The U.S. wool industry has struggled over the years as clothing trends have changed emphasizing synthetic materials. It’s become cheaper to import wool form other countries. Now, some people in South Dakota are trying to keep the local fiber business alive.
Three women sit in a yard near Rapid City hidden by tall pines from neighboring homes. It’s overcast and warm—which they agree is perfect weather to process wool.
Lynnette VanEpps-Smith runs her fingers through a grey fleece.
“I picked this one just because I liked the sheep. He was so cute. But if you look at this whole entire fleece is full of what they call locks. And so look at how tightly that crimp is.”
VanEpps-Smith says she’s still new to the fiber art world. She invited two friends to help her wash the wool.
“So for me it’s just exciting to go out to the ranch, see the animals, work with the animals and the shearers and just start from ground level and learning how to make yarn. So it was on my bucket list for years and I can say it’s checked off now.”
The women fill a plastic tub with warm water and detergent. This process is very familiar to Joy Kammerer. She used to raise sheep and has been working with wool for more than 50 years. They submerge the fleece and the dish soap helps wash off a greasy coating called lanolin. Kammerer says it’s important that the temperature is not too cold.
Kammerer: “Wool has little scales on it under the microscope, so this hot water and this will open these scales up. Okay, so if were to change or shock the temperature of it, right to cold water or agitate it then them scales lock together. And when they lock together it’s called and then you’re done.”
VanEpps-Smith: “You’re done.”
Kammerer: “Yep. You can’t do anything with it.”
Kammerer says wool is a delicate fiber. They give the fleece a soak and then fill another tub with warm water for the final rinse.
Kammerer: “As this dries, she’ll come out here and fluff it up. And by the time it’s totally dry, it’ll look like it was when it was laying on the towel over there.”
VanEpps-Smith: “Yeah but it’ll smell better.”
Kammerer: “Well yeah, it’ll smell a lot better. It’ll smell clean instead of lanolin.”
The wool air dries on a screen and is then ready to spin into yarn.
Claudia Wyeland-Randall sells her homemade yarn. She says homemade yarn can save her hundreds of dollars.
“We’ve been part of the whole process which is kind of nice. It’s nice to know that. Because when I tell people when I sell some of my yarns it’s like ‘Yeah, I was there actually at the sheering helping the shearers getting the wool off the animal and then processing it and then spinning it. And then, here’s your yarn.’”
Wyeland-Randall says buying from local producers is vital to helping the fiber community thrive. Yarn stores around the state sell local products and hold classes to teach people fiber arts.
“It’s just like the farmer’s market. Know where your food’s coming from. Know where your clothes are coming from. Know where your yarn is coming from. I mean, the person selling their food or their yarn literally knows it from the roots or the hooves up so you know what you’re getting.”
Festivals like this one - The Art in the Barn Fleece & Fiber Festival in Sturgis - helps recognize the state’s top sheep and fleece producers.
There are clear bags stuffed with curly fleeces. Most of the wool is a yellowish white and others are grey, black and brown. John Gupman picks up a bag and empties it onto a table.
“I will take each fleece and spread it out.”
This is Gupman’s fifth year judging wool. He used to raise his own sheep and has nearly 30 years of experience working with wool companies. He plucks at the pile in front of him and pulls up a lock of curly white hairs tangled together. It looks like a cross between a human hair and a crimped french fry.
“What I am looking for is uniformity in the fleece—a fleece that has got the same quality or the same grade throughout.”
He checks that the length of the wool is between three and four inches, and looks at…
“…Cleanliness. I don’t like to see pieces of hay and straw in the wool. (I’m) also looking for color. You want a nice white, bright fleece on your white fleeces. Black fleeces, most of them will come in pure black or shades of grey. I don’t like to see a lot of white in natural color fleeces.”
This year’s competitors raise anywhere from a couple of sheep to as many as 200. Gupman says these contests are a good way for them to see how they can improve their product.
“My position is you will get more money per pound if you have a clean fleece.”
Buyers can use more of the fleece if it’s high quality. Gupman says that’s important because wool is sold by the pound. In South Dakota, sheep produce an average of roughly eight pounds of wool per animal per year.
Lisa Surber is with the American Sheep Industry Association.
Surber says the product is used by fiber artists on a small scale. She says most of the wool produced in the United States goes into the commercial fiber industry. It’s used to make things like airplane carpet, suits, socks and uniforms.
“We’re very proud of the fact that about 25 percent of our domestic wool clip so that means 25 percent of all the wool that’s produced here in the United States goes into the military.”
An amendment stipulates that wool used for the U.S. military has to be produced in the country. Wool is flame resistant and that makes it valuable for uniforms. Surber says Western South Dakota and surrounding areas are high producers for the military.
But she says, overall, the industry is struggling.
“So upwards of 25, 30 years ago there were a lot more wool processing mills in the South and that’s predominantly where they were. And as the cost of labor increased, as regulations—in terms of EPA regulations—got more restrictive we saw a lot of cost of production or cost of wool processing go through the roof and those mills disappeared.”
Surber says there is only one large scale wool processing mill left in the United States. But she says hobbyists around the country are taking an interest in locally produced wool.