I am a frequenter of Ravelry, a knitters’ and crocheters’ forum with 7 million users worldwide. I have a favorite group with a mostly social focus that I like to participate in, but I also read other discussions to keep tabs on what people want from their wool products. I want to make sure I am providing the wool people want.
Recently, a poster asked a question about the modern wool market. She noted that when she was a child, knitting was a functional skill more like being able to cook and drive than a fancy craft for leisure time. Certainly, it was a space for self-expression in color and pattern, but knitting was undertaken for the simple fact that hats and sweaters and socks were not easily obtained in other ways!
Like my previous post about the globalization of meat, fabric and textile changed massively in the age of petroleum and globalization. Synthetic fabrics have replaced wool in many applications, even though wool often performs better and is more sustainable. The effort of properly caring for wool has turned many people away while others have been scared away from wool by misinformation about sheep and agriculture in general in our culture of increased fearmongering.
At the same time that people were using free time in different ways or having less free time to knit, cheap, imported, mass-produced wool and non-wool items began to appear in stores. It soon became equally or more expensive to knit a wool sweater than to buy one. How is this possible? Economies of scale, lack of environmental regulations where the clothing is made, cheap labor, mechanization, and commodity bulk wool. When the time wool subsidies ended in the 1980s, growers of mid-grade work-wear type wool from Down breeds and Medium breeds couldn’t find as many outlets to sell to. Farmers that used to raise Down breeds have turned to hair breeds, as the cost of removing the wool from the sheep is greater than the value of the wool on the bulk market. More than half of the US wool clip is finewool today, where once there was a greater diversity of breed types. Sheepraising on the whole, for wool and for meat, has declined precipitously since WWII, effectively pushed out in the modern era of industrial farming. Sheep simply don’t industrialize well. They need to graze on extensive lands and are susceptible to disease in confinement. Even though there are confinement lamb finishing operations in the US, these operations are declining and struggling to compete with cheaper grass-fed lamb from New Zealand and Australia. Only the direct-to-consumer and direct-to-store markets in the South and Northeast are growing for lamb in the US.
With respect to yarn: as the generation that knit for need disappears, knitting is much more of a leisure craft activity that consumes extra money and is fed by some degree of nostalgia, plus the satisfactory feelings of accomplishment when a garment is created. As a wool seller, I know that the stories I share on this blog become part of the wool I sell and the crafts and garments you create from it.
This is the finale of what I wrote responding to the question:
The hard truth is that even though we’ve chosen to join this community of makers here on Ravelry, the number of people who cook, sew, knit or quilt by necessity has shrunk significantly in the last 50 years. All of the people who didn’t enjoy those activities but needed to do them to save money have been bailed out by fast food, by cheap clothing, by synthetic fabrics, by cheap bedding. The people who are left often will spend more money for quality, hence the “boutique-ification” of the yarn, fabric and food markets.
The hard thing for me to acknowledge as a farmer is how much I depend on the small number of people who care more about how their food and clothing was produced than about the price at the register. Small producers are waging an uphill battle against globalized pork, corn subsidies that secondarily subsidize factory-farmed chicken and pork, petroleum clothing and the petroleum that brought that clothing across the ocean to our stores, and the devaluation of the art of making.
What are your thoughts about current trends in knitting, spinning, crocheting, cooking and making?
One thought on “Wool Culture”
I think you’re brief analysis is pretty much spot on.
I certainly don’t knit for need and have little spare time to do it anyway – what with ever growing hectic lives and stress…
Sometimes I manage to make something, but I’ve also resorted to having it made or buying vintage or second hand.
I seldom shop in clothing shops now – I find it usually rather boring as quality is bad and mass trends dominate the offer. How boring!
In my opinion it’s better to find or make something more unique and personal, and in any case try to have a bit less 🙂