When I hear the phrase ‘sustainable material’, the first thing that comes to my mind is probably something wood-based, or maybe a metal like aluminum or copper that can be recycled. One thing that certainly doesn’t come to mind is wool. While often overlooked, this natural fiber extracted from sheep is sustainable. It can last for centuries in the correct form and also is fully biodegradable. Wool can absorb certain types of chemicals that are harmful to the environment and is an adaptable material with a wide variety of uses in products that range from baseballs to the funeral casket of noted environmentalist, Prince Philip.
The American wool industry is worth millions of dollars annually, and few states value it as much as Utah does. The state’s 2.1 million pounds of sheared wool in 2019 made up 10 percent of the nation’s total wool output; this put Utah squarely in fourth in the country-wide rankings for the year. In Utah alone, that wool was worth almost $5 million. Because different products need to use different types of wool, there are testing requirements in place to ensure that the quality meets the standards set in place.
“Each class of wool is excellent for something specific; there are different uses for different products,” says Sierra Nelson, executive director of the Utah Wool Growers Association. “Wool testing allows you to target your sales to specific audiences.” This is immediately evident with clothing, where warm coats use rougher, coarser types of wool compared to luxury items.
American producers looking to test the quality of their material experienced a hiccup last year when a Colorado testing center closed down. It was the only lab of its kind in the country, leaving manufacturers with the expensive alternative of sending their wool overseas to the nearest testing site, often as far as New Zealand. Recently, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food looked to fill this void. In April, the agency officially opened Wasatch Wool Laboratory in Midvale, the only commercial wool testing lab in the United States. This facility will drastically cut testing costs for domestic wool producers, which should in turn lower the price of most wool-based products. The reduced emissions that would otherwise come as a result of transporting the wool internationally makes the move a win for the environment as well.
The facility came as a result of an unlikely intersection between state farmers and clothing corporations. Much of the funding for the lab came from an investment by belt and sock manufacturer GRIP6, in partnership with Albert Wilde, whose family has been in the sheep business for six generations. GRIP6 founder BJ Minson came up with the facility idea during the earlier stages of his partnership with Wilde, where the pair worked to produce a line of woolen socks that came with a lifetime warranty.
After the Colorado closure limited their profit margins, Minson made the decision to open a facility in his home state of Utah, just as he had done when starting his own business. Always a farmer first, Wilde couldn’t be happier. “Having someone like that who feels so strongly about wool who wants to fix some of these problems, it’s exciting” commented Wilde.
The Wasatch facility is the first of several players entering the domestic wool market. Previously existing as a purely academic wool testing center, Texas A&M’s Agrilife Research lab is undergoing an expansion to begin operating in a commercial testing capacity. “With the addition of more equipment and personnel, we will be able to handle the testing needs of the entire U.S. commercial wool trade,” says Reid Redden, a sheep and goat specialist at the university. Whichever lab comes out on top, one thing is clear–there is a strong expectation that wool is here to stay as a durable and sustainable product for decades to come.