The small flock of sheep scampered quickly across London’s Southwark Bridge, driven forward by a group of cheerful men and women in long robes and floppy hats. Every now and then, the shepherds stopped to round up an errant ewe or to wave at curious onlookers who lined the bridge to watch.

Sunday’s unusual procession – known as the Sheep Drive – was a celebration of London’s 800-year history in the wool trade and an annual homage to the historic right of shepherds to herd their flocks through the city to market. It was also an occasion to showcase the industry, both in Britain and abroad, and rekindle interest in this age-old fabric.

The wool business needs all the help it can get. The pandemic and the growing popularity of inexpensive fast fashion has slashed wool demand and driven prices so low that sheep farmers in many countries, including Canada, have opted to throw their wool away or burn it.

“The wool market, to be blunt, has been a bit of a wreck globally,” said Eric Bjergso, general manager of the Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers Ltd., which markets nearly all of the wool produced by Canada’s 9,400 sheep farmers. Mr. Bjergso said the price for wool has fallen by 50 per cent in the past three years and the CCWG has been forced to accept wool largely on consignment. “I’ve never seen anything like this before and I’ve been doing this now for 45 years.”

Canada is a marginal player in the global wool market and most of our fleece is exported to places such as China, the United States and the Czech Republic. But Canada once had a thriving wool and textile sector.

Back in the 1800s, Canadian wool mills helped clothe soldiers during the American Civil War and, in the early 1900s, there were roughly 300 mills across the country employing as many as 12,000 people. The advent of synthetic fabrics after the Second World War slowly decimated much of the industry and today there are just three large mills left.

Nowadays virtually all Canadian sheep farmers concentrate on producing meat, and wool is often considered a nuisance. Most farmers rarely earn enough from wool to cover the cost of shearing, which they have to do at least once a year to maintain the animals’ health.

There are few incentives to clean and care for wool, which lowers the quality. Canadian wool typically contains about three times as much vegetative matter, essentially sticks and other debris, compared with wool from Australia or New Zealand. That makes our fleece harder to process and less attractive for mill operators.

Canadian wool is also coarse and ill suited for high-end products such as expensive sweaters and cardigans. Wool fibre is measured in microns – one-thousandth of a millimetre – and fine wools such as merino are between 11 and 25 microns. Canadian wool is around 30 microns, which is more suitable for rugs and overcoats.

Helen Knibb, a sheep farmer outside Peterborough, Ont., who also studies the industry, said it was tragic that Canadian farmers had been forced to throw away wool. “I actually can’t think of another agricultural commodity that is so underrated,” said Ms. Knibb, who is completing a doctorate on the socio-economic history of wool in Canada.

She’s convinced that a revival is possible and that the tide will slowly turn in favour of wool. She points to the increasing consumer demand for ecofriendly products, the resurgence in knitting and the rise of craft yarn makers, wool festivals and fashion houses seeking more natural materials. “I think most people have no idea how extraordinary wool is as a fibre,” Ms. Knibb said.

Researchers have also started finding new uses for wool. There are wool-based products for home insulation, oil-spill cleanups, fire proofing, face masks, fertilizer pellets and bee-hive covers. British retailer John Lewis recently announced a line of wool-stuffed mattresses and several pharmaceutical companies have started using wool liners to insulate drug packaging.

There’s even talk of creating a Canadian wool trademark. “The sector in Canada has languished for a few decades and so we need to rebrand and revalue Canadian wool,” said Matthew Rowe, who heads the Campaign for Wool Canada, which is working on a national brand. Mr. Rowe was part of a Canadian delegation at the Sheep Drive, the first time Canada has been represented at the event. He’s also brought Canada into the International Wool Textile Organisation, a global body that sets standards for the trade.

One of the biggest challenges in Canada is a lack of scouring and carding plants, which clean and straighten fleece. Mr. Rowe said new investment will come slowly but in the meantime the Campaign for Wool is trying to sign up British mills to process Canadian fleece.

Romy Schill is among the sheep farmers who have embraced the possibilities of wool. Ms. Schill and her husband, Ryan, manage around 800 ewes on their farm in Southern Ontario. The couple recently started a yarn-making business called Revolution Wool and they also make wool blankets and pillows. Whatever they can’t use ends up as bedding for farm animals.

“It has becoming a serious part of the farm business now, which is exciting,” Ms. Schill said. “I would have never expected that a few years ago.”

The Globe and Mail, September 27, 2021