who gave us this interesting interview. We wish him all the best in his Transhumance project!

Photo of Laurent Moussier

Laurent Moussier