[UPDATED: Nov. 16, 2023] Jane Underhill is weaving the foundation for a robust Canadian commercial industry for Ontario wool.
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“This year alone, I’ve transacted on 67,000 pounds of wool, all Ontario wool – it’s not nothing,” said Underhill, owner of OA Wool, to Ontario Sheep Farmers annual general meeting attendees in Alliston, Oct. 26.
Why it matters: Contrary to the stereotype that it’s too coarse for anything other than insulation, Ontario wool’s average of 26 to 29 microns makes it ideal for commercial use as blankets, luxury rugs, upholstery, and outerwear.
“And this is the first year I’ve been operating under this business model,” she added.
Underhill forms partnerships with farmers and farm groups, buys the wool, processes it, and markets it to the commercial supply chain and vertically integrated wool manufacturing.
Regarding the commercial market’s desirable micron range, Ontario producers already raise ideal breeds. With a few on-farm alternations, the wool clip value could increase, she said.
Trillium Lamb Producers (Trillium), a coalition of approximately 25 producers, began working with Underhill recently after members prioritized the need to increase wool value, said Jenny Carnaghan, Trillium chair.
“Shearing is an expense right now,” said Carnaghan. “What we wanted to accomplish was recouping some of that expense as opposed to just considering it a health expense.”
On average, Carnaghan shears 500 sheep three times a year at $6.50 an animal, producing three to five pounds of fleece traditionally sold for between 10 and 15 cents a pound.
“We produce lamb. That’s what we do. That’s what my focus is. I don’t have time to figure out how I can get a few more cents out of my wool,” she said.
“I know there’s value there. I can’t commit to researching that and putting time and effort into that.”
In 2021, Trillium sold a tractor-trailer load of wool to MacAusland’s Woolen Mills in Prince Edward Island.
In 2022, they shipped a container to the United Kingdom scouring and cleaning facility before it returned to Canada and crafted into throws selling for $250 each.
On both those transactions, wool paid out at a dollar a pound, proving it’s worth more than current industry standards indicate.
During a recent carpet prototyping, Underhill’s partner The Campaign for Wool in Canada / The Canadian Wool Council (CWC) sent Ontario wool, spun in New Brunswick, to Nepal to be hand-knotted by experienced artisans.
“They said Canadian wool is some of the softest wool they’ve ever worked with in its micron range,” Underhill said. “Therefore, it’s easier on the hands, it makes a more luxurious product, it had a nicer lustre to it, and it absorbed and retained colour better.”
That resulted in an ongoing partnership with Toronto’s Creative Matters who added a 100 per cent Canadian wool option to any of the high-end rugs they produce as well as adding an Ontario manufacturing partner for hand-tufted rugs. Their clients include the Canadian Government who have bought several rugs for Diplomatic missions abroad. To continue to improve that high-quality wool carpet product sourced from Ontario, would require minor genetic selection improvements and some on-farm management tweaks, but it’s already happening, she surmised.
The CWC’s recent Upholstery Plan identified that Quebec’s Bombardier controls 20 per cent of the global business jet market, which sees an average of 790 jets entering the global air portfolio annually. Each jet averages 19 seats that require two meters of material to upholster—positioning Ontario to fill the demand.
“We have a niche amount of wool in very high quality, and the private jet industry is a very finite controllable industry,” Underhill who authored the CWC report explained. “We take 1000 pounds of wool, which probably translates to 230 meters of upholstery. We can fit that in (our wool stocks).”
Canada’s commercial wool industry isn’t without roadblocks, including a lack of skilled labour, limited access to equipment and resources, wool consistency, and siloed operations lacking communication of needs between them.
But there is hope.
For example, Canada’s predominately family-owned commission mill industry creates opportunities for new ownership, said Underhill, if post-secondary institutions initiate training for high-capacity loom operation rather than solely teaching artisanal wool processing.
“If we are encouraging our colleges and universities to bring in education to run these types of mills,” she explained, “we’ll have whole new ownership coming into these family businesses, and then we can see that family retire completely rather than closing the business.”
She anticipates a high-powered loom will be in Ontario by the end of December, getting the province one step closer to positioning itself as an industry driver for wool.
“We’re going to make luxury quality products at luxury quality prices that are going to compensate you (producers),” Underhill said. “The mission remains to rebrand and revalue Canadian wool, to advocate for the domestic industry, and foster this demand for homegrown luxury.”
Underhill is working with experts to develop workshops to teach producers how to skirt and sort the wool clip and package them better into three-bag A, B, or C categories for blankets, upholstery, and outerwear marketing.
Half of Trillium’s producers participated in two fleecing workshops recently, leaving Carnaghan optimistic about increasing a return on wool.
“We’re okay with trying to educate ourselves in doing a better job on farm,” she explained. “It comes right down to management (and) keeping those sheep cleaner. Not just before shearing, but all the time, because you can’t undo dirty, right?”
Management changes will vary farm-to-farm depending on how the flock is housed or pastured, she said, but could be as simple as dot marking instead of full fleece spraying, changing bedding material, scrapping the yard, and feeding methods to limit chaff mixing in the fleece.
With decades of shearing under his belt, Don Metheral, Great Lakes Shearing Co, said he remembers when wool was worth more and pastured sheep fleece was cleaner.
Today’s producers have a more industrial approach, housing sheep indoors and straw bales being split open over sheep’s backs, he explained.
“A lot of the world buyers (are) not going to jump off the tree to Canada to buy wool,” Metheral said. “They’re going straight to New Zealand, Australia, and places where they keep the wool really clean.”
He’s willing to advise producers on improving shearing workflow or fleece cleanliness and quality if they’re ready to listen.
The cleaner the wool, the lower the waste, he explained.
Wool without debris washes easily and can provide a 75 per cent return on fibre weight, while dirty wool can see upwards of a 45 to 50 per cent loss in his experience.
“Farmers know that we produce mostly meat sheep here. They don’t produce a prime fleece wool, not like New Zealand or Australia,” he said. “But like Jane was saying, there are select areas where we can park that wool in the industry in the world, or even domestically.”
Of the half-a-dozen farms at the Trilliums workshop, Carnaghan anticipates half will buy in and have their wool tested for Underhill to market. However, others need on-farm labour to invest in skirting and separating during shearing and help change on-farm management systems to improve wool cleanliness.
“We’ve been trained for decades now, incrementally, our wool is worth less and less and less, and it’s not just going to be overnight that it’s worth a whole bunch again,” she said. “It doesn’t work that way. So as a producer, if you want to start making more for your wool, you’re going to have to put some time into it.”
With a large flock and time still ahead of them in the industry, she’s optimistic offsetting the cost of shearing by half with wool sales is possible, and maybe one day, they will break even.
“She (Jane) is so passionate about the product, the industry, and its potential,” Carnaghan enthused.
“She is so confident in her contacts and their genuine want and desire for Canadian wool that I just can’t turn my back on it. I need to be part of it.”
*Updates: clarification on practices and partnerships was provided by The Campaign for Wool in Canada.