Future Perfect Return to Wool

Sardinian spinning company where brigasque wool carpets are produced.
Photo: Tapis Brigasques

French sheep breeders and wool crafters join forces to restructure an ancient trade.

In spring of 2015, about 20 breeders of endangered sheep breed “Raïole” launched the local wool initiative Raïolaine in the French county of Gard [“laine”, in French, is wool]. They organize collective shearing and sorting days in order to re-learn how to handle wool responsibly and to distinguish its various qualities with an awareness of the final product – bedding, yarn, felting or weaving. Raïolaine is just one of many such initiatives.

Just a few years ago, sheep wool was considered little more than trash in France. Today, initiatives are springing up all over the country to re-valorize this renewable resource. “More and more people question waste, long transport routes, manufacturing practices, the way we use natural resources,” says Marie-Thérèse Chaupin, founder of an association called Atelier Laines d’Europe, which represents about 250 activists from the industry. “There is a movement to encourage local development,” Marie-Thérèse adds.

The Atelier Laines d’Europe was founded in 1989 in an effort to raise awareness for local endangered sheep breeds and to strengthen the textile industry. At the same time, the Atelier has created a network of small businesses, which enables breeders to process their own raw materials into finished products. Thanks to the variety and diversity of its members’ skills, the network offers regular workshops, teaching interested participants everything from the foundations of wool to categorizing and sorting the fleeces to shearing and creating the products. The Atelier also helps its members market their products - the label “ATELIER” reassures consumers about the origin of the raw materials that were used in their product.

Competing with synthetic fabrics

Yet structural problems are plaguing the French wool industry, making it difficult to meet the growing demand for local products. For millennia, wool was the sheep breeders’ main source of income and an essential household staple well into the 20th century. Since the war, however, synthetic fabrics like nylon have slowly ousted wool. Today, synthetics make up 60 percent of the textile market. Selling wool to agents has become unprofitable - it does not even cover the cost of shearing, which is an average of one Euro per animal.

What is more, only ten percent of French wool is processed in France. The rest is exported, mainly to Asia. “The bulk of wool used in apparel comes from Australia and New Zealand, it is typically washed and spun in China, and sometimes it is woven or knitted in Europe’s few remaining factories,” Marie-Thérèse Chaupin explains.

Wool used to be processed by mostly small operations wherever there was flowing water – spinning mills, weaving mills, washing plants and production sites for mattresses. Only those who modernized survived – such as the spinning mill filature Terrade in Felletin in Creuse, which has been around since 1910. The small business with six employees is one of the last remaining operations in France that process fleece into yarn. The industry’s current Achilles' heel is washing the wool, says Marie-Thérèse Chaupin. “If this link of the production chain disappears, the whole industry will collapse.”

Condensing the production chain

The Raïolaine sheep breeders work with artisans in their immediate vicinity in order to support the local economy. After shearing, the wool is sent to be washed at Laurent Laine in Haute-Loire, a company that also manufactures wool mattresses, duvets, and pillows. Another part of the washed wool is taken to the county of Tarn, where it is spun, woven, or knitted. In Ardèche, the coop Ardelaine, founded in 1982, successfully united 14 wool operations into one company that does everything from shearing to carding to felting, spinning, and knitting.

Some other counties are left without any washing and spinning infrastructures at all, as is the case in the maritime Alps, where animal breeders have founded an association for the promotion of shepherding (Appam). The wool from their Brigasca sheep is processed in Sardinia. The wool from this breed of sheep, which is common in the Alps and the Italian Piemont, yet in danger of extinction, is great for making carpets. The owners sort the wool, the association takes care of the processing. In return, the shepherds commit to selling the finished carpets and get to keep a portion of the profits. Word-of-mouth advertising travels fast, and at annual fairs and farmer’s markets, the shepherds are flooded with orders.

A new image for the profession

Elsewhere, the trade is enjoying a renaissance, as well. Fifteen animal breeders in the PACA and Rhône-Alpes regions have founded the association Mérilainos. And in the Champagne-Ardenne area, some regional wool representatives have met for a professional exchange as recently as late September 2016. The renewed interest in wool is already making a difference in many places. Increased processing into finished products, for example, has boosted the price for raw wool (60 - 90 cents per kilo of white wool, up from 30 cents previously). “The fact that animal breeders can see the final product that was made from their wool has changed attitudes,” Appam-employee Marie Diemert reports. “They have gained an awareness of the value and the potential of wool.” Olivier Bel from the Mérilainos association has noticed a change in the perception of his profession: “It is a way to resist agricultural industrialization and the specialization that agricultural policy is trying to impose on us.”

One thing is for sure: Despite all the challenges, sheep breeders have a renewed interest in wool, and consumers expect local products from renewable resources. The resulting synergies will help rebuild an entire industry at the regional scale.