Saturday, September 27, 2008

Knitting with Australian merino wool

Once again, the issue of animal rights and knitting with merino wool has come up in one of the many discussion groups I belong to. I'm sure PETA's heart is in the right place, but whether any of them have actually spent time on a sheep property, seems unlikely. There are no easy answers, to any industry which involves animals. However, I totally respect others', including the vegan, point of view, and I think it's wonderful that plant fibres and synthetic products are available.

It's a matter of choice - and for me, that choice is based on what I can learn about the production processes of any fibre. To me, there's no point saying "I won't knit with wool because the sheep are brutally mulesed" (which is what PETA is saying) when I will buy a ball of bamboo yarn that's harvested by animal-powered ploughs and processed by underage, underpaid kids, using toxic chemicals which are banned in most countries.

These are extreme exaggerations, but my point is to learn everything you can about the effect of your purchase on animal rights, human rights, and environmental impact so you can make an informed decision.

Here's my post I sent to the Etsy knitters list (warning, it's long!):


Re: Save the Sheep! etc

For those who wish to use wool products, and who do not have wool
allergies (I have many allergies but not to wool), I would like to
clarify some points from my personal experience. For those who don't use
wool, don't want to, and who have allergies, none of the following is
relevant so I preface this by saying I am not vegan and just as I
respect others' choices, please respect mine. It is very possible, even
likely, to knit ethically with Australian wool.

I live in Australia, and have worked as a shearer's cook and seen
many shearing sheds, and I have shorn sheep myself. Even though
thousands of sheep are shorn each day, I have never, ever seen a sheep
treated cruelly. Quite the opposite. Most shearers are expert at their
job, and to see a merino being shorn, and its magnificent, pure white
fleece, coming off cleanly and evenly, is quite amazing. The sheep seem
to be relieved that they've at last got rid of their heavy winter coat,
and skip off into the hot sunny paddocks. Bottom line, if a shearer
damages the fleece, or hurts the sheep, it loses money for the farmer
and that shearer won't be welcome in that shed again.

I come from a long line of wool-producers here in Australia, and I can
honestly say after almost 50 years with a lot of my time spent on
country properties, I have never seen a sheep treated cruelly. Quite
the opposite, as the more pampered the sheep are, the finer and softer
the merino wool is. My aunts and uncles still produce superfine merino
wool, and practice this philosophy, even on huge properties. Mulesing
was already being phased out before PETA launched their campaign.
Mulesing is a primitive practice, difficult and labor-intensive, but in
the past it was a necessary preventive measure to avoid the misery that
is fly-strike, which kills sheep in a horrible, painful manner. Mulesing
was the sheep's equivalent of human circumcision, a temporary pain for a
longterm gain. One of the best new techniques, including plastic clips
and injections, is to breed merinos with less wrinkly skin, thereby
eliminating the need to remove surplus folds of skin (see the link below
for more information on all these techniques).

That said, there will always be cruel producers who mistreat their
animals, in every industry. They are usually the ones who go out of
business quickly because they don't love their animals and they
certainly don't love the wool that is produced.

Also, a major concern for me is environmental, that much of the world
wool clip goes to China to be processed, where the use of toxic
chemicals and harmful processes is unregulated. We can't afford to
process all our wool in Australia, and as China is so cheap, it goes
there to be carded, and to make it machine washable (as that particular
chemical process is not permitted in Australia - hmmm I wonder why).
Then the wool often goes to Europe and Italy to be spun and woven. So,
if I buy an average ball of wool in Australia, it's already travelled
the world, a ridiculous waste of resources.

I am not qualified to comment on the live sheep exports, as those sheep
are produced for their meat. To be honest, it horrifies me. From my
limited understanding, they are sold to Middle East countries and
shipped live because the cultural traditions demand that the sheep be
slaughtered in their countries, and according to the practices of those
countries and their laws.

I love knitting with plant fibres too, particularly bamboo and cotton.
But I also worry whether animal labour is involved in their harvest, and
what chemicals and environmental effects are involved, especially if
they're produced overseas. In many cases, human rights questions are
also relevant, with child labor and fair pay being non-existent in many
fibre-producing countries.

My advice, if you concerned about any fibre you use, find out as much as
you can about it. Where it's grown, where it's processed, where it's spun.

The hand-knitting market is only a fraction of the wool product. So even
if we all stop using wool for knitting, it will not affect the
manufacturers of clothing and fabrics, who are the main buyers. e.g. the
makers of fine business suits, such as Hugo Boss, and Armani, use
Australian merino wool for their fabrics.

If we all stop using wool, unethical practices will be even more common.
More sheep will be sold for their meat, and shipped live to meet the
demand in Middle Eastern countries. My advice is, if you love wool as I
do, ask questions and demand to know the answers, and insist on the best
quality fibre, processing and production, with minimal environmental
impact. It's a long complex process, but if we want to keep using
quality wool, and know that it is ethically produced, that is what we
all have to do.

If you would like to know more about how the Australian wool industry is
working to improve conditions for sheep, visit:

There is a link there to "Battling the Blowfly" which outlines some of
the anti-mulesing techniques being used.



PS I have no interest in any of these organisations, including PETA and
The Australian Wool Corporation. I am simply a knitter who lives in
Sydney. I have distant relatives who are wool producers in Australia.

That was my post.