Pittsboro, NC, USA [April 1, 2020] – Wool has many desirable qualities: it is durable, biodegradable, odor-reducing, water repelling, and flame resistant, to name a few. Even so, America has lost 90% of its sheep population since sheep numbers peaked in the 1940s. Due in part to an increase in use of cheap petroleum-based synthetic fibers, the United States' wool market has experienced decades of decline, chipping away at the overall sheep population and causing more than twenty once-popular sheep breeds to be added to The Livestock Conservancy's list of endangered breeds. But threads of change are starting to appear, thanks to efforts underway to rebuild the market for American wool. Just over one year ago, The Livestock Conservancy launched an initiative to build interest among fiber artists in those rare breed sheep's wool.
The program, aptly named Shave 'Em to Save 'Em, introduces fiber artists to rare breed fiber by sponsoring a challenge to start new projects and earn items upon completion. The Conservancy had modest hopes that perhaps a few hundred fiber artists would sign up over the course of three years, hopefully bringing business to the shepherds and increasing the populations of rare sheep breeds on its Conservation Priority List. The program quickly surpassed expectations, welcoming more than the total expected number of participants in just the first couple of months. To date, more than 1,700 fiber artists have joined and the initiative's Facebook group has welcomed nearly 4,000 members. Additionally, more than 1,100 people are part of the Ravelry group (a social media site designed specifically for fiber artists).
Shepherd Kate Curren Hagel, who raises Jacob and Romeldale/CVM sheep said, “I've had to buy other shepherds' yarns because my fleeces sold out before I could get them to the mill. (Poor me!) And I have joyfully increased my breeding with a confidence that I didn't previously feel. I can't thank you enough!” Both of Hagel's breeds are currently listed as Threatened.
In addition to benefitting from increased interest in their rare sheep, the shepherds raising them have gained valuable knowledge about their customer base. “I have learned a lot about fiber artists and the language that they speak,” says shepherd Laura Williams. “The majority of the fiber folks have been gracious, helpful, and happy to share their knowledge with me." Williams raises the Florida Cracker (Critical) and Leicester Longwool (Threatened) breeds.
Enthusiasm is not slowing, with many artists going back to the Conservancy's list of shepherds to find fiber from new breeds to work with. Ravelry user LiselleVelvet shared “I already went back for more Romeldale and put in a request for a whole Gulf Coast Native (Critical) fleece ... my favorite part of the process beyond the encouragement to try different fibers is connecting directly with shepherds to make purchases directly whenever possible."
To learn more and sign up as a fiber artist and/or shepherd in the Shave 'Em to Save 'Em initiative, visit www.RareWool.org. To view photos of rare sheep breeds and completed fiber art projects, visit the Facebook and Ravelry groups.
Why are domestic breeds of livestock and poultry in danger of extinction?
Modern agriculture and food production favors the use of a few highly specialized breeds selected for maximum output in intensively controlled environments. Many traditional breeds do not excel under these conditions, causing their popularity to decrease and leaving them faced with extinction. Although these breeds do not fit today's mainstream model of agriculture, they are exquisitely suited for backyards and small to medium-sized farms, and their genetics are valuable to all of agriculture.
Why is genetic diversity important?
Like all ecological systems, agriculture depends on genetic diversity to adapt to an ever-changing environment. Genetic diversity in domestic animals is revealed in distinct breeds, each with different characteristics and uses.
Traditional, historic breeds retain essential attributes for survival and self-sufficiency – fertility, foraging ability, longevity, maternal instincts, ability to mate naturally, and resistance to disease and parasites. As agriculture changes, this genetic diversity may be needed for a broad range of uses and opportunities. Once lost, genetic diversity is gone forever.