Wisconsin’s sheep and wool industry is a tight “knit” family

Crystal Siemers-Peterman
Alice in Dairyland

The diversity of Wisconsin agriculture is truly our greatest strength. During the cold winter months, I am thankful for all Wisconsin farmers and the hard work that they do each and every day.

Alice in Dairyland Crystal Siemers-Peterman holds a newborn lamb.

Wisconsin farmers supply us with fibers from different animals to help keep us warm. Sheep wool is one fiber that stands the test of time and provides a beautiful end product.

Traveling across the state, I have had the opportunity to visit Huber Sheep Farm in Wisconsin Dells, Hidden Valley Woolen Mill in Valders, and Susan’s Fiber Shop in Columbus. Wisconsin’s sheep and wool industry is a tight “knit” family and their passion for preserving their community is evident.

Sheep have been a part of Wisconsin agriculture dating back to the 1800’s when Wisconsin ranked second in the nation for the number of sheep raised in the state. The roots of those early breeders’ organizations still reach out across the state today. Wisconsin is home to nearly 76,000 head of sheep. While some of those sheep are used for other purposes like meat, there were 51,000 sheep that were shorn in 2017. Altogether, those sheep produced more than 340,000 pounds of wool.

Typically, sheep are sheared once a year depending on the breed. It takes only a few minutes to shear a sheep. In Wisconsin, each sheep produces an average of 6.7 pounds of wool. Although sheep are classified into either meat or wool breeds, the wool from all breeds of sheep can be utilized in one way or another. Depending on the breed of sheep, sheep's wool contains various amounts of lanolin, which is extensively used in skin products and works as a great moisturizer.

Wool is a protein fiber formed in the skin of sheep, and is thus one hundred percent natural, not man-made. Since the Stone Age, wool has been appreciated as one of the most effective forms of all-weather protection known to man. In fact, many manufacturers try to mimic the unique properties of this fiber.

Wool is a hygroscopic fiber which means that when the humidity of the surrounding air rises and falls, the fiber absorbs and releases water vapor. Wool is also hydrophilic, meaning that it is highly absorbent and retains liquids. Thus, the fibers dye easily and maintain the color without fading or running. Wool also maintains its appearance in the longer term, adding value to the product and its lifespan.

“Come FLY with me!” During 1968 and 1969 Alice in Dairyland flew over 50,000 miles across the United States. Alice is wearing a fashionable dress made from the wool of high quality sheep just like her somewhat timid friend here.

Wool is very versatile because it comes in so many varieties. The differences textures of fine, soft, thick, or coarse determines how the fiber is processed.  The heavier fleeces are more likely to be used for rugs, carpeting, or outwear like coats. The softer fleeces will be used more for clothing like soft sweaters, socks, and scarves. The fibers in wool are naturally elastic, so they can stretch; but won’t break.

As I travel to various television and radio stations across the state talking about Wisconsin’s sheep and wool industry, it’s fun to reflect on a similar campaign. Paging through many files and articles in the “Alice” history book, over 50 years ago, past Alice in Dairyland's participated in a unique campaign that supported Wisconsin wool.

“The Make It Yourself With Wool,” program served as a very unique program as it was the only event of its kind on the approved list of the National Association of Secondary School Principals and was honored by schools and universities throughout the nation.

To participate, a girl or boy needed to purchase at least 95% American loomed wool, create a garment by sewing, knitting or crocheting along with completing and mailing an entry form. Today, “Make it With Wool” is an annual youth-centered sewing competition to promote wool and its versatility. It is sponsored by the American Wool Council, the American Sheep Industry, and American Sheep Industry Women.

Wisconsin’s sheep and wool community is filled with variety, quality and a rich history. It is a growing industry that offers food on our table to clothes in our closet. Follow #WisconsinWool on Facebook and Instagram to learn more about this exciting industry!