The Gleaner
Agriculture

A will to mill: local wool grower has hopes for in-province processing

Sheep’s wool is an incredible fibre. It is warm, breathable, fire- and water-resistant, stain-resistant, antibacterial, and protects against UV rays. There is good reason why so many of our ancestors made much of their wardrobes out of wool, and its popularity has begun to rise again with the revival of knitting, crocheting, and other fibre arts. Despite this, the sheep’s wool industry in Quebec is very small; there are less than 10 wool producers in the province.

Sylvie Racette has a sheep farm in Saint-Anicet called Microferme Retour aux Sources. She started it as a hobby farm while teaching self-sustainability workshops from her home, but eventually decided to dive headfirst into wool production. Her journey began when she attended the TWIST Fibre Festival, one of the largest fibre-arts festivals in Canada, where she met the owners of Finn d’Or, a small sheep farm in the Eastern Townships. “They had Finnsheep, and they were so soft, I thought the wool was gorgeous. I started looking for more Quebec sheep farms to get more quality local wool, and I realized there weren’t many others,” she says.

Now that she has sheep of her own, the biggest hurdle she is facing is getting the wool processed, because while there may not be many wool producers in Quebec, there are no mills in the province that transform sheep’s wool into yarn.

The Canadian wool industry is a small one in general. There was a time when most people were making their own clothes with wool from their own or a local farmer’s sheep; however, as other sectors of Canadian textile industry grew, wool production for yarn did not. Amélie Blanchard, founder of the TWIST Fibre Festival, attributes some of the lack of industry to evolving cultural attitudes towards wool. “For some reason, there’s a gap between generations where all the fibre knowledge got rejected. It was associated with poverty,” she says, mentioning that as the manufacture of clothing became industrialized, people only made their own garments if they couldn’t afford to buy.

 

Saint-Anicet wool grower Sylvie Racette visits with some members of her flock. PHOTO Courtesy of Sylvie Racette

 

While there has been a shift in attitudes back towards “buying local,” small-scale wool production is still growing slowly. In fact, many Canadian farmers who raise sheep for meat sell the wool by-product for pennies – to companies in other countries that do large-scale textile production. “I think it’s important to encourage [using] natural fibers instead of plastic, and to encourage farmers to keep [the wool] in Canada,” says Blanchard. However, even with a viable number of small-scale sheep farms, there are still very few places nation-wide that process sheep’s wool into yarn, and most only do so in large quantities. This makes it difficult for small farmers to get their sheep sheared and then get the raw wool turned into workable yarn. “It’s the state of fibre in Canada right now,” says Blanchard.

Racette’s goal is to eventually produce and process her wool completely on her farm, but that means purchasing a small mill which costs an exorbitant amount of money. While she saves for the mill, she must outsource most of her processing. She has three kinds of sheep on her farm – Bluefaced Leicester, Rambouillet, and Finnsheep, and she must pay someone to come shear them, though not all professional shearers will displace themselves for relatively small quantities of wool. Once the wool is off the sheep, it must be cleaned and shipped it to a mill in either the Maritimes or Ontario; again, not all mills will process smaller quantities of wool. The carded and spun wool is then shipped back to the farm, where Racette dyes it herself with plants she grows in her garden.

“We can’t have the wool spun in Quebec,” says Racette. “We have to send it to [another province] to be spun; the cost to ship, and then [the] wait for it, it slows our process and makes the wool more expensive.” Having a small mill on her farm would cut those costs and fulfill her goal of self-sustainability, but that’s still in the future.

While the industry is quite limited for now, Blanchard hopes that as the fibre-arts community grows, small-scale local wool production will also flourish. And as for Racette, she’s excited about the future of her farm and the future of Quebec wool. “I want wool to be valued, and I want it to stay in Quebec, be grown, milled, and dyed here,” she says. “I want Quebecers to be proud of our sheep’s wool – it’s truly an incredible fibre.”

 

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