Call me old fashioned, but I was taught to believe that a woolen sweater was made out of, well, wool –the stuff my mother insisted on knitting for me to wear during the brutal Winnipeg winters when I was a child: woolen socks, woolen vests, woolen toques, woolen scarves, and those little woolen mittens on strings that kept toddlers like me from losing them in snowbanks -or helping parents to find their kids if a snowplough accidentally buried them.
I have to confess that I’ve always hated the wool my mother used, though. Maybe Winnipeg sheep were different in those days, or maybe they hadn’t yet invented GMO wool that was soft, and non-itchy, but I suspect it was probably a punishment -nobody else in the family got sweaters with little twigs in them.
Oh, and you know those curling sweaters that used to be all the rage -the ones with the two crossed brooms over the curling rock? She knitted one for me with a broom whose handle didn’t even reach the sweepy part -and no rock. Maybe she just didn’t want to spoil me, though -I cling to that.
And then they started mixing synthetics with wool -I always read the little tag inside the neck, or wherever. It was cheaper than pure wool and a lot softer. I began to welcome the idea of a little bit of polyester, but I still wanted to know what I was wearing -I’d lived too long in the old wool days, when I needed to know whether or not I could wash it without Woolite. Wash it without needing to spend the rest of the morning picking the little woollen hairlets off my Che and Grateful Dead tee shirts. Let’s face it, when the integrity of an entire washing load, not to mention the little screen in the dryer, was at stake I couldn’t take anything for granted. Wars have probably been fought over less… okay, divorces anyway.
When I discovered mohair and cashmere however, I realized I had badly misjudged things. Unlike the wool I had come to dread, this stuff didn’t cause rashes, or bouts of sneezing, and my feet no longer yearned to run naked through the snow. I learned that not all wool is wool. I mean it’s all just hair, I suppose, but good wool is hair on parole. Warned hair. It’s generally softer, more elastic and warmer. And, unlike the hair on the average teenager, it retains its dye permanently.
But vegan wool? I mean, whoever comes up with these names should get a life, eh? Wool’s probably gluten free already, so why would anybody want to mess with it? Why would anybody want to put all those sheep who wander blissfully over hill and dale spreading methane hither and thither, out of business? Or did I just answer my own question? Anyway, let’s face it, even if we didn’t shear them, we -or something else- would eat them; and wolves wouldn’t knit his-and-her sweaters out of the wool that covers the chops, right? So let’s dispense with the guilt.
When I first heard of the movement to rid the world of the evils of shearing, I have to confess I didn’t believe it. I mean it’s not like plucking the feathers off a live chicken, or anything. It’s actually more like holding a squirming child down for a haircut. You let them run around the room when it’s over, and they forget all about it. They rarely need therapy in later life.
There are those who object to shearing anything, however -it’s just too cruel, apparently. I suspect the objectors are the same people who post covert videos of their barbers in flagrante delicto and bring a friend along to their hairdressing appointments to witness and film any depilatory malfeasance. At any rate, it would seem that the race is on to eliminate animal wool altogether. Just how the animals will fare with long shaggy, unkempt woolen coats hanging from them they do not say, however -out of store, out of mind, I suppose. Perhaps there will be an opening for sheep combers, or a market for makers of plus-size barrettes, though, so it may not end up in a zero-sum game.
I came across an article in the Smithsonian Magazine that attempted to clarify the current state of artifice -or at least, wool kludging:
‘… what if you could make wool without using sheep at all? That’s what a group of Colombian students have done, devising a wool alternative made from hemp and coconut fibers treated with mushroom enzymes. Calling their product Woocoa, they hope it might make farming sheep for wool unnecessary. … Coconut fiber is an agricultural waste that could economically benefit communities in the Caribbean coast of Colombia. And hemp could be grown as a replacement of illegal crops on areas that were afflicted by the internal conflict with the rebel group FARC… But while coconut fiber and hemp met the requirements for sustainability, they did not feel at all like wool. So the team began experimenting with making the fibers softer. Consulting professors from the biology, chemical engineering and design departments of their university, they found they could use mushroom enzymes to degrade lignin, the organic polymers that make plant cells hard and rough. This made the coconut fiber and hemp much softer and more wool-like. It also removed their natural colors, priming the material for dying.’
But wait, ‘… designers and clothing manufacturers have partnered with biotech to begin offering more animal-free alternatives: synthetic spider silk, artificial duck and goose down, high-tech faux fur, and vegan leather derived from everything from pineapples to winemaking waste.’ At the very least, I see a lot of unemployed animals in our future.
And I’m not at all sure that by leaving them alone we are ensuring their welfare. Over the years that we’ve used their products, we’ve managed to shrink or pollute their natural habitats, and cull many of those animals who couldn’t cope on the periphery. Let’s face it, we’re just not going to be able to re-wild cows in the few unfarmed areas of our world. And I think sheep have it pretty good for much of their lives -probably more so than many of us.
No, what I think we should be focussing on at the very least, is the humane treatment of those animals that are important to us, or with whom we come into contact. Sentience, however far removed from hominid kinship, and no matter its rank on the food chain, deserves respect. We are all animals, and the infliction of needless pain and suffering is morally indefensible.
In fact, while we’re at it, if shearing is so bad, maybe somebody should be working on a way of holding a mirror up to our own faces. Maybe men shouldn’t be allowed to shave… I just know deodorant will be next, though.