On windy, hilly, grassy farmland, where crickets bring out their fiddles at sunset and remarkably silent and fluffy sheep graze together during midday - that´s where it seems like time has stood still for centuries. Except, it hasn’t at all. The most outstanding merino sheep farmers in the world, in Australia and on Tasmania, are working hard to innovate their production, procedures and product every year.
On the other side of the world
The dozen or so farmer-families that have made the cut for Devold’s exclusive partner list, have evolved for generations, some counting nine back, and the sheep have evolved with them. The production of these farmers is extraordinary sustainable, remarkably environmental friendly and has eliminated harmful handling of the sheep, like for instance mulesing (removal of strips of wool-bearing skin from around the breech of a sheep to prevent fly strike) . The farmers care for the wellbeing of both their land and their animals, and have learned to know that a sheep who´s enjoying life, makes enjoyable wool. But most importantly, merino farmers live under the echo of “handing over a farm in a better condition than it was by the time of receiving”, from one generation to the next. This way of thinking does not just ensure a more efficient and sustainable farm, it also helps the quality of Devold’s clothes to improve.
When sheep farmers talk about growing wool, that´s exactly what they mean. The ultra soft, blindingly white merino wool originate from the back of the male ram, female ewe and baby lamb. The best farmers in the world make sure the grass, earth, air and shelter are of unprecedented quality. Furthermore they analyze the genetics and DNA of their new sheep every year, and always pair the best male and female in order to; grow wool. Many farmers call their lifeline and future fabric “the white”, and they are proud of what they have managed to evolve and produce during the last two centuries. The first merinos from Germany, the extremely fine and white Saxon-merinos, jumped ashore on the sunny island of Tasmania in the 1820s. Today Australia is one of the world’s largest producer of the finest merino wool that exists. Selected merino sheep farms grow more evolved, smarter and happier sheep, which in turn makes softer, stronger and more sustainable wool. How can that be? you ask. Well, here´s a story for you.
A Sheeps Life
It´s springtime, and “Lamby” is born under an eucalyptus tree. A few months into her life she is marked, meaning her tail is removed in order to prevent a build-up of dirt around her hindquarter. A conscious farmer uses a rubber ring to stop the blood circulation, so that the tail falls off by itself without causing Lamby any pain. She will also get an identification tag on her ear, and soon after she will be shorn for the first time, meaning that all her wool will be cut off with an electric machine instead of a Sheep Shear like before. This might be tickly, but not harmful for Lamby. Now and then Lamby will be crutched, meaning only bits of her wool will be removed. Mainly in soiled areas where the meat-eating blowfly would find hatching ground, like in her back-end, belly and head. The blowfly is a viscous insect that likes to live in humid skinfolds of the sheep. A few years ago many sheep farms in Australia got rid of the problem by mulesing, that is cutting off pieces of the skin around Lamby’s tail without using anesthesia. Luckily, today this practice of unnecessary mutilation is on its way out of the field, and into the history books. All of Devold’s farms are now non-mulesing farms.
To tackle the blowfly forward thinking farms have instead invested in a new breed of sheep, the plainer SRS-sheep (Soft Rolling Skin). With this type of sheep, which represents 10 % of the merino sheep in Australia, the skin waves more than it wrinkles and therefore there are basically no spots on Lamby’s body that will make a good breathing ground for the blowfly. Finer, fresher and flatter than her ancestors, Lamby will still have kept her excitement for “the top of the world”-feeling, just like many of the human adventurers who eventually will be wearing her wool in form of warm clothes.
Lamby feels peaceful when she gets to graze on the absolute highest points of her wavy hills, from where she can detect possible dangers. She is a smart animal. She can recognize faces and her long pupils give her the advantage an almost 360-degree vision. Often, however, the farmer needs Lamby the climber to run move down into lower, wetter and greener land, both in order to give Lamby the best nutrients to grow stronger and softer wool, and to avoid further erosion on the already stony and often bare hilltops. Actually, Lamby and her huge family are led into new areas, almost daily, in order to keep the grass healthy and sustainable, and to avoid overworking the land
With a group of barking, but caring dogs, the farmers get up with the sun to check on their flock and fences. Does Lamby have enough clean water and shelter from the wind, rain, eagles and foxes? When it´s all calm and clear, the dogs and farmers then lead Lamby on her way into new land, which by the way, she and the herd have plenty of. Some farms can offer as much as about 4000 square meters per sheep. But although Lamby enjoys this very generous amount of space, she´s social and prefers to stick together with the family. When it is time for shearing back at the shed, she gets extra social. At some larger farms over 1000 sheep are shorn every day during the couple-of-week-long shearing-process. Teams of professional shearers go from farm to farm and work 8-hour days as professionally trained craftsmen. One of them, an Australian, has the world record of the fastest ever shearing of a sheep. It took him just under 40 seconds. As Lamby loses her “clothes” she´s actually glad to loose some weight. Before the process starts again, the wool has grown back. Just in time for the winter cold. During Lamby’s lifespan at her birth farm this sequence is repeated more or less seven times.
The 5 freedoms of animal welfare
All of Devold's Merino wool is long-fibered, which is a biodegradable type of wool with outstanding features. Garments in pure merino wool are basically made for physical activities, in summer as well as winter, because clothes made from this renewable material can absorb and release moisture. Due to this exceptional feature, you will not overheat nor start to freeze. The quality of the wool depends on how the animals are being treated. That is why "The Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare" are supported by all of the farms we work with:
1. Freedom from hunger or thirst by access to fresh water, and a diet to maintain full health and vigour
2. Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
4. Freedom to express normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind
5. Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering
Soft and smart wool
Merino wool is one of the most sought after, premium choices for apparel in the world; simply because of its diverse benefits. If merino wool is thin enough, it will prevent itching, if its stable enough the thin fibers will not tear, if its as good as it gets, you would only need a small amount of water and soap to clean it. Because quality merino wool is really a direct product of the landscape around the animals, a product of grass, water and air, it is also biodegradable. If you were to compost it, within three months it would most likely disappear. Merino wool, with its fine and soft wavelike ripples, is almost magic.
Back at the farm: After each day during the shearing season, the shearing shed will be full of white, excellent merino wool. Sometimes filling a whole big room, up to four wall meters high. Although this will be an inviting ocean of white for the kids on the farm to jump into, this is where the next step will take place. Skilled workmen and women will separate the wool on different tables in order to remove dirt, pieces of vegetables and check how strong the fiber is. The wool is made of keratin, just like human hair, although the merino wool is about one third of the thickness of a human hair. That’s why one of Devold’s famers compares the touch of a teddy-bear to the rough hair on a horses neck, when explaining the difference between a teddy-bear and the extremely soft merino wool. The farmers learn to recognize the softness with the tip of their fingers. After selecting the finest and most exclusive wool from the best merino sheep on the planet, the wool gets pressed, with around 200 kg on its back, before going into huge nylon bales. And then, from the turquoise ports on the other side of the world, “the white” sails off.
From the sheep to the spinning wheel shearing
Now and then the merino gets their wool completely cut off, conducted by professional shearers. They are sturdy and experienced and do the job quickly and stress free so the sheep won´t feel any discomfort. The whole process takes between three and five minutes. At larger farms, about 200 sheep will be cut during a single workday during the to week long season.
The wool will then be looked through and sorted by a certified wool expert. Length, thickness and elasticity will determine the quality of the wool. A specific international standard classifies the wool before it goes on for a thorough wash in the shape of a large sealed package, a "bale”.
The washing has four stages:
1. The bales are opened and placed into enormous "washing machines".
2. To ensure excellent clean wool the washing consist of several important steps.
3. The wool will be dried with hot air.
4. Any excess vegetation, soil or dirt that may have not been cleared already, will be mechanically removed.
Thereafter, the wool fibers are separated to remove rests of soil or other components. The wool is now ready for combing. This singles out the short wool fibers so that only the long ones remain. A quality assurance like this is important to hinder loosening the short wool later in the process to avoid small holes. The fibers are stretched and then rolled together into the wool tops, ready for spinning.
Yarn and spinning
Yarn is basically fibers from the sheep, on its way to weaving or knitting. But first the wool needs to be spun. This will make it solid and durable. The yarn should be as smooth as possible. If parts of the yarn become too thin, it may brake later on. The wool tops are therefore placed in large machines to be evened out before being sent through spinning machines. They ensure that the wool is woven evenly and will twist it in a hypnotic rotational motion.
Via the rotation, the fibers will bind together and the friction will create the degree of stability and strength to which wool is known for.
The spinning process accounts for much of the wools character; the thickness and the length of the fibers, which parts of the wool are to be spun and how it is done. There are incredibly many different wool types around, especially when it comes to quality. Much depends on finding the right combination of short, medium and long fibers - and using the correct spinning method.