Become an Oliver Charles Field Tester →

Merino Wool Made In The USA: Sourcing And Certifications

Discover the sustainability, harvesting, and certifications of US merino wool from the Shaniko collective.
September 21, 2023
By Oliver Charles

US Merino Wool Sweaters

Introducing the 2nd blog in my 4-part blog series about our new US Merino Wool Sweaters. This blog is about the proper, cruelty-free, sustainable way of sourcing and harvesting merino wool.

----------

In the world of textiles, merino wool is famously comfortable, luxurious, and high-performing. Yet, behind the softness and quality lies a complex tapestry of ethical considerations, misconceptions, and sustainability efforts.

Join us as we embark on a journey to unravel the ethical threads of merino wool production, exploring the industry certifications, ranching practices, and the processes that ensure both the well-being of sheep and the creation of premium merino wool products.

As with any new peice of information, this blog is meant to serve as general informational and for educational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for your own research.

From the heart of the ranch to the 3D-knitting machine, this blog will reveal the ethical choices that make or break merino wool.

Certifications For 100% US Merino Wool

Few materials can rival the qualities of merino wool.

Known for its softness, warmth, moisture-wicking, and antimicrobial properties, merino wool has become a staple in the clothing industry through outdoor gear and everyday wear items.

However, the production of merino wool has not been without its controversies, as there are ranching practices that have raised concerns about animal welfare and environmental impact.

In this section, we'll explore why some ranches are considered unethical and how ranches certified by organizations like RWS (Responsible Wool Standard) and NATIVA lead the way in more ethical and sustainable wool production.

3 Unethical Sides Of Merino Wool

1. Mulesing
One of the most significant ethical issues in the merino wool industry is the practice of mulesing. Mulesing involves the removal of strips of skin from a sheep's buttocks to prevent flystrike, a painful condition caused by fly larvae infestation. While mulesing effectively reduces the risk of flystrike, it is considered inhumane by animal rights advocates due to the pain and distress it causes the sheep.

2. Overgrazing
Some merino wool ranches have been criticized for overgrazing their pastures, leading to land degradation, soil erosion, and damage to local ecosystems. This over-exploitation of land can have long-lasting negative impacts on the environment.

3. Chemical Use
Using chemicals, such as pesticides and insecticides, on merino wool ranches can harm the sheep and the surrounding environment. These chemicals can contaminate soil and water sources, posing risks to both wildlife and nearby communities.

Thankfully, not all merino wool ranches are created equal, and many are committed to ethical and sustainable practices.

Two certifications, RWS and NATIVA, stand out as beacons of responsible wool production.

OLIVER CHARLES - Blog #Repeat - Style, Sustainability, Unique Innovative Materials, Sizing, Enclothed Cognition

Responsible Wool Standard (RWS)

The Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) is a voluntary global standard that addresses the welfare of sheep and their environment. Its goals are:

  • Providing the industry with criteria to meet.
  • Ensuring that the wool is from ethically treated sheep, as defined below by RWS.
  • Confirming that ranches follow land management methods that protect soil health, biodiversity, and native species.

RWS also includes requirements for animal welfare to be met by certified ranches.

The criteria for these requirements support the 5 freedoms for animal welfare under human control:

  • Free of hunger or thirst
  • Free of discomfort
  • Free of pain, injury, or disease
  • Free of fear and distress
  • Free to express normal behavior

The RWS organization prohibits mulesing and any other form of animal cruelty that violates the 5 freedoms of animal welfare.

Ranches possessing the RWS certification gain an advantage by validating that their operations respect animal welfare and pursue the best animal/farm management practices.

All of Oliver Charles merino yarn is RWS-certified.

OLIVER CHARLES - Blog #Repeat - Style, Sustainability, Unique Innovative Materials, Sizing, Enclothed Cognition

NATIVA Certification

Like the RWS Certification, NATIVA provides certification for every stage of the supply chain, guaranteeing the quality and traceability of wool fibers from where the sheep are bred and shorn to where the wool is manufactured into sweaters. They ensure that the final garments are authentic and made with 100% traceable NATIVA merino fibers.

  • NATIVA provides traceability about farmers, sheep, land, and the wool process involved in creating each sweater.
  • NATIVA guarantees the authenticity of wool fibers.
  • All NATIVA-certified contributors comply with their protocol in terms of animal welfare, human rights, labor standards, and land management.

NATIVA's protocol principles are audited by an independent third-party firm every year. These include:

  • Animal Welfare: Each NATIVA-certified farmer is required to follow an approved, comprehensive management plan that covers feeding, breeding, behavior, animal handling, health, and infrastructure. This includes promoting stress-free shearing practices and strictly prohibiting mulesing to ensure the well-being of animals.
  • Land Management: NATIVA places a strong emphasis on land management and environmental protection, ensuring certified ranches are managed in a way that safeguards future generations of sheep, ranchers, and end customers.
  • Corporate Responsibility: NATIVA participates in the United Nations Global Compact, which promotes principles related to human rights, labor standards, environmental protection, and anti-corruption measures at both the farm and industry levels.

The yarn in the new Oliver Charles US Merino Sweaters is NATIVA-certified.

OLIVER CHARLES - Blog #Repeat - Style, Sustainability, Unique Innovative Materials, Sizing, Enclothed Cognition

Farming Practices: Merino Wool Can Be Ethical

Merino wool is a natural and renewable fiber grown year-round by merino sheep. Merino sheep consume a simple blend of natural ingredients, including sunshine, water, fresh air, and grass.

As a clothing brand aiming for more sustainable textile consumption, we've partnered with 7 US family ranches that value ethically sourced wool.

The key to ensuring the ethical production of merino wool lies in the farming practices employed by ranches. By adopting responsible and sustainable approaches, ranchers can minimize the negative impacts on the environment and the sheep themselves, making merino wool an ethical choice for you.

Here, we delve deeper into the farming practices that can make merino wool production ethical:

1. No Mulesing Policy
Perhaps one of the most critical aspects of ethical merino wool farming is the strict adherence to a no mulesing policy. Mulesing, as mentioned earlier, involves a painful surgical procedure that leaves sheep with open wounds. Ethical ranches eschew this practice, seeking alternative methods to prevent flystrike, such as genetic selection for flystrike resistance or using fly traps and insect-repellent coatings on sheep.

2. Nutrition And Healthcare
Healthy sheep are happy sheep, and ethical ranches prioritize the proper nutrition and healthcare of their animals. This includes providing a balanced diet, clean water, and shelter from extreme weather conditions. Regular health checks and vaccinations help prevent diseases and ensure the overall well-being of the flock.

3. Pasture Management
Sustainable land management is a cornerstone of ethical merino wool farming. Ranches with a commitment to responsible practices implement rotational grazing systems, allowing pastures to recover and regenerate naturally. This prevents overgrazing, reduces soil erosion, and maintains the health of the ecosystem.

4. Minimal Chemical Use
Reducing the use of chemicals on ranches is crucial for both the environment and the sheep. Ethical merino wool ranches minimize the use of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers. Instead, they opt for organic and natural alternatives, promoting a healthier and more sustainable environment.

5. Biodiversity Conservation
Ethical ranches understand the importance of biodiversity conservation. They work to protect and preserve natural habitats, allowing native flora and fauna to thrive alongside their flocks. This commitment to biodiversity contributes to a balanced and sustainable ecosystem.

6. Responsible Breeding
Ethical merino wool production begins with responsible breeding practices. Ranchers who prioritize the well-being of their sheep select breeding stock with a focus on genetic traits that promote resistance to diseases and pests. This reduces the need for chemical treatments and minimizes the stress and discomfort experienced by the sheep.

7. Fair Labor Practices
Ethical merino wool production goes beyond just the treatment of sheep; it also extends to the people who care for them. Ranches that are truly ethical ensure fair wages and humane working conditions for their employees, promoting social responsibility within the industry.

8. Certifications Matter
To verify their commitment to ethical farming practices, many ranches seek certifications like RWS and NATIVA, as mentioned earlier.

These certifications provide us with the assurance that the merino wool we purchase comes from ranches that adhere to rigorous ethical and sustainable standards.

Merino wool can indeed be produced ethically when ranches prioritize responsible, sustainable farming practices. By supporting ranches that implement these measures, we can play a significant role in promoting ethical merino wool production.

As we become more conscientious consumers, we contribute to a more sustainable and compassionate future for both the merino sheep and the planet.

The Harvesting Process

The harvesting of merino wool is a critical aspect of the industry that directly impacts the welfare of the sheep involved.

To address concerns about animal welfare and ethical treatment, it's essential to understand the steps of the shearing process and the practices that ensure the well-being of the merino sheep.

Unlike their wild counterparts, domesticated sheep have evolved to have continuously growing wool as a result of selective breeding. While this trait has been very advantageous for wool production, it has also created challenges for the sheep.

Understanding the evolution of wool growth in domesticated sheep helps us appreciate the necessity of shearing to maintain their health.

Wool growth in merino sheep can become a problem if not managed correctly.

The weight of accumulated wool can strain the sheep, making mobility difficult and potentially leading to discomfort.

Furthermore, lanolin, a natural wax produced by sheep's skin and found in their wool, can dry up over time, causing skin irritation.

Excessive wool growth can even cover the sheep's eyes, obstructing their vision and overall well-being.

The process of harvesting wool is shearing. Shearing is a crucial practice for maintaining the welfare of merino sheep. It serves multiple purposes, including:

  • Prevent Skin Conditions: Shearing allows early detection and better inspection and treatment of sheep skin diseases such as dermatitis, lice, ticks, and fungal infections.
  • Maintain Hygiene: Shearing can help sheep avoid dehydration and helps prevent the accumulation of dirt, debris, and parasites within the wool.
  • Enhance Wool Quality: Regular shearing ensures wool fibers are healthy, strong, and free from external debris such as dirt.

Some shearing practices are designed for the well-being of the animals throughout this process. Gentle and low-stress handling shearing techniques can prevent injury and ensure the animals' comfort.

OLIVER CHARLES - Blog #Repeat - Style, Sustainability, Unique Innovative Materials, Sizing, Enclothed Cognition

Shearing Techniques

There are many shearing techniques used worldwide. The most common one is the New Zealand Method, which requires:

  • Gentle Handling: According to Food Animal Concerns Trust, the New Zealand Method prioritizes gentle handling techniques, minimizing any rough or forceful actions that could cause distress or harm to the sheep. Shearers are trained to approach the animals calmly and with care.
  • Low-Stress Environment: Creating a low-stress environment is essential when shearing. This includes minimizing noise, maintaining a comfortable temperature, and ensuring proper lighting conditions in the shearing area. These factors help keep the sheep calm and relaxed.
  • Skilled Shearers: Shearing requires skilled and experienced shearers who are proficient in the New Zealand Method. These shearers prioritize the safety and comfort of sheep.

Sheep shearing is considered a craft and skill, with a pattern that is masterfully practiced to remove wool from sheep carefully. The pattern is designed to maintain comfort for the sheep and avoid sensitive areas.

Handpieces, combs, cutters, and suede slippers ensure a clean and safe shearing.

The shearer's skill and the equipment quality are critical for a successful and humane shearing. Kind of like someone cutting your hair; you want someone with lots of practice and the right tools.

Minimizing shearing time is essential for successfully harvesting the wool. Efficient and skilled shearers can complete the process quickly, reducing stress for sheep.

OLIVER CHARLES - Blog #Repeat - Style, Sustainability, Unique Innovative Materials, Sizing, Enclothed Cognition

Quality Control And Sorting: Ensuring The Finest Merino Wool

The process of harvesting merino wool is just the beginning of the journey to creating high-quality merino wool sweaters.

After the wool is sheared from the sheep, it undergoes a meticulous quality control and sorting process. This crucial step is where skilled artisans with years of experience ensure that the wool meets the highest standards of quality and purity.

Skirting: The Art Of Wool
Preparation skirting is the initial step in the post-harvest process of merino wool.

This step requires a deft hand and a keen eye, as it involves removing undesirable elements from the fleece. Skilled workers meticulously examine each fleece, avoiding any waste of valuable wool while effectively sorting and storing it.

The primary objectives of skirting are as follows:

  • Removal Of Contaminants: Mature tags, which are pieces of coarse, often contaminated wool, are carefully removed. This is essential to prevent the contamination of other fleece in storage, ensuring that the wool remains pristine.
  • Maintaining Cleanliness: Skirting not only enhances the quality of the wool but also ensures that it has a clean and pleasant aroma, a crucial factor in producing wool suitable for textiles.

Sorting For Excellence
Sorting is the next critical stage in the process, where wool is categorized based on its quality, class, and grade.

These designations have a significant impact on the market value and price point of the wool.

The primary goal of sorting is to obtain the finest quality merino wool, with a focus on the production of luxurious clothing items.

Quality, Class, And Grade

Quality: 
This designation pertains to the overall excellence of the wool, considering factors like fineness, uniformity, and absence of impurities. High-quality merino wool is soft, fine, and free from defects, making it suitable for high-quality everyday clothing.

Class: Different breeds of sheep produce wool with varying characteristics. Merino wool is known for its exceptional softness and fineness, among other sheep's wool. The class designation helps categorize the wool according to these inherent qualities.

Grade: The grading system further refines the sorting process by considering the length of the fibers, the diameter of the individual wool strands, and the presence of any irregularities. Higher grade merino wool typically has longer staple lengths and finer diameters.

At Oliver Charles, commitment to quality is evident in the merino wool used for our sweaters.

We source wool with a long staple length and fine diameter, making it resistant to pilling and incredibly soft to the touch. The wool we use in our sweaters is ultra-fine at roughly 17.5µm. Wools that are generally considered "soft" have a fineness <20µm.

This meticulous sorting and quality control process from our ranching partners ensures that you receive products made from the finest merino wool available.

Oliver-Charles-Merino-&-Yak-Wool-Khullu-Antimicrobial-Odor-Resistant-Thermoregulating-Sustainable-Natural-Wool-Material-21.jpg__PID:e96412b8-6261-4c0c-8f48-1a7f85b22e32

Why Choose 100% US Merino Wool

When it comes to selecting the finest materials for clothing, merino wool stands out as a premium choice.

But what sets our merino wool apart from the rest? It's not just about quality; it's also about sustainability, traceability, and a commitment to ethical practices.

Our 100% US merino wool is sourced through 7 US family ranches in California, Nevada, Oregon, and Colorado. Each has been tending merino sheep for more than 100 years.

These ranches are part of the Shaniko collective, which provides Oliver Charles with the only fully traceable, certified merino in America.

Here's why choosing our 100% US merino wool is a choice that aligns with the values of a better society and way of living.

Fully Traceable And Sustainable
One of the most compelling reasons to choose our 100% US merino wool is the assurance of traceability and sustainability.

  • Traceability: Our US merino wool is carefully monitored at every stage of its production, allowing us to trace its origin and production process. This transparency encourages ethical and sustainable practices through the supply chain.
  • Sustainability: For decades, the Shaniko collective have been pioneers in regenerative farming practices. These practices promote animal welfare, create a healthy ecosystem, and preserve biodiversity for current and future generations. Sustainable ranching methods minimize the environmental impact of merino wool production, making it an eco-friendly choice.

Commitment To Animal Welfare
Choosing merino wool from Shaniko also means supporting a commitment to animal welfare.

The ranchers involved in Shaniko's US merino wool collective prioritize the well-being of their sheep.

They adhere to ethical shearing practices and avoid procedures like mulesing, ensuring that the sheep are treated with care and respect throughout their lives.

Contributing To A Better Society
At Oliver Charles, we understand the significance of sourcing materials that contribute to a better society and way of living.

By choosing 100% US merino wool from Shaniko, we align with our commitment to ethical and sustainable practices.

We believe that fashion should not only be about style and comfort but also about responsibility and conscientious choices.

If you believe that every good wardrobe starts with owning less and owning better, consider buying yourself an OLIVER CHARLES sweater.
Shop Now
7 Day Sweater Challenge: My Undyed Yak Wool Cardigan Journey

How to rock an Oliver Charles sweater at home and on the go.

Read more
3 Myths About Sustainable Materials

Separating fact from fiction so you can make smarter clothing choices.

Read more
An Everyday Sweater In San Francisco’s Multiple Microclimates

Discovering why yak wool is the perfect sustainable choice for adventures in San Francisco.

Read more
7 Day Sweater Challenge: Embracing Life’s Layers

A journey through comfort, identity, and the unexpected twists of everyday style.

Read more