Why don’t goats produce wool the way sheep do?

Strictly speaking?

Because goats produce their own spinnable fibre – notably the Cashmere goat breeds and the Angora goat, which produce cashmere and mohair respectively. Yes, mohair – not angora, which is produced by the Angora rabbit.

Historically, or rather paleoagriculturally, sheep appear to have been bred primarily for their wool, whereas goats seem to have been bred primarily for milk, although there are such things as milk sheep and, clearly, fibre goats. I can only hazard a guess that the primitive sheep domesticated by our ancestors must have produced more fibre than goats did*, and/or that primitive domesticated goats had more milk or were easier to milk than sheep

Milk goat

Milk sheep.

Yep, definitely easier to milk the goat.


* – The Jacob sheep, a relatively primitive breed, produces about 2–3kg fleece, whereas (modern) Cashmere goats produce only 1kg.

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What’s the carbon footprint of wool?

Somewhere between zero and a non-trivial fraction of infinity, depending on the production, preparation, marketing and post-purchase care, the locations thereof, and transportation methodologies between.

You’re going to have to be a lot more specific.

Can wool be synthetically made without sheep?

No.

It is possible to make something that looks like wool, either with plant materials or, more usually, petrochemicals.

Cotton and linen, two common plant-based yarns, can look the same but are cooling rather than insulating, flammable rather than inflammable, heavy rather than light, and liable to stretch irreparably rather than keep its shape. Other plant-based fibres such as viscose and ramie (e.g., bamboo, sugarcane, cornsilk) are similar. Their production, and that of cotton in particular, is also rather bad for the environment.

Petrochemicals, such as acrylic, are sweaty, very flammable (and melt into your skin when they do, which is oodles of fun at the Burns Unit), appallingly bad for the environment for centuries, and are only “easy care” if you wash them on the same cycle as wool – and even then, they shed microplastics into the watercourse and thence to rivers, lakes and seas.

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Does shearing a sheep’s wool hurt the sheep in any way? If it did hurt the sheep, could you just “trim” the wool instead of taking it all off?

No. It’s like you getting a haircut.

Trimming is the same as cutting, in hair terms – except less hair is removed. Trimming wool does not help the sheep; it leaves most of the wool in place which is uncomfortable and unhealthy. In addition, the trimmed wool ends would be too short to have any commercial value and would end up in landfill. As wool flocks would no longer have any commercial value, thousands of sheep farmers would go out of business and their flocks would be slaughtered. Those industries dependent on sheep wool would have to turn instead to synthetic alternatives which are very damaging to the environment.

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How do I store wool for a long period?

The main issue with storing wool is making certain that moths don’t get at it. Wool can survive almost anything else.

The best method is sealing it in something airtight. This might be some kind of sealable plastic box, or vacuum bags – the kind that you suck the air out of with your vacuum cleaner. NB: the vacuum method may leave the wool flat and crinkled, but you can restore it by steaming it for a few hours. Place the wool in your freezer for a few days before storage: this should kill off any moth eggs that might inadvertently have got into it (this also works for wool garments that have been infested with moth larva).

However, if you mean raw wool, just off the sheep, don’t seal it in plastic: that will just allow it to stew in the sweat and grease. Might not harm the wool, but no one will want to touch it afterwards. Raw wool should be scoured – cleaned – before long-term storage, and placed in an air-permeable bag – hessian, cotton, or hemp is good, or failing that an open plastic bag – if you’re just taking it to be scoured.

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How did early people discover or develop the complex process of making clothes from wool, and did this knowledge precede the domestication of sheep?

I’ll direct you to my previous answer: Do we know the first people to figure out how to make wool from sheep, and how did they do it? and specifically this part:


… We now have the technology (sewing needles), but how do we get thread from wool?

Boredom.

I believe the next stage is a quantum leap from puffs of shed wool to thread, by means of boredom. Tending sheep is a dull business, even with plenty of Neolithic predators about. It’s hours, days, weeks of sitting around watching the woolly buggers eat, baa, and occasionally boink. I think some bored shepherd boy, or probably many bored shepherd boys and girls of all ages, in different places over thousands of years, got in the habit of picking up a piece of shed wool and twiddling with it. In the course of twiddling, they accidentally pulled some strands of wool together and twisted it – and, as wool tends to do, those strands stayed together, and just kept on coming, until the bundle of shed wool disappeared. I’ve done this with a ball of cotton wool while sitting bored in an A&E, waiting for an X-ray. It can be done with little to no attention or intention.

So now we have wool thread. It gets used for sewing. Then, someone has the bright idea of weaving with wool thread. And this happened between 6,000 and 3,500 years ago…


Did this knowledge precede the domestication of sheep?

In my previous answer, I assumed that this happened after sheep were domesticated. I based this on three facts:

  1. sewing seems to have been invented 50,000 years ago (and therefore thread),
  2. sheep were domesticated between 9,000 and 11,000 years ago – probably for meat, milk and skins, and
  3. weaving is at least 6,000 years old.

(Knitting is a comparative late-comer, appearing only 1,000 years ago, give or take a few centuries – using cotton rather than wool).

However, there’s no reason why nomadic hunter-gatherers could not have picked up bits of shed winter undercoat (wool) and twiddled with them as they followed flocks of sheep across the mountains. But I doubt it went any further than that before domestication.

So, I think domestication came first, followed by breeding sheep to produce more of this rather useful winter undercoat – initially for felting, and then for thread, weaving, and finally knitting.

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Is there a huge markup on yarn? Why is yarn so expensive often?

Sometimes. But mostly, not.

I had a little adventure into yarn production some years ago. I purchased the fleece, had it spun as a worsted-spun 4-ply, and wound into undyed hanks.

As I recall, the fleece, a rare-breed Galway (my Unique Selling Point (USP)) was £11 a kilo. I bought 10kg – £110.

I drove it to a spinning mill – around £200 by ferry plus 500miles petrol. Total in the region of £600 – lucky it was a multipurpose trip…

The mill charged £56 per returned kilo. I got 60-ish 100g hanks back, so about £336.

The resulting yarn was shipped to me at a cost of about £60.

>> 110+(600/2)+336+60=806 (travel costs halved because it was a multipurpose trip)

>> 806/60= 13.43333333

So, just to break even, I’d have to sell each hank for £13.50. And that’s without a ballband, gauge testing, packaging and posting, Etsy listing and selling fees, etc. A 50% markup would bring it to just over £20. And you’ll find, as you look around, that £20 is an average price for a hank of good-quality 4-ply yarn with enough yardage to make a pair of socks.

But that’s a profit of only £405 – half as much as I’d need to repeat the process the following year.

Rare-breed Galway sheep with characteristic top-knot.

A non-profit business, just bringing attention to the lovely Galway, would need to charge £30 per undyed 100g skein – and that leaves nothing to plough back into a breeding programme, fodder, housing, veterinary bills, or my time and expenses! Salary? Don’t make me laugh…


I could, of course, have shipped the fleece instead of delivering it, at about £100 for the 10kg. I could have gone for a less expensive woollen treatment, costing a mere £52 per returned kilo – and if you think that’s still expensive, you should watch this:

Fleece processing is intensive both manually and mechanically. Neither the expertise nor the machinery (£1mn startup costs) comes cheap!

I could even have used any old fleece at half the price, instead of rare-breed Galway – but that would have eliminated my USP. I’d have to find some other way of adding value, such as hand-dyeing. Sadly, while I can do and enjoy dyeing… I’m not really ‘valuable’ as a dyer. I have no unique vision that allows me to create exquisite colourways that are Art in the skein, like my neighbour EweMomma does:

Skein of hand-painted yarn in shades  of pink. green, purple and yellow.
Ewemomma hand-painted yarn.

I’d produce plain solid colours like wot i dun ere:

7 hanks of yarn dyed in solid maroon, red, salmon, burgundy, lime, turquoise and orange.
Sooooo boring. But at least I got a good R-O-Y range.

The way you need to look at fibrecrafts is as a hobby, like golf, wine-tasting, or astronomy. A decent golf club can set you back £100 – and you’ll need more than one, plus balls, tees, club fees and funny trousers. Wine tastings can be as little as £30 – for a couple of hours, and you don’t even get to drink the wine! Astronomy costs – are astronomical. But a decent yarn is lovely and squishy in the hank, provides hours of knitting pleasure, and an end product that – with a little care – will last 1,000 years…

Egyptian sock fragments, c. 1000–1400CE, with colourwork geometric designs in black, white and blue cotton.
Egyptian sock fragments, c. 1000–1400CE. From L to R: Textile Museum, ca. 1000 – 1200 AD; Victorian & Albert Museum, ca. 1100 – 1300 AD; Textile Museum, ca. 1300 AD

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Is wool production a profitable business?

Nope.

For many sheep farmers, it’s not worth the cost of shearing their sheep, so they sell them as lambs for meat.

All fleeces in the UK – except for ‘hobby farming’ flocks of <6 sheep (more if rarebreed) – must be sold to the British Wool (formerly the Wool Marketing Board).

In the best-case scenario, you break even. Small wonder, then, that farmers who do shear just bury the fleece on their land.

If you DO want to have a crack at making money,

  • consider a smallish number of rarebreed sheep, raised organically and treated like pet dogs (baths, brushing, housing, coats, etc.) – I recommend the longwool breeds such as Wensleydale, Teeswater, Leicester Longwool or Lincoln Longwool.
  • learn to shear them yourself – it’s not hard if you’re reasonably active.
  • learn to grade the fleece – again, not difficult, just a bit smelly and poopy if you forgot the baths and coats.
  • learn to prep and spin the wool yourself – not hard, but trickier than it looks – or find a reasonably-priced mini-mill which will take small batches, e.g., Griffiths Mill, The Border MillDiamond Fibres, or The Natural Fibre Company.
  • learn to dye your own yarn – possibly the most straightforward part of the process, but also the most artistic: how’s your colour sense?
  • sell the yarn for £20-£30 a 50g/100g ball/skein/hank, as rarebreed, single-origin, locally-sourced/low carbon footprint, organic, handspun, handpainted (delete as appropriate).

You should make enough money to stay in business, and maybe enough to buy those sheep coats.

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Can I make a living from selling wool and from knitting?

From knitting? Almost certainly not.

I was a maths teacher, and collected some data for a Functional Maths project I ran with low-ability students. One heavily-cabled Aran sweater I made took me 60 hours (I’m a fast knitter. It was complicated) of knitting time, and about 10 hours of swatching, planning and finishing.

  • At the current minimum wage in the UK (£8.21 an hour), I would need to sell that sweater for £574.70 to compensate me for my working time, plus the cost of the yarn (just over £50, so pretty cheap).
  • However, I am NOT a ‘minimum-wage knitter’, I am an expert AND an artist/artisan. In my professional career, I routinely charged £25–50 per hour for private work. Applying that to my knitting, that raises the minimum sale price of the sweater to £1,750-3,500, plus yarn costs.
  • I knit that particular sweater for my husband: people regularly complimented him on it, and, on learning his wife had knitted it, asked if I’d knit one for them – – – – for £20. INCLUDING the yarn…

From selling wool? If you mean running a yarn shop, people do, and can be quite successful. However,

  • my local non-artisanal yarn shop also sells cheap crappy acrylic yarn, fabric, supplies for sewing, embroidery, quilting, paper crafts, art (painting, sculpture, etc), and just about anything else you can imagine. The owner makes a modest living.
  • a posher yarn shop stocks only locally-sourced wool and mohair. The owner is independently wealthy, only opens part-time, and uses her profits to promote local charities. She does do a mean hot chocolate and gluten-free cookies, so I spend far too much time there.
  • A friend and neighbour who’s a yarn-dyer does make a living by selling online and through trade fairs all over Europe, and teaching, and giving talks, and Patreon, and ‘moonlighting’ as an accountant.

From producing wool? Eh. The suppliers of the posh yarn shop that I’ve met produce yarn as a way of offsetting the cost of keeping their animals. One also keeps milk goats and sells the milk, another keeps Jacob sheep for meat, skins and wool. They also teach, dye, design, etc.,etc. They’re not getting rich, and might not be making very much money at all once the accounts are balanced. I once had a go at buying fleece and getting it spun for sale: I did make a profit, but I had to sell the undyed yarn for nearly £20 a 100g hank – and the profit wasn’t enough for me to buy more fleece to spin the following year 😦

Almost everyone I know of who is making a living off fibre crafts is not just a dyer, or a designer, or a spinner, or… They’re a sample knitter and a dyer and a designer and a spinner and a teacher and a vlogger/blogger/podcaster and a magazine contributor and a book author and a photographer and and and. I knit, design, and teach, and it just about covers the cost of my yarn.

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Is knitting clothes yourself more environmentally friendly?

No, unless you are shearing your own organically-raised free-range sheep with manual clippers, prepping and spinning your own wool, and are happy to only have clothes in the natural colours that come off your sheep. Or, if you’re bartering your organically-grown vegetables (or whatever) with a neighbour within walking distance who does.

If you want to use plant fibres, even those grown, prepped and spun by you or your neighbour, then you’re pretty much straight-up damaging the environment from the get-go. Cotton is hellaciously bad for the environment, linen may be somewhat less damaging – though your neighbours will be less willing to barter with you after you’ve filled the air with the stench of rotting flax plants.

I hope I don’t have to explain why synthetic fibres are bad for the environment.

I don’t, do I?

You can minimise the environmental impact by buying your yarn from local producers, and looking particularly for yarns that have been dyed with natural, or at least minimally damaging dyes: for example, vinegar can be used to fix dye in animal fibres, though the colours are likely to fade over time. You can also mitigate the damage by reusing yarn from old garments.

However, by making your own clothes, whether knit, crocheted, or woven and sewn, you are helping the environment. For example, you will probably make better-quality clothes, which will last much longer than Primark’s finest. If you do somehow manage to wear out a home-sewn tweed jacket, much of the material can be repurposed for quilts, children’s clothes, and as patches for other clothes – avoiding landfill, and saving you money in the long run. In addition, fabrics like wool don’t require regular washing, so you’re cutting down on the water, electricity and detergent you use: if it gets muddy, just let it dry and then brush it off; if it gets sweaty, hang it in a draught for an hour or so; if it gets soaked, lay it flat near a heat source. A couple of sheep will keep your lawn down with less impact on the environment than a lawnmower.

And so forth. It’s about finding a balance.

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