Superwash: Woolness for the US wool industry

Today we are delighted to share with you a blog post which Krista McCurdy wrote for her own website, Pigeon Roof Studio. The topic of superwash wool is one on which many of us have a strong opinion. Here at Wovember we have had posts from people who like superwash for its ease of care and many others who malign the harsh or plasticising chemical process through which wool becomes “superwash”. Team Wovember have definitely had our own opinions on superwash wool for our own knitting, until Felix brought this blog to a Wovember planning meeting. Like any really fantastic piece of polemic, this piece had us doing a little soul-searching. Reading it offered us opportunities to think in a broader and more nuanced way about the superwash process and its relationship to the continuance of the wool trade. We are sharing it with you because we think it touches on some really crucial issues, and because we felt it is – in and of itself – a brilliant piece of Woolness Activism. The writer speaks out in spite of the possible unpopularity of her opinion, delivers some crisp home truths, and leaves the reader with much to ponder. We are very grateful to Krista, not only for allowing us to repost her blog, but for opening our eyes a little, too.

To Be or Not To Be a Hypocrite:

American Superwash Wool

Superwash is something I have come to have very strong feelings about. American superwash, that is. I’m well aware that I may not win any popularity contests from this post.

Superwash yarns have become a hot button topic over the last few years, with many “lifestyle” blogs and podcasts talking about the evils of it and its toxicity and that if only people knew what the process was they wouldn’t buy it. There’s just one problem. If you are an American who cares about bringing back the American wool industry, of growing it, of having more yarns grown in the US, sheep farmers getting good prices for their wool to stay in business, talks about wanting transparency of supply chains and buying clothing and such where one knows the entire path from beginning to end… and says that superwash is evil and that people should shun it, you’re a hypocrite. The American wool industry has been revitalized because of the superwash process.

say whaaat?

This isn’t something one hears. In fact, that information seems to be deliberately overlooked– or simply not looked into at all — in lieu of eco-conscious sounding sound bites.

America has super washing facilities. We have the facilities on American soil because of the U.S. military. In 2011 Congress passed an extension to the Berry Amendment, which mandated that all American military apparel be made in the U.S. From the thread to the buttons, every single component has to be American sourced or made. The Sheep Venture Co in association with the American Sheep Industry Association, spent $800,000 to bring super washing equipment to Chargeurs Wool USA in Jamestown, South Carolina in 2011. Chargeurs is the only remaining top making facility in the United States, and one of only two remaining commercial scouring facilities.

The argument that it doesn’t take that much extra time to hand wash and care for one’s wool items? Somehow I don’t think a soldier in Afghanistan or anywhere else, for that matter, is going to be able to have hand washing his or her socks a priority.

The military purchases 20% of the American wool clip. Let me repeat that. The military purchases twenty percent of the American wool clip. That is a large percentage. That is a lot of sheep farmers who are benefitting from just this 20%. However, they are able to do so now because wool can be super washed. It makes wool viable for combat clothing in almost every application, including jackets, pants, underwear, headwear, gloves, and socks.

Wool is inherently flame resistant, making it an ideal base for fabrics that will be made into uniforms soldiers will wear. They are working on a light wool-based fire-resistant fabric to improve combat uniforms, which is composed of 50% wool, 42% Nomex, 5% Kevlar, and 2% P140 anti-static fiber. The decision to start looking at wool was due to improvised IED issues in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2017 the military bought 60 different items made from wool, from Army berets to Navy pea coats, to Air Force dress uniforms. The wool that goes into those is processed at Chargeurs. The super washing process availability is important enough that one military leader wrote in an Army newsletter that it had “revitalized wool manufacturing in this country.” In fact, wool production in the US has been stable over the past five years, with some 50-60% of the American wool clip being utilized within the U.S., whereas it had dropped in the decade before.

The reintroduction of the superwash process and the Buy American movement has increased the interest and commitment of the American wool-sock industry to buying American wool. Commercial textile and knitting firms in the US buy U.S. top and wool because they can buy domestic wool and have the entire process done in America. This as well benefits the Department of Defense as they can purchase all American made products with shorter lead times, reduced freight costs, and can purchase smaller quantities. Diego Paullier, the commercial manager of Chargers Wool USA says, “Superwash has opened new markets and created more demand for American wool.” He also estimates that Chargeurs business has grown by 10% since their superwash line was introduced.

Besides the military, there are several wool companies leading the trend of American sourced wool, such as Duckworth, a Montana based wool company. Robert Bernthal, the founder, wanted every stage of the process of production, from raising the sheep to processing the wool to sewing the apparel, to take place in the U.S. Before the superwash process was reintroduced to the U.S., that would have been impossible.

Now, because of superwash, there is a transparency of the wool supply chain, connecting consumers with the ranchers. Roberts Ranch in Wyoming produces the wool that is used by the hosiery company Farm to Feet; Lehfeldt Ranch in Montana produces the wool for base layer knitter Ibex, and Helle Rambouillet in Montana partners with Duckworth. According to Graham Stewart, the founder of Duckworth, American Merino has “more crimp, loft, and natural stretch than wool grown in other parts of the world.” Additionally, American sheep are non-mulesed.

In February of 2017, Clara Parkes, of Knitters Review, wrote about the American Sheep Industry Association’s annual conference. As she writes, “It’s important to note that any completely made-in-America, machine washable wool clothing or yarn was not a possibility until 2011…From this simple act sprung several new companies featuring all-domestic machine washable items.” She writes about Nester Hosiery, who produce the line Farm to Feet, and how, launching the line in 2013, was able to get everything, “even the nylon, the paperboard wraps on each pair of socks, the in-store displays, is made in this country…in 2016 alone the business grew by 90%.”

The Slow Fashion movement has been growing in popularity over the last few years, with one of the emphases being on traceable origins. Knowing where your clothing comes from, where the material comes from. And yet, the loudest champions of this movement are also the most vocal about the evils of superwash. That’s where my hackles rise.

If you choose not to purchase superwash yarn because you disagree with the fact that it is a chemical process that super washes the wool, that is totally fine. I will mention, however, that Chargeurs does have their own wastewater facilities. The reason the plant is on 550 acres of land in a rural area is because of that wastewater facility and that wastewater treatment requires lots of space. Chargeurs does save the lanolin it removes from the fleeces during the washing process as well.

However, it is absolutely ok to make the decision that you are not going to work with superwash yarn. It is an individual decision. If you feel that it’s the most environmentally friendly decision for you, that’s great.

What is not ok with me is to be prosthelytized to about the evils of superwash at the same time one is lamenting the demise of the wool industry in America, and talking about how to support American farmers and support the American wool industry. Granted, there are marvellous yarn lines like Brooklyn Tweed and Quince & Co yarn, that are non-superwash, but, in the grand scheme of things, knitting yarn companies are a drop in the bucket.

It absolutely boggles my mind how all of what I’ve just written about above doesn’t get talked about. Or, on the rare occasions it’s mentioned, it’s like, “oh, yeah, there are superwash facilities in the U.S….but superwash is awful and everyone should make better choices of non superwash wool.”

Superwash has literally been a game changer for the American wool industry. It’s time to acknowledge that.

Krista McCurdy

We are interested in what you feel about superwash wool and encourage sensible debate in the comments below. Again, we are really grateful to Krista for giving us permission to share her post here at Wovember

You can read more of Kirsta’s blog and discover more about her hand-dyed yarn and fibre at Pigeonroof Studios . Thanks so much again, Krista.