Wool: rethinking a simple, natural fiber
By Lynn Ascrizzi
If you’re looking for more eco-friendly ways to reduce your use of chemically laden plastics and synthetics in your home—think wool.
Today, the renewable virtues of wool’s natural fibers are gaining new devotees among people alarmed by scientific studies that show how plastic-based fibers contaminate our environment. For instance, synthetic fleece jackets have been found to release nearly two grams of bio-accumulating, toxic fibers with each wash. These tiny particles are swept into our lakes, rivers and oceans and end up in fish and other animals higher up in the food chain.
Thankfully, a number of dedicated artisans and entrepreneurs in Maine and beyond are creating and offering innovative, practical and beautiful wool products for our homes and our bodies. Here are three examples:
It's all about the sheep
Nanne Kennedy sustainably raises 150 sheep on her 90 acres of rolling fields in Washington, Maine. The fine fleece from her specially bred apparel sheep produces luxurious, lightweight, seawater-and-sun dyed blankets, yarns and sweaters—handcrafted items offered by her enterprise, Seacolors Yarnery at Meadowcroft Farm.
Kennedy is quick to point out the advantages of wool. “Wool breathes. It’s biodegradable. It breaks down in landfills and becomes nitrogen, unlike plastics. It’s renewable,” she says. And of course, “Sheared sheep regrow their wool.”
Kennedy, who is president of the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society, runs her farm by herself, but she doesn’t work alone. A network of piece workers in remote locations in rural Maine knit or finish sweaters and weavers weave the wool yarn on vintage production looms. She also contracts with regional sheep farmers to produce fine fleece to add to her own.
“Everything is done within a five-hour radius,” she says, referring to the multiple steps and stages involved in transforming sheared wool from a raw commodity to a washed product, which then is blended, carded and spun in a particular way depending on the end product.
She evaluates and grades every fleece. “I blend for color and softness, spring and integrity. I dye everything in seawater, in solar vats, with food-grade dyes. A closed-loop recovery system recycles the non-toxic waste stream from the dye process, to irrigate my pastures,” she says, explaining that seawater contains minerals beneficial to agriculture in moderate amounts.
Grass-feeding her sheep eliminates the need for high cost grain. Kennedy attributes her flock’s good health to high-protein “baleage,” fermented grass silage that she feeds her sheep all winter. “A healthy flock translates into long, lustrous fleece that is high yielding in the finished product. If we rethink our wearables and our home goods and create a movement for ‘farm-to-fabric,’ as we do now with ‘farm-to table,’ we can heal the earth together,” says Kennedy.
Beyond fabric softeners
Cyndi Prince of Camden is CEO and founder of LooHoo, LLC, a seven-year-old company that creates felted, solid wool dryer balls designed to throw into your dryer along with a load of wash.
According to Prince, the wool balls create better air flow and soften the fabric, thus eliminating the need for dryer sheets and fabric softeners. These are known to contain toxic chemicals, such as benzyl acetate, benzyl alcohol, ethanol, limonene and chloroform, among others, according to a number of scientific studies.
“It’s so nice that, with a simple product, you can eliminate chemicals,” she says in a gentle understatement. “Dryer balls reduce drying time up to 25 percent, saving energy and using fewer quarters in a laundromat dryer.”
LooHoos are built of natural, domestic wool sourced from Bartlettyarns, Inc., in Maine, Harmony. They’re made at Pieceworks, Inc. in Montville and felted at Prince’s home studio and workshop in Camden. The balls come in several colorfast pastel shades, in packages of three, five, nine and 12. She recommends three dryer balls for light loads—more for heavier ones. “We make the dryer balls super durable. They last for at least a year, for hundreds of loads.” Many users will tell you they last much longer than that.
Other companies offer dryer balls made of plastic. But as Prince points out, “The chemicals in the plastic can off-gas. With wool, you’re not adding chemicals.”
The dryer balls can also be used to help soften line-dried clothes. Throw your line-dried towels and wool dryer balls into the dryer for 5 minutes —with no heat—to fluff and soften them up, Prince says.
Feather-light wool apparel
Heavy. Itchy. Scratchy. That’s how some folks feel about wearing wool. But not all wool fleece is created equal.
One innovative apparel company—Rambler’s Way, based in Kennebunk, Maine—offers a premium line of men’s and women’s apparel made of sustainably raised natural fibers. Among these is their signature line of fine wool garments— sleek as silk and light as a feather—made of superfine, ultralight Rambouillet Merino wool.
“It’s from fiber sheep raised on sustainable, domestic sheep farms,” says company director of marketing and ecommerce, Chris Chappell. “The fleece has long, stable fibers from 3½-to-4 inches long and is spun into a fine worsted yarn.” The wool line includes long-johns, jersey pants, wraparound dresses, camisoles and leggings and has a soft, next-to-the-skin feel.
This year, the company is adding apparel made of organic wool as well. “We’ve gone outside of the country to source certified organic Merino wool in Argentina. We just started rolling out an organic wool line. We wanted to source everything here, but you can’t buy organic wool in this country,” says Chappell. “All our clothes are cut and sewn here (in the US),” he adds, citing a cut-and-sew facility in Kennebunk.
The organic wool line is certified by GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard). The GOTS label, he explains, “means that everything, not just how the sheep are raised and sheared, but every step in the process—getting spun into yarn, made into fabric, cut and sewn into a garment—has to be GOTS certified.”
This textile-processing standard does not allow fleece to be super-washed with a chlorinated process, he says. “We use a natural enzyme process. It’s better for the wool. It keeps it stronger.” Rambler’s Way is working with a GOTS certified fabric maker in Massachusetts and plans to expand their organic fiber line.
Rambler’s Way, a family-owned, private company, launched in 2009 by Tom Chappell of Tom’s of Maine fame, has a long-term goal to rejuvenate the American clothing industry with USA cut-and-sewn garments made of sustainably raised and processed natural fabrics—linen, cotton and wool.
The company currently operates three retail stores—in Kennebunk and in Portsmouth and Hanover, N.H. Another store in Portland is expected to open this fall.
This article was reprinted from the fall 2017 issue of Green & Healthy Maine Homes. Subscribe today!