A few days ago, Erin and I drove up to Maryland (are you sensing a pattern?) to spend the day at the Maryland Wool Pool.
Despite what you may be thinking, it’s not a swimming pool full of wool– I’ve already been through drowning in yarn, remember? It’s where all the wool producers in Maryland and the surrounding states are invited to bring whatever wool they have and be paid a fair price for it (more on this later).
By the time Erin and I got there– about 9 am– the pool was already in full swing. Let’s walk through the process.
First, the farmer backs his or her truck up to our skirting/grading table. The fleeces are dumped out of their bags, and we take a look at them. They’re placed into one of five categories:
- Finewool (for suits, sweaters, and items to be worn close to the skin; $1.10/lb)
- Mediumwool (for outerwear; $1.00/lb)
- Coarse / Longwool (for rugs and homewares; $.95/lb)
- Nonwhite (any breed with a black or red face has a fleece that’s classified as nonwhite, since the little flecks of face and/or leg hair won’t be able to be dyed. These fleeces are used for items that won’t be dyed; $.90/lb)
- Short (any fleece shorter than 3″. Used for stuffing and felt; $.70 lb)
The price, of course, changes from year to year– the commodities’ market can be pretty variable. The price of wool was apparently down from last year, but still way up from the average price that’s been seen in years past. This year’s highest bidder was the Chargeurs Scouring Plant, which is just north of Charleston, SC.
Erin and I didn’t know enough to class the wool– it takes a lot to become a certified woolclasser– but we learned a ton. By the end of the day, Emily or David Greene (Principle Extension Agent Emertius for the University of Maryland, who reminded me of another David Grene, author of one of my favorite books of all time) would turn to a fleece and ask us, “What do you say that one is?”
and we’d whisk it away.
It was a little bit trial-by-fire, and we spent most of our time carrying fleeces from the table to different bins, and then carrying the bins across the warehouse (oh my Lord they were heavy when they were full– we’ve got the callouses to prove it! David built them all for the wool pool out of aluminum in the ’60s– something we learned after complaining that they should have been designed to be lighter!) to the five giant piles of to-be-baled wool.
The wonderful thing about the wool pool, though, was how open the whole thing was. Do you only have 10 sheep? or maybe run a flock of 150? or maybe you sheared all spring through, and ended up being given over 3,000 lbs of “junk” fleeces?
Either way, the wool pool will take what you have to offer (I think we only turned down one fleece; a super-cotted old Lincoln), bale it up, load it up via forklift onto a tractor-trailer, and send it out to the commercial market.
(Side note: I’m terribly jealous of those balers. Zac and I packing our fleeces off to mail to our mills looks exactly like this.)
It touched me quite deeply to see the rows and rows of wool bales, weighing between 300 and 400 lbs apiece, all lined up. Even though, for most sheep producers, wool is a byproduct (the primary product being lamb. A dollar a pound for wool just isn’t enough by itself to sustain the flock, let alone the shepherd!), this is still a year’s worth of physically and emotionally taxing work for a whole state worth of shepherds.
Friends, I was humbled to see it.
That said, we weren’t overly precious about it. Lydia ran back and forth down them; we each hopped up on one to eat our lunches:
But it did make me think.
I think I sometimes forget, if something is sold in a chain store, that it was produced by real people, or that it was touched by human hands at all. In my eagerness to source my food from our own garden (if not farmers’ markets) and my durable goods from hand-makers who produce their goods in small batches (a fantastic argument for which can be found here), I forget about the very-real farmers who do sell to grocery stores, or that any of the Maryland-raised wool that I touched might well end up being sold as sweaters at Target or the Gap (nevermind the infuriating cheapening and appropriation of handmade products that such stores promote).
It’s been too simple for me to look at a mall and sneer at the nearly-identical shops, lobbing easy insults (also, at 23 years old, I’m still a grade-A sneerer)– these shoes are cheapo knockoffs; this dress was industrially produced; I’ll bet that was made in China; this is designed to be thrown away after one season! And while I still believe that homegrown and handmade is better, I don’t think it’s a black-and-white matter of hand- vs machine-made, and I certainly know that I won’t so quickly look past the fact that these goods, however cheap, were produced by absolutely human hands, American and (predominantly) otherwise. In short, I’ll make sure to reserve my disregard for fast fashion, and my compassion for shepherds, craftspeople, and workers of all sorts.
Erin and I drove home tired, sweaty, dirty, and slick with lanolin (although we weren’t nearly as bad as last time!). We learned so much, and I consider myself very lucky to have gotten to see this step in the wool-production process first-hand. All I know is that I’m really looking forward to our next wool field-trip (there’s talk of a wool classing class at Maryland Sheep and Wool next spring)!