Friday, August 26, 2016

Cruelty Free Wool

Let's talk about vegans, wool, and whether or not it is cruel. 

There is currently a meme going around on social media that makes my blood boil:

This image is being floated around from some vegan groups, and it's spreading like wildfire. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't realize that it's completely and utterly incorrect.

People who are not in the fiber world, for example, might actually believe that sheep are killed for their wool. There have been PETA ads in the past which showed a fake lamb practically skinned "for its wool" which were equally obnoxious and inaccurate.

I'd like to set the record straight and talk about this a little bit.

First let's recognize that there are three main categories of sheep here in the USA (I'm exuding milk breeds since that's not really common in this part of the world): Wool breeds, meat breeds, and duel-purpose breeds. For the sake of my post, I am only going to be talking about wool breeds and duel purpose breeds who are raised by small farmers.

Now, let's talk about the facts.

Sheep are not killed, or even harmed, for their wool. 


Sheep raised for wool are typically treated very, very well. As any shepherd knows, a stressed or unhappy sheep will not produce good wool. Therefore, these sheep are kept healthy, happy, and often spoiled in order to produce the best quality wool possible. Any ad or meme that says otherwise is flat our lying - either blatantly, or, more likely, out of genuine ignorance. Does getting your hair cut hurt? No. Shearing can be a bit awkward for the sheep. They have something buzzing all over their body and afterwards look naked and pink. It's embarrassing for them, I'm sure. That being said, no one is harmed in the shearing process aside from the occasional accidental nick - nothing worse than I get from shaving my own legs.

Wool breeds of sheep live like kings


High quality Teeswater sheep are an example of a wool breed  (and, in fact, are the breed that my husband Dan and I hope to start raising in a couple of years). I haven't recently checked the going rate, but I've seen some sell for around $1300 each. That is a lot of money for a sheep, and certainly no one would buy a sheep like this just to turn around and slaughter it. These sheep are so expensive because they have a very hot commodity -- their lustrous locks are sheared once a year and then used for things like extreme tail-spinning, art yarns, weaving, and high-end doll hair. In our shop, we sell these locks cleaned, separated, and hand painted for $22/oz. Their price tag is high and it takes a lot of work to go from a raw and greasy wool to the finished product, but their fiber is absolutely gorgeous. This price tag is far greater than any amount of meat could offer, so no one in their right mind would ever use a breed like this for meat. Teeswater sheep grow about an inch per month, so one year's worth of growth gives 12" locks. I have had many customers come to my shop for doll hair after previously buying tibetan yak pelts of hair (where the animal did have to die) or plastic, synthetic hair. Let's just say I'm very glad that they made the switch to a cruelty-free, more earth-friendly doll hair.

Raising sheep will not make anyone rich 


Any shepherd will tell you that raising sheep is not a way to get rich quick, or even get rich ever. It's hard work, and often involves a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. People who raise sheep for a living do it for one reason: because they love their sheep. These animals quite often become pets to their shepherd, and they are mourned just like other family pets when the time comes for them to cross the rainbow bridge.

I have hundreds of friends who raise their own animals, and most of them allow their older sheep to retire to the senior citizens area of their pasture, where they finish their lives in peace (and away from horny rams who just want to get their baby-makers some action). People like me and my husband, who couldn't stand the idea of killing a sheep just because it's a boy, have their extra males wethered and kept as fiber producing pets, just like the females. Typically lambs grow the finest, softest wool. However, it is not uncommon to still have perfectly usable wool from older sheep. I have never heard of a shepherd offing one of their old sheep just because its wool isn't as soft as it used to be... that just doesn't tend to happen.

Mutualism is not exploitation

The most common vegan argument I see is this: animals should not be exploited, therefore any use of an animal that benefits the human should be forbidden.

Here is a thought: anyone who has a pet is, by that definition, exploiting it. I keep two rescue parrots and two dogs, as well as two spoiled cats. I enjoy all of their company, and keep them because I love them and cherish them. I exploit them for their company. But they also gain something from me and my husband -- our love and devotion, safety, security, healthcare (we come with benefits!), food, toys, etc. Yes. I own my animals. But they own me too.

If you believe that you shouldn't raise any animal just for your own enjoyment, then you could almost use the same argument to say that a person shouldn't have children if all they are going to do is enjoy having children. Sheep are sheared once, sometimes twice a year. Saying that they "work for us, the humans" is a bit silly... since their "work" is simply them being alive. Enjoying life, grazing, romping, playing, etc  --- and yes, once or twice a year having an embarrassing session of hair trimming which leaves them naked and ridiculous looking. 

They aren't chained up or breaking rocks all day for us -- they aren't our slaves. They "get paid" to look pretty and stuff their faces with grass. They benefit from their shepherds keeping them safe and alive, and the shepherd benefits from the wool reaped in the shearing process.

Here's another thought: Symbiosis: Mutualistic relationships exist all throughout nature - not just between humans and farm animals. Examples include bees and flowers, clown fish and their anemone, rhinos and zebras and oxpeckers. All of these creatures use one another to mutually benefit.

Yes. Some farmers eat their sheep (particularly in duel purpose and meat breeds). Do I like it? No. But I'd rather see that than see them buy meat from the grocery store and support the absolute horror that is the meat industry here in the USA. Obviously, in my perfect world, no one would eat meat and even animals wouldn't kill each other for food. But that simply isn't reality. The best we can ask for is that people who do choose to eat meat eat meat from animals who were raised with respect, free-ranged, and in a humane way (as a reminder, both my husband and I do not eat meat). 

Remember that the wool industry is not the meat industry, and supporting one does not mean you are necessarily supporting the other.  

Sheep need to be sheared for health reasons 


There are a few rare breeds out there that still shed their wool naturally, but the majority of the sheep that exist today have been bred to require shearing. Whether or not you agree with the fact that sheep have been bred for this purpose, the fact remains that if modern sheep are not sheared, they will suffer greatly. Most people have heard about Shrek the Merino sheep, who escaped shearing for 6 years and ended up having over 60lbs of wool on his body. There was another sheep named Chris who had 89lbs of wool sheared off of him.

Sheep who are not sheared regularly can develop a variety of health problems, including fly strike, maggots on their skin, not being able to get up, and over-heating. Not to mention the extra weight from the wool. To not shear a sheep is animal cruelty, and once the wool is off of their body, to throw it out would be a tremendous waste.  The wool is going to be sheared off of the sheep whether or not a human uses it.

Wool is one of the most eco-friendly things in the world


I majored in Environmental Science in college, and spent many years looking into ways to improve the earth, reduce my carbon footprint, and live as self-sustaining as possible. I had a particular focus on eco-friendly textiles, and I learned quite a bit about the different options out there. Many people do not realize this, but the acrylic yarn that you can buy from most hobby stores is a petroleum byproduct, and is incredibly bad for the earth. While we do sell some synthetic fiber in our shop, it is mostly recycled, and we stock it in moderation. 

Many vegans turn to other fibers that are cellulose based, and that also causes a problem. 

Cotton, for example, is incredibly bad for the environment and takes an absolute ton of pesticides and water to keep alive. If you choose to buy cotton, you need to be very careful to purchase it from organic growers only (the cotton in our store is organic and does meet this requirement). 

Viscose and rayon fibers are another go-to for vegans, and are often marketed as "vegan silk". These fibers are typically made in China, and are created by liquefying plant material by immersing it in chemicals, then spinning it into a fiber using mechanical spinnerets and cutting each fiber to the proper length. The majority of the fibers on the market are made with harmful chemicals, with a couple of rare exceptions (we also try to focus on carrying the good stuff in our store and not the bad stuff).

Tencel, Lyocel, Seacell, and Rose Fiber are all made with a closed loop process which does not utilize harmful chemicals and recycles the chemical bath, thus making them truly eco-friendly fibers which do not harm the earth. The benefit of these fibers is that they are made with renewable resources such as beech trees, and are easily harvested then re-planted. Bast bamboo, banana fiber, and hemp are other examples of fibers that are harvested by hand and made without the use of chemicals (these fibers tend to be a lot coarser than the previously mentioned fiber, and are primarily used in things like necklace cord and rags and tote bags or outer wear... no one wants a hemp bikini).

Out of all of the animal-free alternatives, only a couple options exist which don't harm the earth. 

Wool, on the other hand, makes so much more sense, as it is truly eco-friendly and is wasted once sheared off the sheep. The sheep are happy to donate it when they don't' need it, and it gives people an excuse to keep these animals for uses other than meat.

Other animal-based options are referred to as "fiber" (hence our business name) and include alpaca, which is also very eco-friendly (almost no one in the USA eats alpacas, and they have an even smaller carbon footprint on pastures than sheep do), goats, angora rabbits, and peace silk (where the moth is allowed to emerge unharmed from the cocoon before the cocoon is harvested for silk). I have friends who also raise Tibetan Yaks here in the USA (and yes, they are kept as pets) as well as camels.

Buying wool helps the sheep

I recently had a friend on facebook post that her wool sales had declined this year. So much so, that she had to send several of her sheep to the butcher block just to stay afloat. She was devastated, and I was devastated for her.

As I have said before, no one raises sheep to get rich. Many people who do this for a living just make enough to scrape by and do it because it's better than working in a call center or 9 to 5 job. These people love the lifestyle that comes from keeping sheep.

I have several farmers I regularly buy wool from each year, and they have told me that the money I give them goes directly toward feed and veterinary care for the sheep. Continuing to buy from them allows them to continue keeping their sheep happy and healthy. Many of the extremist vegan groups out there would rather all sheep be set free into the wild than have humans raise them for wool. The result of that would be dead sheep, or sheep suffering greatly and unable to move. Boycotting small farmers hurts the farmers, but also greatly hurts the sheep as well.

On the other hand, paying for wool on a regular basis can mean the difference between life and death for many duel breed sheep. If their fleeces don't sell, they become meat. If their fleeces sell, they are able to continue producing wool each year. Most of the time when I see friends have to butcher their sheep, they do it out of necessity when wool sales are low and they have no other options.

Not all wool is cruelty free, but most really is.


The world is not black and white, and there are, of course, some exceptions to any rule.

Not everyone in the wool industry is compassionate and cruelty free. I have seen the PETA video of an undercover Australian wool operation, and it was horrific. I also recognize that it is not the norm, and there are evil people in every industry. For example, there are a lot of people who abuse their dogs, but that doesn't mean that I don't think anyone should own a dog. I think the true difference here is large corporation vs. individual. Just like with factory farms, once a corporation gets too big, they look at their animals as merchandise rather than living, sentient beings, and that's where the trouble starts.

They key is to be responsible and know who you are buying from. Here at Blue Barn Fiber, we are very careful about which farmers we purchase wool from, and we do not support any farmers or companies that perform mulesing on sheep. We prefer to support small shepherds here in the US and in the Europe who put the welfare and happiness of their animals first. Believe me when I say that there are a lot of amazing shepherds and farmers out there who fit into this category. 

When you purchase wool from us, you can rest assured that you are buying from a truly cruelty-free source. I know that there are some people out there who sell wool and really don't care where it comes from, but we do. I love animals more than anything, and I would never condone an industry (or make my entire life and business around a world) that profits from harming animals. 

For vegans out there, ask yourself why you are vegan. If it is truly to benefit the animals and to be eco-friendly, they you may want to re-consider using wool. It is so much better for the environment, and is honestly better for the sheep in general. Support small businesses like ours, and you can wear wool without any guilt or second guessing. The sheep  (and their shepherd family) will thank you for it. 


  1. I had no idea PETA published ads about sheep being killed for their wool. Thank you for writing this.

  2. Excellent article, Holly!! I shared this both on my fb biz page and my personal page. People need to be educated. After that, what they believe is up to them-but some people just love controversy! and want to believe in the worse case scenario. This article is wonderfully written and explains perfectly!! Thanks again!

  3. You are so welcome! I am happy to help.

  4. I have to share this too. Great article.

  5. I just wanted to chime in here. Someone tried to link a comment with the pretty horrific PETA video showing off the cruelty of the wool industry and I took it down. I have already discussed this video in my post above, and will not allow the video on this page. I have seen it. I recognize that it happened and is horrific. And as I said previously, I also recognize that it is *not the norm* and does not represent the entire wool industry.

  6. I just learned so much about wool and am SO SO GLAD that the abuse I just saw in that video is not the norm. They were punching them and slamming them around and they weren't even fighting back. It was like they were doing it out of enjoyment. It was horrible to watch and it broke my heart. Thank you for educating me and also enlightening me. Good luck getting your sheep farm!

    1. Bridget, I agree completely. That video is horrific (I sobbed when I saw it). I will never understand how any human being could be so cruel to any innocent animal, but I do believe in Karma. Hopefully someday those evil people will get what they deserve.

      In the mean time, I felt it was very important to make it clear to the world that most people in this industry are not like that. PETA's video discourages people from buying wool from even humane sellers, which directly hurts the sheep.

  7. Thank you for sharing. Do you know anything about Lion Brand as a company?

    1. You are very welcome! Unfortunately no, I don't know much about them. I only tend to use and sell my own handspun yarn or yarn that comes from mills that we do business with and trust. That way I can be sure that I know where my yarn is coming from. It never hurts to reach out to them and ask if they have more info about their wool though. It could be worth a try. =)

  8. Thank you very much for this article. I really appreciated it but I would like to point out that the wool industry is not as 'cruelty free' as this article lets on. While sheep do not have to be killed for their wool, shearing is a very difficult job and most suppliers get paid by the pelt, not by the hour. This means the workers are focused on getting the sheep sheared as fast as possible which often results in cuts, razor burn, and aggressive handling of the animals. To further keep costs down workers are often inexperienced. Another problem is sheep can be sheared too frequently. They need their wool for protection from the cold winter months and inadequate protection from the elements can result in sickness and suffering. When looking into wool companies there are 3 questions to always ask. 1. How often are your sheep sheared? 2. Where are your sheep sheared (on site? Off site?) 3. Do you practice mulesing? I'm so glad your company offers cruelty free options! Hope this helps!

    1. You make some very good points. I will be fair by saying that my experience with the wool industry is primarily on a smaller scale with individual farmers (mostly people who have 200 sheep each or less). I don't tend to work with many large suppliers because it becomes sketchy about where exactly the wool is coming from and how the sheep are treated. I do have a couple of very select and trusted sources that have larger scale operations, and I did ask them those exact questions prior to doing business with them.

      The shearers that I have watched have always been experienced and efficient... maybe a few nicks like you'd get shaving your legs, but nothing bad. The whole process is actually pretty amazing to watch.

      I have not run into people shearing their sheep too frequently before... to me that doesn't really seem practical since shearing costs money and people don't want to spend money to shear more often than necessary.

      How often sheep need to be sheared depends on the breed of sheep. Teeswater sheep, for example, are only sheared once a year and have a full 12" growth at the time of shearing. Other breeds need to be sheared twice a year. Most of my shepherd and shepherdess friends shear their sheep prior to lambing, because 1) it helps keep the birthing mess out of the wool and 2) it makes it easier for new babies to nurse. This means that sometimes the weather is still cold when the sheep are sheared, but as long as they have a shelter away from the wind and proper nutrition, this shouldn't cause health problems.

      I recently came upon this website: where someone is touring all over Australia to visit woolsheds around the country in an effort to show the truth behind the wool industry. I am eager to follow her progress and see how it goes. It will be very interesting, because we do not do business with Australian wool farms and her wool tour might end up changing that.

  9. I have to agree with A McEnroe. It disturbs me that people are actively promoting the exploitation of these animals.

    Mulesing is a horrific practice. It is done because wool producers say it isn't 'economically viable' to treat them with pain relief and more humanely. Would you do that to your dog? If a producer cannot afford to treat animals without causing them severe pain, they shouldn't have them.

    Tens of millions of lambs die in fields every year for a variety of reasons including hypothermia. Often wool producers have too many animals to care for properly. Again, not economically viable in small numbers. That does not equate to ethical.

    There is a significant problem in shearing in Australia with drug use. Rural organisations are discussing ways of combating the drug problem that is affecting the industry. Shearers are paid by pelt and therefore work quickly. Sheep are not included in any animal abuse regulations. Therefore, abuse of sheep is not reported on.

    When sheep are cut during shearing, they are stitched up on the spot without pain relief. Again, not economically viable to do any other way. This does not equate with ethics.

    Sheep are intelligent animals despite their reputation. Yes, we interact with other animals and receive mutual benefits, but for sheep, being alive is not benefit enough for our use of them. We are breeding them. We are forcing them to be in this world. When their wool production degrades, yes, of course they are killed. Horses in the racing industry cost large sums to purchase, train and keep, however, as soon as they have an injury, they are shot. Using an animal for its body is not ethical. As soon as that animal is no longer profitable, it is discarded.

    Please show me a retirement sanctuary for retired wool sheep. They do not exist. They are not dying of old age.

  10. "Tens of millions of lambs die in fields every year" ? Really? Perhaps if there were a freak storm but the sheep industry would go broke fast if this were true each year. Ewes are sheared before lambing for another reason and that is so they will have wool comprable to their lambs and seek shelter rather than stay in the open if it is very cold thus giving the lambs a better chance of survival.
    Yes, I know several people who have sheep who will die of old age, mine included.