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Taupe yarn cake on a knitted objects

From Forage to Fashion: New Innovations in Wool

Brent Roeder, MSU Extension Sheep and Wool Specialist, Montana Wool Lab Supervisor

February 13, 2023 -- Society for Range Management, Boise, Idaho

sheep grazing a pasture

You know you're old when you cease to be amazed

  • For at least 10,000 years sheep, humans, dogs and rangelands have live in a symbiotic, transhumance system that sustainably produces milk, meat and wool when managed correctly. 
  • Sheep eat grass and convert it into wool; what's your superpower? Think about that, slowly...

A young woman in front of a shorn sheep fleece

Wool, amazing? Seriously, how much hemp have you been smoking?

  • Absorbs 40% of its water weight
  • Self extinguishing
  • Natural moisture wicking
  • Insulating
  • Natural resistance to compression
  • 50% atmospheric carbon
  • Odor resistant

Sheep grazing near a stream in the fall

Wool, good for the environment? What about all those sheep farts?

  • A 14% increase in new methane production in the U.S. by domestic livestock since European settlement (Hristov 2012, JAS 90:1371)

  • U.S. sheep industry is 0.023% of U.S GHG emissions. (U.S. EPA data)

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Products from the Greatest Generation

Mostly USA grown and sewn Meant to keep people warm
Huge supply; government encouraged production Treated with insecticide for moths
Helped win several wars Made from coarse wool and itchy
Army blankets and sweaters Hard to clean and care for
Military uniforms, gloves and socks Heavy and bulky
Navy pea coat  

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Products for the Millenial Generation

Made with superfine Merino Expensive compared to synthetics due to short supply and U.S. manufacturing
Lightweight, next-to-skin comfort Hard to find American-made
Treated for easy care Not a high government priority
Environmentally friendly  
Outrdoor and athletic wear                                                    
Cold and hot climate military applications               
Designed for hot and cold climates  

A white wool sock and a black wool sneaker

Superior Comfort and Performance

  • Naturally odor resistant
  • Compression resistanat
  • Durable and warm

A pair of blue wool drawstring pants and a wool surfboard

Emphasis on water purity

  • Microplastic contamination of water from synthetic clothes and detergent pods
  • Release up to 4,500 microfibers per gram of clothing washed, of which 40% pass into our water.
  • We have now found microfibers in fresh fallen snow in Antarctica and in human blood. 

A package of wool pellets and a beach

New commercial uses

  • Low value wool pelleted as a soild amendment for gardening to regulate soil moisture.
  • Lanolin used as a natural fat in commercial feed.

Different colors of yarn balls

Montana State University Wool Lab Mission Statement

The Montana Wool Lab is a resource that supports the wool industry of Montana and the surrounding region through quality, genetic and fiber testing services for the producer and research communities. The lab supports the industry through edcation, outreach and field services.

This will be done by establishing stable funding for a wool lab manager at an appropriate faculty level through a modern, well equipped teaching and research facility that can accommodate the testing services needed by the industry and research communities. 

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On-the-ground work

  • 2020-2022: 38,000+ samples for genetic improving and sorting production lines.
  • 2002-2022: Over 2 million pounds of wool collected, sorted, repackaged and marketed through the Eastern Consolidated Wool Pool.
  • 2018-2022: MSU Extension personnel have helped train 39 students in Texas, 74 students in various levels at formal Montana schools and 132 members of multiple Hutterite colonies across the state.

A graph and a closeup of wool

Rangeland: One of Earth's most sustainable solar collectors

  • We have paved over 142 million acres of earth in the past 35 years.
  • Basically, covering Idaho with pavement or concrete every 13 years.
  • This is the true environmental disaster of your time.