The first flock of 400 Merino sheep in the United States came from Spain to Vermont in 1809. The state was at that time nearly deforested by logging and sparsely populated with small subsistence farms. The steep rocky hillsides not suited to most farming is ideal for small and medium size flocks of sheep, combined with political and economic factors (Jeffersonian politics, the war of 1812) created a bubble, they called it ‘the merino craze’. Think “dot com” and “real estate”. By 1837 there were over a million sheep in Vermont, (and only 280,632 people). At the peak, according to the 1840 census, the sheep population reached 1.6 million, making Vermont the ‘sheep capitol of the world’. Initially the majority of the wool was exported but there were more then 80 woolen mills instate. By the mid 1840’s railroads and western expansion had opened up the middle west and the possibility of large scale ranch farming which undercut the prices of Vermont Farmers. Tariffs that kept wool prices high were dropped in 1846 and the market collapsed. The wool industry, still Vermont’s primary industry, limped along, bolstered briefly by the demand for the Civil War Union uniforms, until the 1880’s when it was replaced by Dairy farming. The wool industry moved on in the race to the bottom, westward-ho! This is the same story you’ve heard before: Textile Mills: Devloped in England, the technology was pirated in New England, to be under cut and out sourced by the South who lost to South America, then Asia… Then it happened in manufacturing. Now its our food system. Its all the same story and its scary.
This morning over at Moth Heaven Julia wrote: “yarns to me are the equivalent of heirloom tomatoes or an endangered species…” (Go read the whole post its a good one). And it gets me to my point: people still farm in Vermont but its a shadow of what it used to be. More and more farms are being converted to “farms” and lovely as these beautification projects are in the landscape it doesn’t mean the same thing, doesn’t do the same thing for the community, for the economy or the land. Every yarn has its time and its place but there is more to the story of domestic wool then just where its grown.