Wool’s Second Life
Most Swedish sheep farmers either discard, burn or plow their wool into the ground. Suston visits the island of Gotland, where old wool is now becoming new insulation for outdoor jackets.
Gotland is the largest Swedish island in the Baltic Sea, with around 58 000 inhabitants – and over 70 000 sheep and lambs. Here, in the small community of Endre, one of the research farms of Sweden’s agricultural university used to be located. But the students moved out long ago and these days, the main barn contains Sweden’s only large-scale wool scouring plant.
“We found the farm by chance when it was for sale back in 2010,” recounts Jenny Andersson, who runs the company Ullkontoret – the Wool Office – today with her husband, Hans Bulthuis.
“We liked the opportunities that all of these buildings gave us and thought that we found something to work with. We’re moving to Gotland!”
No sooner said than done. In 2010, the couple settled in Gotland, launching a bed and breakfast at the farm with breakfast served in the large greenhouse.
“But then we found out how much wool there was here on the island of Gotland that nobody was using. We began to collect it and thought that we could use it in some building project. But we quickly understood that, regardless of what we were going to use it for, it needed to be scoured. Otherwise it smelled too strong,” explains Jenny Andersson.
However, there weren’t any wool scouring plants for large quantities of wool on Gotland. Actually, there wasn’t even one to be found in all of Sweden. But that didn’t stop Jenny Andersson and Hans Bulthuis. They found an old, abandoned scouring plant in Spain that they were able to buy for a bargain, which they then disassembled and shipped home in batches. It took three years to put it together and get it working, but since 2016, Gotland wool is being scoured once more on Gotland. These days, many sheep farmers on Gotland deliver wool to Ullkontoret and very little is discarded.
Throughout Sweden, however, things look pretty much the same as they did on Gotland three years ago. For many farmers, wool is just a waste product that, for the wellbeing of the sheep, needs to be shorn at least once but preferably twice a year and which people discard in the cheapest and most effective way. It’s thrown away, burned or plowed down into the ground. A very small amount is taken care of and becomes wool or something else that’s useful.
Playing a part in sustainability
The Swedish outdoor brands Fjällräven and Tierra heard that wool from Gotland was being produced – scoured and ready to be used – and began thinking about whether they could use it in their products.
Since a few years back, Fjällräven has been collaborating with a sheep farm in the mountains of Jämtland in Sweden. The locally produced wool is used for one of Fjällräven’s collections, and it is a part of Fjällräven’s work to create more sustainable supply chains.
Christiane Dolva, Sustainability Manager at Fjällräven, says that the close collaboration with the sheep farm in Jämtland has also raised the knowhow about wool inside the company – not to mention the passion for the material.
“We really like wool as a material. It’s exceptionally functional, warm, resistant to wear and durable. A material like this shouldn’t be thrown away, and we really want to contribute to developing the production of wool in Sweden.”
The first attempt to use Gotland wool became a backplate for a smaller backpack, called the Fjällräven Lappland Hike. This went so well that Fjällräven and Tierra chose to promote a series of clothes that are now being launched this fall with the wool used as the insulation.
For Erik Blomberg, product developer at Fjällräven and Tierra, this has entailed several trips to Ullkontoret.
“The Gotland wool is too coarse and itchy to use for knitting clothes, but it works really well as insulation, even better than what a finer wool fiber would do,” he says as he feels a pile of freshly scoured and dried wool inside Ullkontoret’s machinery room.
“It is indeed a little fascinating that things that were obvious to our grandparents’ generation are considered innovations today. Such as taking care of and using wool from sheep.”
Lack of infrastructure
It’s not its functionality that is the major challenge of turning Swedish wool into a commodity. Instead, it’s the lack of systematic and large-scale production chains that make it difficult to make use of the wool that is simply discarded at present. Over the past 40 years, machinery parks and the knowledge that is required to take care of wool and use it on a scale larger than for traditional crafts have been dismantled. The scouring plant on Gotland is the only one on an industrial scale that is located in Sweden and the wool that is available on Gotland is already insufficient, for example, for Fjällräven to be able to properly increase its production.
“The jackets we will sell this fall have been received very well by our resellers and we want to expand the product range in the future. There are a lot of sheep in Sweden, the hard part is just getting a hold of the wool and getting it scoured and ready-to-use,” says Erik Blomberg.
A small but increasing number of Swedish apparel companies are following in the footsteps of Fjällräven and Tierra. The Swedish outdoor brand Röjk is another company starting to use Swedish wool in their products, in a collaboration with the fashion brand Filippa K.
But today, there is no market where buyers can simply purchase Swedish wool. Jenny Andersson says that Ullkontoret is actually ensuring that almost all wool that is produced on Gotland is collected. This corresponds to approximately 12 % of the collective wool production in Sweden. The scouring plant on Gotland has greater capacity and would be able to scour more wool, but coordinating transportations there from the mainland is no simple task.
“It also takes time for most wool providers to learn to sheer the sheep and sort the wool so that it can then be scoured and used,” says Jenny Andersson.
“The lack of infrastructure makes it difficult scale up our wool sourcing in Sweden,” agrees Christiane Dolva, adding:
“To get hold of Swedish wool today, you need to employ unconventional methods. It requires enthusiasts such as Ullkontoret on Gotland. But we couldn’t work like this with hundreds of farms, which would be needed if we were to primarily use Swedish wool.
A decade ago in the neighboring country of Norway, a research project became the start of a wool rennaissance and provides a clear example of how things can succeed. The Norwegian wool and sustainably expert Kjersti Kviseth, who was part of the project, recalls:
“As in Sweden, you had two to three generations of Norwegian sheep farmers who had never learned to make use of the wool and didn’t value it. But the research project initiated a process where we now have a greater focus on producing wool with better quality, a better sorting and thus with a higher value,” Kjersti Kviseth explains.
In Norway, there is now a system whereby the wool is sorted into sixteen different classes. Sweden, on the other hand, is lacking a classification system like this. Copying another country’s classification system is difficult because these systems are dependent on local factors like native sheep breeds and the demand in local traditional products.
There are also two large scale spinning mills located in Norway. Outdoor brands such as Devold, Dale and Ulvang have Norwegian wool in their production.
“Their spinning mills have a wait time of up to two years – that’s how popular they’ve become. The Norwegian wool renaissance has led to farmers gaining both pride and interest in this fantastic material,” says Kjersti Kviseth.
Photos: Fredrik Lewander