The warmth of Wisconsin wool
Wisconsin’s agriculture community is profoundly diverse, providing a wide variety of products for every season. During the cold winter months, I’m thankful for Wisconsin’s farmers and the hard work that they do each and every day by supplying us with animal fibers to help keep us warm. Among my favorites is wool.
Sheep wool has withstood the test of time. Wool fibers trap air and heat, providing warmth from the most extreme conditions. Sheep have been a part of Wisconsin agriculture dating back to the 1800s, when Wisconsin ranked second in the nation for the number of sheep raised.
The roots of those early breeders’ organizations still branch out across the state. In 2019, Wisconsin was home to nearly 75,000 head of sheep. Some sheep are mainly used for wool, while others are bred for meat. Altogether, more than 50,000 sheep were shorn and produced more than 330,000 pounds of wool.
Typically, sheep are sheared once a year depending on 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 meat or wool breeds, the wool from all breeds of sheep can be used in different ways. Depending on the breed, sheep's wool contains various amounts of lanolin, which is used in skin products and works as a great moisturizer.
Wool is a protein fiber formed in the skin of sheep and is 100% natural. Since the Stone Age, wool has been appreciated as one of the most effective forms of all-weather protection. In fact, many manufacturers try to mimic the unique properties of this fiber. Wool is a hygroscopic fiber, meaning 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. As a result, 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.
Wool is highly versatile because it comes in many varieties. The differences in wool textures – fine, soft, thick, coarse – determine 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 for soft sweaters, socks and scarves. The fibers in wool are also naturally elastic, so they can stretch without breaking.
Wisconsin’s sheep and wool community is filled with variety, quality and a rich history. It is a growing industry that puts food on our tables to clothes in our closets. Look for Wisconsin wool in your community, and follow #WisconsinWool on Facebook and Instagram to learn more about this exciting industry.
Julia Nunes is Wisconsin's 74th Alice in Dairyland