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Home > Customer Service > Why Organic? > Organic Wool - Organic Pastures, Healthy Processing, and No Sheep Dipping

Organic Wool - Organic Pastures, Healthy Processing, and No Sheep Dipping

Organic Wool - Organic Pastures, Healthy Processing, and No Sheep Dipping

By Ed Mass

Wool has been used for thousands of years to help humankind survive the elements of nature. There’s evidence that the first wool was spun into yarn in 3,500 B.C. Of course, over most of those thousands of years, sheep were raised in large expanses of land on natural, unadulterated grasses, with plenty of fresh air and exercise.

We could probably assume that the wool would have been processed without chemical inputs. That sounds like a very “organic” system for living in peace with the animals that gave so much to in clothing, bedding, and food to the people and community who cared for them.

As in most agriculture for food and clothing, most of the wool production has strayed so far from anything “organic” that we now have to create specific requirements to make it “organic” once again.

Wool’s Superior Benefits

Let’s do a quick summary of wool’s outstanding benefits. See if you know all of them in these lists.

For clothing:

  • Naturally regulates body temperature through superior moisture management
  • Wicks moisture from the body
  • Absorbs substantial moisture before it feels damp
  • Insulates even when wet
  • Natural odor resistance
  • Hypoallergenic

For bedding:

  • No dust mites
  • Mold and mildew resistant
  • Naturally fire resistant without chemical treatment
  • Regulate body temperature by ensuring the body gets to a comfortable sleeping temperature more quickly and stays there for longer

In addition, organic wool adds the following benefits to people, animals, and our environment:

  • Supports organic agriculture
  • Supports humane treatment of animals
  • Manufactured with no harmful toxins
  • Excellent for people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities

Unfortunately, people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) are increasing as are people with asthma and allergies. For these individuals, organic clothing and bedding may be a requirement to maintain their health. However, are they really different than the rest of us or are they “indicators” of how the health of a “healthy” person may also be negatively impacted over time?

Wool Processing

Organic wool processing restricts chemical inputs and requires the separation of organic and non-organic fibers throughout processing. Following is a quick summary of the processing stages.

Shearing & Grading
The first step in processing wool, shearing, takes place on the farm or ranch, most often in spring, just before lambing. The shearer typically peels the fleece off in one piece. It’s bagged and marked to identify its source (owner) before it goes to the warehouse.

Fine and medium-fine wools of longer staple lengths (more than three inches) are desirable for light-weight worsted suit and dress fabrics. Coarser and shorter fibers, under three inches long, are used mostly for bulky sweater and carpet yarns.

Washing and Scouring
Next is washing, or "scouring," the wool to remove grease (unrefined lanolin), vegetable matter and other impurities remaining from the range, feedlot, or shearing floor. A set of rakes moves the fleeces through a series of scouring tubs of soap and water. Impurities can account for 30 to 70 percent of raw (unscoured) fleece weight.

The grease in wool, lanolin, is a wonder of its own. It is separated from the wash water (oil and water don't mix), and purified for eventual use in a wide variety of creams, soaps, lotions, cosmetics, and ointments.

Blending and Dyeing
Clean wools from different batches or lots are often blended, mechanically mixed. Blending minimizes the basic color variables of raw wool and standardizes staple length and diameter, resulting in uniform quality.

Wool fiber is so absorbent that dyeing at any stage of processing is equally effective. Wool dyed immediately after it is scoured (washed) and blended is "stock-dyed." Spun into yarn and it's" yarn-dyed." Woven into fabric and it is "piece-dyed."

Patterned fabric is woven with either stock-dyed or yarn-dyed threads. Plain-colored fabrics are usually piece-dyed. And woolen fabrics can, of course, be screen- or roller-printed in myriad colors and patterns.

Carding, Combing, and Drawing
The carding process passes the cleaned and dry wool through wire rollers to straighten and align fibers and remove remaining vegetable matter. Smooth steel fingers roll the strands over onto one another to create narrow continuous ropes of fibers called "slivers."

If the batch of wool is of coarser fiber and shorter staple length (three inches or less), the machinery gently twists the slivers into ropelike strands called "roving" and winds them into balls ready for spinning.

If the batch is of finer fiber and longer staple length (longer than three inches), the slivers usually go to combing and drawing steps that prepare them to be spun into worsted yarn. The comb separates short from long fibers, ensuring that the long fibers are laid parallel, to produce a combed sliver called top. Several tops are drawn out into the thickness of one, to thoroughly blend the wool and ensure evenness or regularity of the resulting roving.

Before it is suitable for weaving or knitting, roving for both woolen and worsted yarns goes through the spinning process. The spinning machines twist and retwist the roving into yarns of various strength, firmness, size, and ply.

Weaving and Knitting
Weaving produces cloth by interlacing two sets of yarn at right angles. Yarns running lengthwise in the loom are the "warp", while yarns running crosswise form the filling or "weft." As each warp yarn passes through the loom, it is raised and lowered by a wire eyelet through which it is threaded. As yarns are raised and lowered by cycles of the loom, a weft yarn is carried by a shuttle (commonly by a rapier or air jet) through the opening created by the warp yarns. This sequence, after many repetitions, forms woven fabrics of infinite variety.

Knitted fabrics are produced by interlocking rows and loops of yarns. As new loops are formed, they are drawn through those previously shaped. This inter-looping and the continued formation of new loops produces knit fabric. Knitting machines are as versatile as looms. Their mechanical needles are more accurate and, of course, much faster than hand knitting. A circular knitting machine produces mainly jersey and a variety of double knits. Flat knitting machines produce yard goods such as tricot and raschel knits.

Quality Control and Finishing
Quality control inspection involves a thorough examination of the cloth to identify broken threads, color variations, or imperfections. These are removed and the area rewoven, by hand if necessary.

A variety of techniques are used to apply a controlled shrinkage to the fabric. Finally, woolens are often brushed to raise the ends of the wool fibers in a soft, fluffy nap above the surface of the cloth. Naps range from the lightly brushed surfaces of a flannel to the deep-pile of fleecy coatings.

Sheep Dipping, Yes It’s True

Before we get into the details of organic wool, there are two key distinctions of organic livestock management which should be emphasized. First is the elimination of “dipping.” Dipping is a method of controlling external parasites in which sheep are submerged in pools containing organophosphate-based parasiticides.

Studies have indicated that prolonged exposure to sheep dip pesticides cause changes in the nervous system of humans. (Imagine how the sheep feel about this process!) Moreover, disposal and “runoff” of dips can contaminate ground water supplies.

Secondly, in order to maintain their certification organic livestock producers can not exceed the natural carrying capacity of the land, thus preventing the devastating effects of overgrazing.

What Makes Wool Organic?

In the U.S., USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) accredited certification agencies must certify organic producers to the USDA NOP (National Organic Program) standards. On June 30, 2009, the Organic Products Regulations went into effect in Canada. These regulations control how food crops are grown and livestock is raised, along with processing, in order to be certified organic.

Non-organic wool uses substantial chemicals which can have negative impacts on the natural health of the animals as well as humans. Not only do these chemicals pollute the air, water, and soil but they’re also retained in the crops and grasses as they’re grown. In addition, other chemicals are added to the mix during the manufacturing processes.

Organic Wool Processing restricts chemical inputs and requires the separation of organic and non-organic fibers throughout processing stages.

In summary, organic sheep production includes the following practices: Sheep must be fed 100% organically grown feed (grains) and forage (pastures); use of synthetic hormones, vaccinations, and genetic engineering is prohibited; use of synthetic pesticides (internal, external, and on pastures) is prohibited.

In order for wool to be certified as ‘organic,’ it must be produced in accordance with federal standards, for the country in which it will be sold, for organic livestock production. The USDA NOP standards include:

  • Livestock feed and forage used from the last third of gestation on must be organic.
  • Use of hormones or synthetic hormones, antibiotics, and genetic engineering is prohibited.
  • Use of synthetic pesticides (internal, external and on pastures) is prohibited.
  • Producers must encourage livestock health through good cultural and management practices.
  • Animals must have access to the outdoors, including access to pasture for ruminants.
  • Animals may be temporarily confined only for reasons of health, safety, the animal’s stage of production, or to protect soil or water quality.
  • Producers must ensure that they do not exceed the natural carrying capacity of the land on which their animals graze.

Detailed recordkeeping is required for lot numbers, where the wool was stored and how it was handled all the way through the system. The processors and mills must make sure there isn’t any cross contamination with regular wool and that all combing and carding machinery has been cleaned of non-organic fiber prior to the processing of organic fiber.

Since organic wool production is still small compared to non-organic wool, most mills process both. Good practices often include the mills starting the organic wool through the system at the first of the week, after everything has been cleaned, and then switch back to non-organic wool afterward.

Organic Wool in Bedding

Organic wool is makes an excellent bedding material. Because of the low-flammability characteristics of wool, it’s a very desirable material to use inside futons, mattresses and chairs in place of materials treated with unhealthy fire retardent chemicals.

We spend almost a third of our lives sleeping on a synthetic mattress full of polyurethane foam and/or other petrochemical materials covered with synthetic fabrics treated with chemical fire retardants and formaldehyde. The better alternative is a mattress made from natural materials that won’t outgas over the years, creating the risk of health problems or allergies.

Consumers who have problems with allergies and sensitivity to chemicals are looking to organic foods and fibers as a healthier solution. Sleeping under organic fibers is better for our health rather than sleeping under petroleum-based and non-organic fibers. A study at the Ergonomics Unit at the Polytechnic Institute of Wales showed that the heart rate under a wool-filled (not organic) comforter was significantly lower 100% of the time compared to a polyester comforter. The Hohenstein Research Institute in Germany has found similar results.

Wool bedding products:

  • Breathe more naturally than synthetic products
  • Increase the duration of the most beneficial phase of sleep known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement)
  • Regulate body temperature by ensuring the body gets to a comfortable sleeping temperature more quickly and stays there for longer.

Why Would Organic Wool Cost More?

Consumers often wonder why organic food and fiber items may cost more than non-organic. As with all organic production, there are real costs incurred by the producer that are more than the non-organic, chemically produced, overgrazed counterparts.

In addition, with all the effort for organic certification, the organic process is often used on higher quality wool. Wool quality varies according to the animal from which the wool is produced and includes various factors of fiber length, strength, and softness.

As you can see from all of the above requirements, organic wool often includes a premium payment. Costs of production are higher than non-organic counterparts primarily resulting from higher labor, management, and certification costs.

In addition, the organic wool industry is very small relative to the overall wool industry and therefore does not have the economies of scale and resulting efficiencies of the much larger non-organic wool production processes.

Lastly, organic standards for livestock production prohibit overgrazing. If the price of wool is low, the difference cannot be made up by simply increasing production per unit of land, as is commonly practiced by many livestock producers.

When you choose organic wool, you are strengthening family farms, protecting community values, providing good profits to the farmers, and enhancing rather than exploiting the environment.

Ed Mass is President and Founder of Yes It’s Organic, an online store for Organic, Fair Labor, and Eco Friendly Green clothing including organic clothing for adults to organic baby clothes, organic bedding, organic sheets, organic towels, sustainable bamboo furniture, organic logo embroidered shirts and imprinted shirts for organizations wanting to improve their environmental footprint. After being an environmentalist for over 40 years, including designing solar energy systems in the 1970s, Ed decided to participate more directly in growing the organic, fair labor and eco friendly industries by educating consumers and influencing their buying habits.

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