What is up with Sharlea Merino?
The first time I came across Sharlea Merino I was looking into single-breed wool for spinning. Sharlea merino is not exactly a breed (better described as a method perhaps) but it showed up in my search. And it is not hard to start drooling over the super crimpy super fine wool. It was unreal. Also, (un)really pricey, with 50 gm sold at over 35€ easily.
Sharlea is a brand name that is used to identify Saxon Merino sheep that are raised according to a patented method. The sheep are cared for like pets in the US, housed, clothed, fed special feed and given human and humane contact. These sheep are healthier than there more traditional bretheren, living as much as 50% longer lives but all of the love and care that goes into raising them has only one purpose – their amazing fleece. Ranging from 12 to 15.5 microns, the ultra-fine Sharlea merino is clean, consistant in crimp and staple length and an amazing experience for the hand spinner.
Only a handful of Sharlea fleece are available for individual sale each year, the bulk of them are baled and auctioned off. The fiber generally ends up at fashion houses around the world where they process the wool and it is woven into luxurious fabric to be made into custom garments for high end customers (think $15,000 men’s suits). (…) The estimated yield of Sharlea is 75-82%, much higher than would normally be expected for a merino in part due to the great care used to keep these sheep clean and free of debris. [my emphasis]
This is by far not the only idyllic description of Sharlea I have read around. But then you also easily find websites like these:
It looks sensationalist, and I guess it is supposed to be. It makes you wonder- what is going on? What is true and false? How are these sheep raised like pets and what does that entail?
Elysa, from 222 Handspun, felt the same way I guess and she decided to do some research and presents a summary of some pretty good sources. All agree that the sheep are housed and have regulated access to food. What does this mean? She listened to Namaste Farms (who sells Sharlea merino in their breed boxes) Radio cast with Martin Dally, a sheep expert. Here is 222 Handspun’s summary of the show:
He went on to say that sheep with this fine of a fleece must have steady and well controlled nutrition and low stress in order to grow fine micron wool without any breaks (weak spots). If an animal is stressed at all or reproducing, it can weaken the fiber. That is why they only use whethers (castrated males). These males would normally be sent to slaughter but they are valued for their prize fleece instead. Sheep who graze in a pasture can encounter all sorts of stresses such as predators, draught. and parasites. These sheep are kept in ultra clean pens and it really shows in the cleanliness and pristine condition of the raw fleece.
So, I took a look at this fiber and it is uhhh-mazing. Wowza! [my emphasis]
It is worth stressing a couple of extra points:
– The animals are kept in pens of 5 animals, sometimes 12, 20.
– They received no natural sunlight, but are controlled for vitamin D lacks.
– Sheep that are deemed too wild are removed.
– (claim made) The open range is more inhumane – these sheep don’t have to worry about predation or draught.
Now, there are records of single pens, where sheep may have contact with other sheep through the pens, but are technically separated. Claims have also been made about minimal feeding. Allow however, for the sake of argument, that there is no single penning and that all the feeding is appropriate (levels and contents). This still seems accurate:
in “Biodiversity in Fashion Fibers” by Liz Spencer
Sharlea merino got me concerned. Concerned on two levels.
I am concerned for the sheep. Laying my cards on the table, I am not an animal rights activist and not a vegetarian either. But caring for the well-being of other sentient beings in your farm is something fundamental that surely we can all agree on.These sheep may be well fed, and free from all stress – parasites, predators, lambing… But what is left for these sheep to do? Sheep do not quietly seat and write books or play poker with their pen-mates. I worry that all that has been taken out of these sheep’s lives – including natural sunlight and a non-regular floor! – might be exactly what being a sheep is all about. They graze, they have lambs, they interact and explore and sometimes have to endure hardships… like parasites.
There are two things here at work. Firstly, it seems that there is an anthropomorphic character to the way Sharlea merinos are thought of. We would not like to have stressful open range lives and we think that sheep, like people, would be happy to be safe inside in a completely clean and controlled environment. While I do not want to make any definite claims, I guess it would be useful to pause and think, for a moment, that sheep are sheep. Secondly, there is a “wool-machine” aspect to these production methods – it is all about the wool, no failure or under-efficiency allowed. Lambing, a perfectly natural and productive activity is deemed useless. The claim in defense of Sharlea is that, allegedly, the best thing for wool-production is the best thing for sheep. But, since there is so much money to be made, and bearing in mind the previous considerations, it seems legitimate to at least question this.
I am also concerned about ourselves, as knitters and spinners. Our need for the ultimate softness, that super-fine micron-count, where does it come from? Are we thinking of wool in the right way? Getting the yarn to be perfect, having the smoothest rarest fiber seems to be taking precedence over going over to your local farmer and getting to know your regional breeds. There is a willful neglect of history and context about the softness of Sharlea merino and perhaps even a certain elitism. Are we becoming fiber-snobs? Because, the truth is, any wool is good wool! Good for something. And you can make sweaters with a little irregular single yarn. Stained wool, wool with breaks, wool that is not ideal – it is wool too and it has tons of uses. It has been the unacceptability of many coarser breeds that has made them marginal and unprofitable to small farmers. Why then are we so concerned to go to such great lengths to get rid of all the defects?
I think the most important question is not Sharlea itself, but the kind of broader view of knitting and spinning we want to have. Are we becoming experts at a standardized technique or engaging with a neglected part of our agricultural world (very neglected in many places) and a rich and empowering tradition of creative and sustainable textile arts?