Wool – the fabric of kings?

Wool, so well-known and self-evident that no one thinks twice about it. A natural material, sometimes noble, sometimes scratchy. But where does wool, sheep’s wool, come from? How and where is it processed? Does Swiss sheep’s wool still exist? And should we use wool in Cervo Volante? We have been pondering these questions and would like to pass on to you the exciting facts we have found.

Sheep wool for burning?

In the old days, sheep’s wool had a very high value – it was used for high-quality clothing and items such as sails and carpets. Wool was about ten times as valuable as the meat of sheep, and was even called the white gold and the fabric of kings. In recent decades, however, the wool decline set in in Switzerland, as in most regions of Europe: as a consequence of the further development of synthetic fibres, which are much cheaper and better suited for rapid mass production, wool has become an annoying by-product of meat production, which people want to get rid of as quickly and cheaply as possible. So valuable sheep’s wool is burnt or otherwise destroyed. Sound familiar? Exactly – sheep’s wool has met the same fate as deer skins in Switzerland. Insane, we think.

Together and warm as wool through the winter: Cervo Volante co-founder Conny wears FÜXIN, the sustainable wool jacket by Cervo Volante with a removable lining made of vegetable-tanned Swiss fox fur from nature.

Highly functional natural raw material

Because sheep’s wool is a high-quality natural raw material that cannot be praised enough. Wool “grows back” and is biodegradable. Wool is durable, only hardly inflammable and extremely versatile. It is easy to work with and is associated with tradition, quality and longevity. The material cleans itself – air it well and it can be used again. The wool fibres are also very good at absorbing moisture – since heat is generated in the fibres during this process, wool never feels cold – even when wet, unlike cotton. Wool warms when it is cold and cools when it is hot. At the same time, wool has a water-repellent effect, thanks to the scale-like surface of the fibres, which are additionally surrounded by lanolin, the wool wax. Therefore, moisture can easily be wiped off a woollen blanket before it really gets wet. Last but not least, wool is said to neutralise air pollutants (as natural scientists, we can’t explain this, but not everything has to be explained).

Swiss wool has become a rarity.

Synthetics and cotton have almost completely replaced wool in the textile sector. Where wool is still used in textiles, it is usually mixed with synthetic fibres. Pure wool fabrics and wool knits mostly originate from merino sheep from Australia.
Over 400,000 sheep populate the Swiss mountain region and provide around 900,000 kg of wool annually. This Valais black-nosed sheep, popularly called “Ghornuti” because of its imposing horns, is a rare domestic sheep breed of the Upper Valais.

Wool decline and resurgence

Not surprisingly, Swiss sheep’s wool has become a rare commodity, because shearing sheep no longer pays. While shearing would typically cost around seven francs, a sheep farmer would receive an average of just one franc per kilo of wool, i.e. around two to five francs per sheep (depending on the colour and quality of the wool).

Shearing sheep requires a lot of skill and care. However, from an economic point of view, this work is hardly worthwhile in Switzerland any more.

In the 1950s it was still ten francs per kilo. At that time, the Confederation operated a domestic wool centre that collected all Swiss sheep’s wool and brought it to the market. The purchase of the wool was guaranteed and the price was fixed. In 2009, the Inland Wool Centre had to be closed because the Confederation withdrew from its participation. However, thanks to subsidies from the Federal Office for Agriculture for the utilisation of domestic sheep’s wool and for innovative projects for its ecologically and economically sensible use, the complete decline of wool was prevented. Since then, initiatives such as Swisswool have emerged, which have re-established wool collection points and pay sheep farmers a fixed price for their wool. As the main partner of this initiative, Ortovox uses Swiss wool fleece as insulation in their sportswear. Nevertheless, the entire textile production chain from raw wool to finished yarn or even wool fabric such as loden, fuller’s wool or tweed no longer exists in Switzerland.

Shearing, sorting, washing, carding, finishing, spinning, twisting….

Many specialised working techniques are required in specially equipped workshops until the finished woollen yarn is produced.

However, there are young companies, such as Wollsein, which have set themselves the goal of re-establishing this textile production chain with wool in Switzerland. In addition, Muntagnard has developed a beautiful wool fabric with Swiss wool in Italy and from it a winter jacket, nota bene with deerskin details by Cervo Volante.

It takes several steps to make a ball of wool. During spinning, a uniform thread is produced by distorting and twisting together individual short fibres or fibre bundles. The yarn is then wound into a ball or skein. What used to be done laboriously by hand with a spinning wheel is today usually done fully automatically. 

Black sheep – the downside side of wool

Obviously, sheep are not wild like “our” red deer, but come from agricultural breeding. Honestly, therefore, we do not want to leave the downside of sheep breeding and thus of wool unmentioned. How beneficial the approximately 400,000 Swiss domestic sheep really are for keeping alpine pastures open and for biodiversity depends on how well the sheep flocks are managed and kept. Too much grazing pressure can cause lasting damage to the sometimes sensitive alpine vegetation, trampling damage and problems with wildlife. For example, sheep can transmit diseases such as chamois blindness to chamois and contribute to a population decline of this wild ungulate. Therefore, shepherding, electric fences against large predators and regular checks on the health status of sheep would be a must. Not only from the point of view of nature and animal welfare, but also for the sake of wool quality. All this would provide sufficient content for a separate blog post.

Sheep wool at Cervo Volante

Unfortunately, we do not have wild wool. However, as an alternative to synthetics, cotton and mixed fibres, we consider sheep’s wool a wonderful raw material for shoe linings or textiles. Our multifunctional cabana and parka coats have a heart made of vegetable-tanned wild fox fur. Obtained in the course of sustainable Swiss hunting, and saved from being flogged, this noble natural fur finds discreet use in our jackets as a removable lining gilet. The outer shell is made of a water-repellent, soft loden fabric made from sheep’s wool.

Co-founder Marc wears the wild fox caban FUX and the Weekender VIADI in Zurich’s old town

And since wool fabric production is not yet possible in Switzerland, we found what we were looking for from our neighbours in Austria. A traditional Styrian loden mill supplies us with the high-quality dark blue sheep’s wool fabric. Available for clever Füxinnen (Lady-Fox) and Füxe (Men-Fox).

Anybody who has cold feet can equip themselves with hand-felted insoles made from Uri sheep’s wool in our shop in Zurich.

At Christmas, we want to specially commemorate the wonderful raw material of sheep, and support those who earn their living from it. In Estonia, the home of Cervo Volante co-founder Kadri, sheep and local wool are even more firmly anchored in the culture, and the wool craft still exists. We are therefore giving our customers a pair of woolly-soft gloves, handmade in Estonia with Baltic sheep’s wool, with every shoe order* until the end of January.

* Shoe models Curaglia, God Grisch, Val Verda, Gamperfin, Breil, Samada, Pardiel, Falcun, Müstaila and Val Flin.

Cover photo: Kadri, co-founder of Cervo Volante with her family in her home country Estonia. She wears the deerskin boot God Grisch in dark brown, her husband Patrick wears the Curaglia, oak-tanned and undyed.

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References: A Fresh Look at Wool” by Ingun Grimstad Klepp, Tone Skårdal Tobiasson, Charlotte Bik Bandlien, 2010

“Valuing Norwegian Wool”, a technical report by Marie Hebrok, Kirsi Laitala, Ingun Grimstad Klepp et al., 2012

“Jääkvill” (in German “Restwolle”), Master’s thesis by Katrin Kabun, Eesti Kunstiakadeemia, 2017

https://www.fiwo.ch/schafwollankauf/ankaufspreise-1/

FOAG, Evaluation of the Ordinance on the Utilisation of Domestic Sheep’s Wool Evaluation Report, August 2015

Archive for Agricultural History, Peter Moser

From sheep to jumper, 02.11.2017, Wollwerkstatt

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