“The times, they are a changing…” Yep, it’s cliché, and yep, its completely true.
When Henry started our family business in 1971, finding quality wool to work with – let alone vegetable-matter free wool – was nearly impossible. Sheep here in the U.S. were grown for meat – plain and simple. Wool was an afterthought, a nuisance; it was often thrown away or burned. Early on, Henry realized that if his burgeoning spinning wheel company was to succeed, his customers would need a steady, reliable source of quality to work with.
Enter the Kane Carding Company of New Zealand. Kane sold Romney fleece – in the grease – for the New Zealand Wool Board and, as the name implied, sold carded Romney fleece – both clean and in the grease. The stars aligned and Kane was looking for a North American distributor at the same time Henry was looking for a source of fleece. Over the next two decades we imported over one hundred containers – yes, the 40-foot-containers like you see on a train or driving down the road – of wool. Fleece would arrive in large burlap sacks weighing several hundred pounds apiece, all sorted by color. There were over a dozen different shades of white. We split bales down into smaller lots and shipped them off to customers – both retail and wholesale – in increments from a few ounces to several dozen pounds.
Slowly, that old cliché kicked in. By the time the early 1990’s came around, the demand for imported wool had slowed as a focus on locally grown wool began to eat into the market. As the middle of the decade approached and interest in the fiber arts flagged, we quit importing wool in hopes of propping up demand for US fleece.
While wool prices have increased dramatically over the last 25 years and the fiber arts are once again on the rise, fiber producers and users have had a difficult time creating a reliable, sustainable link between themselves. There are a few ways – by sending fleece to a mill, selling at fiber festivals, or direct sales – that the two parties can work together, but each has their drawbacks for both the buyer and the seller.
While selling their fiber to a local mill is quite simple, it has several drawbacks for a producer. First, there is the cost of transportation. “Local” can be a relative term – the nearest mill may be several hundred miles away – and driving or shipping dirty, greasy fleece is expensive. And if the local mill is setup to card woolen and you have a nice flock of long-wooled Lincolns, you get to ship it even further up the road. Further still, many mills have back logs ranging from months into years, meaning after taking a whole year to wait for shearing day, producers may have to wait more than a year before they can even sell that fiber. While most producers send their weak fleece – those with breaks or tender parts – to a mill for processing, most mills know this, and tend not to pay top dollar (more like pennies on the dollar) when purchasing fleece in bulk. For the fiber artist, purchasing from a local mill typically means choosing from a small selection of roving from maybe one or two breeds that are grown locally.
Fiber festivals are another way for producers and fiber artists to link up. While producers are more likely to fetch a reasonable price for their fleece, this is both a time-intensive and an expensive route for selling fleece. Producers have a limited market of buyers at festivals, and these buyers tend to fatigue from buying the same breed year after year. Fiber festivals have become meccas for fiber artists – rites of passage, annual pilgrimages – but many can’t afford expensive trips – or even time off for the local festival – every year. We all love getting our hands down in the greasy bags at a wool show, but buyers are again subject to local availability, not to mention having to be first in line for that blue-ribbon fleece that everyone has their eyes on.
Producers and fiber artists also connect directly on occasion. This can either be on the farm or virtually through a website. While producers can fetch top dollar this way, this is a very time-consuming and possibly capital-intensive endeavor for them. For fiber artists, they are typically limited to one particular breed and only around sheering time when purchasing direct from a farm; on the web they theoretically have a wider selection but are paying to ship greasy, dirty fleece and don’t typically have much recourse if the fleece isn’t what they were expecting.
Enter that old cliché once again, and the birth of Good Clean Fiber.
Good Clean Fiber is the long-sought bridge between fiber producers and fiber artists. Producers earn a fair price for their fleece, without having the costly marketing or transportation expenses. Instead, we transport fleece in what would otherwise be an empty trailer on our way home from fiber festivals around the country. In many cases – depending on the breed and yield – we are able to pay producers per ounce what they would otherwise receive per pound. Fiber artists, on the other hand, aren’t paying to ship grease and dirt, since all fleece is washed. The selection available to them is better than at any single fiber festival anywhere in the country, and they aren’t limited to purchasing only one weekend a year. Better still, both fiber producers and fiber artists are working with a company that has reliably served their communities for almost fifty years.
Head to Good Clean Fiber for subscription pricing and availability.