When direct marketing wool, you have some options. You can sell just the fiber, or you can add varying degrees of value.
So what is the value-adding sequence for fiber, and which product or products are right for you? Let’s dig in.
Just offering the plain old raw fleece is very common, and it is an option that appeals strongly to customers who happen to be handspinners or weavers. Many wool growers who direct market are surprised to find that raw fleeces are their most profitable and best-selling products.
But note that selling raw fleece is not as simple as shearing a sheep and shipping out the fleece—attention to quality is far more critical in niche wool production than commodity production. The fleece absolutely must be clean and free of any and all debris. It also must be skirted, which is the process of removing anything undesirable, such as stained wool, second cuttings, or belly wool.
If selling raw fleece is your interest, note that sheep breed will come into play here. Most handspinners prefer long wool, as this type is the easiest to work with.
Roving is wool that has been washed, carded, and twisted up to hold the fibers together in a sort of rope.
Roving is a versatile product used primarily for felting, but also for stuffing, spinning, and more.
Batting is used to fill pillows, blankets, and the like. Coarse wool works particularly well for making batting. Batting can be made to salvage wool too short to make into roving.
The batting concept can be taken another step further by making finished bedding and pillows.
Felt is a good product for adding value to coarse-wool batting, as it has many applications. It can be sold in sheets such as those you might buy at the craft store, but most producers who get this far choose to add still more value.
Do you have a passion for working with fiber yourself? Then you may be able to take value-adding to the next level by creating finished products, such as sponges, placemats, or felted crafts.
Another way to offer felt is in the form of do-it-yourself felting kits for beginners. These can be quite popular if they are quality kits that produce attractive results.
The spinning step is going to cost you in one of two ways—time or money. Having your fiber spun into yarn at a spinnery or fiber mill can be very expensive, and the mill may require a minimum amount of wool to process. Some companies also have long delays depending on the demand. Spinning it yourself will take some know-how plus valuable time.
Offering the yarn without any dye can be an advantage to some, because there are customers who prefer to dye their own yarns either for fun or to avoid chemicals.
However, dying your yarn can increase its value to customers who are interested in knitting but not dyeing. All-natural botanical dyes can be popular among this group. (You may even be able to take the art of dyeing still further and grow your own dye plants.)
In some markets, fabric has a broader appeal than yarn. Yarn is primarily for craft hobbyists, while fabric is useful in a wide range of applications and on a variety of scales. Most producers have their wool processed by a professional mill. Fine wool is particularly well suited to fabric-making.
Selling knit or crocheted clothing, afghans, and other gifts is an excellent way to sell your farm’s story—if you can pull it off.
One of the most common challenges with this level of value-adding is keeping up with the demand. The pre-Christmas rush will likely see your biggest boost in sales. Can’t make enough products yourself? You may need to find a team of knitters to help.
What type of products you can produce will depend primarily on your interests, but the breed of sheep you raise will also have a huge impact. Fine-wool breeds produce soft, versatile yarns, while yarn from coarse-wool breeds may be best suited to making rugs.
A Final Reminder
Quality is key in direct marketing wool or wool products, no matter what form they take. The best wool comes from healthy, happy sheep that receive optimal nutrition and have access to fresh water at all times (even in winter). It usually also comes from sheep that wear lightweight coats to protect their fleece from damage due to wet conditions or intense UV light. Caring for the sheep may therefore cost more in a direct-marketing business than in commodity production, but it can yield profits that more than compensate.