“The wool industry has changed, and it will change even more in the next five to 10 years,”
according to Rodney Kott with Montana State University. Kott discussed the current U.S. wool marketing infrastructure during the 75th Annual South Dakota Sheep Growers Association
Wool is developed into two different types of garments based on how many microns it has, Kott said. Wool that is 23.5 microns or finer goes into the worsted industry, where it is made into high-end suits for men and more expensive women’s clothing. The longer, coarser wool that is 23.5 microns or coarser goes to the woolen industry, which is Pendleton wool and sweaters.
A third industry is also emerging, which Kott explained will change our wool industry in the future. “There has been a resurgence in the knitting industry,” he explained, referring to the growing popularity of products like wool socks. “The knitting industry has a lot of potential in the future. They want to use U.S. wool to make their product,” he explained.
“Our wool for knitting garments is superior to Australia’s wool,” Kott continued. “We have more crimp, so we have more resilience and more resistance to compression, which is important in knitted products. Although that is not what you want in a garment product, it is what you want in a knitted product,” he said. “So as the knitting industry expands, our wool is superior to what they can buy on an international market. Also, some companies want American-grown and American-made,” he added.
The American-grown wool works well for the knitting machines because of the number of revolutions per minute the machines run at. “If the wool is not high enough quality, it will break, and make the machines blow up,” Kott said. “As we move to this high-quality garment, quality starts right on the ranch. They can not afford to break down. They need consistent yarn, which is pushed all the way down the system.”
Textile industry affects the wool market
During the last 50 years, the role of the housewife has changed, and the way wool is processed and used has changed with it. “More than 50 percent of the wool we produce is exported,” Kott said. “What changed our export market is when the textile industry moved off shore. When it moved, it changed everything we do and how we do business.” First the textile industry relocated to eastern Europe, mainly China, to take advantage of cheaper labor and for environmental reasons. Now the industry is in the process of moving again, this time to India.
In 1967, there were 68 scouring and combing mills in the U.S. By 1973, only 17 were left. Today, there are two – a French company in Jamestown, SC, and a mill in San Angelo, TX. “Any domestic wool used in the U.S. has to go through one of those two mills,” Kott said. “The worsted industry goes through Jamestown, and the woolen industry, like Pendleton, goes through San Angelo.”
Kott said because of the U.S. Military and the Berry Amendment, our domestic wool supply has increased, and more wool is being utilized here. Currently, Kott said military uniforms are being converted to ones made from wool – and many are made from wool produced in South Dakota and Montana. “Over the years, this conversion has increased usage of domestic wool,” Kott said. “But, at some point that conversion will slow down, and the military usage of wool will decrease some.”
Implementation of the Super Wash brightens future
A year ago, the American Sheep Industry (ASI), the American Wool Council, and some other interested parties, purchased a Super Wash, which is a machine that can process the wool to make it washable. “Having that super wash in the U.S. will open some doors,” Kott said. “It was originally purchased for the military, to make the process more efficient. Before, the wool had to be shipped to China for this process, which made the price higher, with a longer turn-around.”
What the Super Wash does is make the top washable. The process involves putting wool into a mild chlorine solution, which changes the scales on the wool, relaxes the wool and creates a washable product, he explained.
Although, it was done specifically for the military, the benefits will be huge for non-military use. “There are already a tremendous number of customers looking at it, and realizing they won’t have to work with China to get this process done,” he added. “The U.S. needs to create wealth inside the country, and the addition of this Super Wash will open a lot of doors,” he said.