Organic opportunities and challenges for the wool industry

Still a small portion of the organic fiber business in the United States, organic wool is starting to see some gains in the marketplace here.

OTA member Jagger Brothers of Springvale, Maine, markets organic wool yarn certified to the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) which it spins from organic wool imported from South America. The yarn is organically dyed at the GOTS certified Saco River Dyehouse, also in Maine, and brought back to Jagger Brothers for distribution.  It is then marketed as The Green Line from Jagger Spun, a division of Jagger Brothers, as hanks for hand knitting and as one-pound cones for machine knitters and weavers.

Scott Grey, sales manager for Jagger Brothers, points out that currently there is little incentive for raising large organic flocks of sheep in the United States as there is no domestic certified organic milling. Instead, there are small flocks of organically managed sheep that produce organic wool aimed for craft usage and processed by un-certified mini-mills. Chargeurs Combing in Jamestown, North Carolina, is a larger mill that processes wool, but is not certified.

Chargeurs is also a scouring operation and a number of Saco River Dyehouse customers source organic wool from Chargeurs—it just may not be domestic. 

Jagger Brothers has been certified by Oregon Tilth, one of the U.S. certifying agencies for GOTS for about a decade to spin organic wool yarn. In 2012, Saco River Dyehouse began working with Oregon Tilth to independently obtain GOTS certification. 

“The past few years, interest has picked up in these yarns, and we’re seeing much bigger demand,” Grey says. The company currently offers 36 shades of 100% organic GOTS certified Merino wool yarn to choose from. Its dyehouse—Saco River Dyehouse—is the only GOTS certified yarn dyehouse in the United States.

“Of the substrates we touch for organic, wool and cotton are the only ones crossing our path,” says Claudia Raessler, who is in charge of strategic alliances for the Dyehouse. She explains that this is because it is difficult to get small volume natural fibers as alpaca, mohair, buffalo, cashmere and hemp organically certified 

“In order to put a GOTS label on a skein of yarn, everyone in the supply chain must be GOTS certified. Not only do you have to have the spinning GOTS certified, but it has to be distributed through a GOTS certified warehouse,” she explains. This makes the process complex and time consuming for new designers and other textile end-producers trying to enter the organic market.

Saco River Dyehouse does have contact with clients interested in featuring such natural fibers as alpaca. Although they can’t be GOTS certified, they can claim their fibers have been organically dyed if dyed at Saco River, because the GOTS verified dye formulas the Dyehouse uses upon a customer’s request meet organic standards. In some cases, spinning can be arranged to add further product value by leveraging on the growing trend for textiles to be produced domestically.  

Besides the GOTS certified wool yarn from Jagger Brothers, Saco River Dyehouse does handle other organic wool that it organically dyes. Currently, it is a skein dyehouse—and does not have the capacity to do dye finer yarns and threads that are packaged on cones. This soon will change.

“We are expanding and this month buying equipment from Italy that will enable us to do just that,” says Raessler. “We are scheduled to have the new dyeing and winding equipment in place and running at the beginning of 2016. This is the first time some of this newer environmentally friendly dye equipment has been brought into the United States in 25 years—it is a huge move forward for us!”

This November, the Dyehouse will attend ITMA 2015—the world’s largest textile machine show—in Milan, Italy.  The purpose is to look at future equipment additions and what is happening in the technical textile market. “We’ve only been in business three years and we are excited to see the strategic possibilities for organic fibers,” she says. 

A new fact sheet outlining “Organic opportunities and challenges: The next generation of the wool industry” is now available from the Global Organic Textile Standards website. It highlights organic market facts, facts around organic sheep production, and future prospects and challenges. It estimates that around 1% of the world’s sheep are organically managed, totaling an estimated 12 million sheep. More than half are in Asia, with almost all in China. In Europe, 4.4% of the sheep are organically managed, as are 3.5% in the United Kingdom. By comparison, only a small amount is raised organically in the United States and Canada.  //