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Where Does Wool Come From and is Wool Cruel?

Is wool cruel? Where does wool come from? Is shearing sheep cruel? Does shearing hurt sheep? How is wool made? How much wool does a sheep produce? How many sweaters can the wool of one sheep make? Why do some people think that wool is cruel? How is the fleece of a sheep turned into wool for clothing?

Many websites say wool is cruel, but before I begin, I will simply state the facts on how wool is produced and you can decide for yourself if you think wool is cruel, or not. This information is from my own experience (I keep sheep) as well as from a Sheep Production course I took in College as part of the Horse Husbandry program.

Where does Wool Come From?

As you may have guessed, wool comes from sheep, however not every breed of sheep produces wool, some sheep are hair sheep, others produce wool but it is of poor quality, not worth marketing. Different breeds of sheep produce different types of wool, some is better for clothing, and some is better for carpets.

Wool is removed from sheep by shearing them, at which point it is called a fleece. It must be washed, carded, and spun, before it becomes what most people refer to as wool.  It can then be dyed.  

Sheep are usually first sheared at one year of age. Most sheep are sheared only once a year, usually in the spring. Some sheep are sheared twice a year; this is mostly the case for heavier producing sheep in warm climates, for example the Merino sheep in Australia.

© by Author, showing hair sheep and one wool sheep - can you spot the difference?

What are the Issues of Cruelty in the Wool Industry?

At a few days of age lambs have their tails docked. There are several methods of docking a tail, and none are pain-free. Their tails are docked for several reasons one of which is so that their tails do not accumulate manure. Manure will attract flies, and a condition known as fly strike is actually deadly in sheep. Tail docking helps reduce this problem.

Mulesing and Crutching are the main areas of concern in regards to cruelty to sheep. Few people consider crutching cruel, but many consider mulesing to be cruel. Both procedures are common in the Merino breed of sheep, a sheep that is popular in New Zealand and Australia. They produce a lot of wool but have an extra fold of skin on their rump going down the back of their legs. Crutching has been done for years, and is simply the cutting off of this extra wool. Mulesing came into being when a man named Mules cut into the rump of his sheep and actually removed the skin itself. It is done without painkillers or other medications. Again, the goal of this procedure is to remove the fleece around the rump to reduce fly strike which is a huge problem in Australia.

Shearing is done to remove the fleece. Sheep did not originally have the woolly coats they now have. They were bred to produce wool. Natural sheep have hair, with only a few wool type fibers, they shed in the spring, but were selected for wool to develop the wool breeds we have now. Shearing can be done by electric shears or hand shears, it takes only a few minutes (slightly longer with hand shears). The sheep is held in a sitting position which immobilizes it. Sometimes nicks and cuts do happen, but this is never desired and sloppy shearers often do not get rehired. After the sheep is shorn it is released back to its flock. There is no pain in this procedure, but it can be a bit frightening for them.

As said, shearing removes the fleece so it can be used to make wool, additionally it relieves the sheep of its woolly coat to keep it from over heating in the summer. In some areas wool is not worth much, and may even be discarded.

Other Information on Wool

Wool has many uses, it often spun and used in sweaters and gloves but is also woven into tablecloths and to make other fabrics, it is sometimes spun with goat fibers to make a blended wool, wool can also be felted (if not spun) and used for many products, including hats.

Depending on the breed of sheep, one animal can produce 5 to 30 pounds of wool per year, which could be made into 1 to 5 sweaters (depending on the size and thickness of the sweater).

Note there are other kinds of wool, including Angora wool which actually comes from rabbits, Mohair, and Cashmere come from goats.

Some people find wearing wool makes them itch and prefer not to wear it, assuming they have allergies, but true allergies to wool (while they can occur) are very rare.

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Comments (7)

A fascinating look into the world of wool. Docking does sound like it could be cruel, I guess it would depend on the skill of the shearer. It almost sounds like female circumcision, which from what I have read is also done without anesthetics or pain killers. I prefer to wear cotton clothing. There is nothing cruel done to the cotton plants, is there?

In answer to your question Karen, there are concerns with cotton too, of course, however they are environmental concerns, not cruelty ones. The Aral sea was once one of the worlds largest seas - it was pretty much destroyed when water was diverted to grow Cotton. Of course a person could go crazy if they looked into every detail of ethics in regards to clothing - or anything we buy for that matter - the only really "safe" thing would be to buy used - or go naked.

Great information to think about!

Great article Brenda. I love wearing cotton mostly and have never been able to tolerate wool anything. If I could I would just wear loose lightweight cotton clothing all the time.

Oh, yeah, I wanted to ask a question. I was in Nova Scotia (Briar Island) and the lodge where we stayed had sheep with fairly long tails. I have never seen this...it looked odd. Do you know why they would have longer tails. And they were soooo sweet.

Judith, different breeds of sheep have different lengths of tails, hair sheep actually have tails that are about 8 inches long and are not docked, a wool sheep might grow a tail that is 12 inches long, most people dock these when the lambs are a few days old - but not everyone does. The sheep you saw had natural, undocked tails.

Yes, and if cotton is still hand picked (?) the workers living and working conditions are probably cruel as well. Not to mention the conditions in the factories in China where they use child labour to sew the clothes...You can go ahead and live naked though, I need my clothes.

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