Here in Wisconsin, our agriculture community is so diverse, providing a wide variety of products for any season. During these cold winter months, I am thankful for all Wisconsin farmers and the hard work that they do each and every day. Wisconsin farmers supply us with fibers from different animals to help keep us warm. Sheep wool is one fiber that stands the test of time and provides a beautiful end product. Wool fibers trap air and heat and provide warmth in cold conditions.
Sheep have been a part of Wisconsin agriculture dating back to the 1800s when Wisconsin ranked second in the nation for the number of sheep raised in the state. The roots of those early breeders’ organizations still reach out across the state today. In 2019, Wisconsin was home to nearly 75,000 head of sheep. Some sheep are mainly used for wool while others are bred for meat. Altogether, more than 50,000 sheep were shorn and produced over 330,000 pounds of wool.
Typically, sheep are sheared once a year depending on the breed. It takes only a few minutes to shear a sheep. In Wisconsin, each sheep produces an average of 6.7 pounds of wool. Although sheep are classified into either meat or wool breeds, the wool from all breeds of sheep can be utilized in one way or another. Depending on the breed of sheep, sheep’s wool contains various amounts of lanolin, which is extensively used in skin products and works as a great moisturizer.
Wool is a protein fiber formed in the skin of sheep, and is therefore one hundred percent natural, not man-made. Since the Stone Age, wool has been appreciated as one of the most effective forms of all-weather protection known to man. In fact, many manufacturers try to mimic the unique properties of this fiber. Wool is a hygroscopic fiber which means that when the humidity of the surrounding air rises and falls, the fiber absorbs and releases water vapor. Wool is also hydrophilic, meaning that it is highly absorbent and retains liquids. Thus, the fibers dye easily and maintain the color without fading or running. Wool also maintains its appearance in the longer term, adding value to the product and its lifespan.
Wool is highly versatile because it comes in so many varieties. The differences in wool textures (fine, soft, thick, or coarse) determine how the fiber is processed. The heavier fleeces are more likely to be used for rugs, carpeting, or outwear like coats. The softer fleeces will be used for clothing like soft sweaters, socks, and scarves. The fibers in wool are also naturally elastic, so they can stretch without breaking.
Wisconsin’s sheep and wool community is filled with variety, quality and a rich history. It is a growing industry that offers food on our table to clothes in our closet. Look for Wisconsin wool in your community and follow #WisconsinWool on Facebook and Instagram to learn more about this exciting industry!
Alice in Dairyland Julia Nunes can be reached at DATCP, 2811 Agriculture Drive, P.O. Box 8911, Madison, WI 53718 or DATCPAlice@wisconsin.gov.