colorado wool

Sheep and their lambs graze on the lush Colorado mountainsides at about 9,000 feet during the summers. / Photo: FFM Staff

Strong demand and record-high global prices signify the rebirth of wool, no longer the itchy, scratchy fiber of yesteryear. And Colorado wool growers are among those changing the face of the fiber.

Wool has woven its way into year-round fashions now that garment makers desire a natural material with moisture-wicking properties, elasticity, and odor- and flame-resistant features. Improved manufacturing processes like “superwash” allow consumers to wash their own wool garments, as opposed to dry cleaning. And wool now touts next-to- the-skin comfort, contrary to former beliefs.

These traits make modern-day wool a sought-after fiber in active apparel lines like Nike, Puma, Lululemon and Under Armour.

“There is definitely a move for using natural fibers and wool for our clothing in summer and winter,” says Julie Hansmire, owner of Campbell Hansmire Sheep LLC near Vail, where she raises Merino sheep, popular for their wool. “People are recognizing that wools aren’t just for the heavy sweater. You’re wearing it for your underwear and golf socks.”

colorado wool

Julie Hansmire and one of her boarder collies moves the flock. / Photo: FFM Staff

Growers Strive for Better Wool

Colorado consistently ranks among the top five states in wool production in the nation, producing 2.2 million pounds of wool in 2017, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Ranchers here prove determined to raise the best balance of lamb and wool possible, says Ernie Etchart, a sheep rancher himself and president of the Colorado Wool Growers Association. The increase in wool value, though offset some by rising production costs, rewards and fuels ranchers’ efforts.

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“There is an upswing in trying to breed sheep for a better-quality wool,” says Etchart, co-owner of Etchart Sheep Ranch in Montrose, where he and his brother raise Merino sheep. “Here in Colorado, we have some of the best production in the United States and, in my mind, it rivals some of the better fine-wool production coming out of Australia, the world’s largest producer of wool.”

colorado wool

A pile of Colorado wool after sheep were sheared. Photo by Angelo Theos

Third-generation producer Angelo Theos began to breed Merino ewes for their fine-wool qualities in the 1970s and ’80s near Meeker. He was determined to produce both quality wool and quality lambs, against myths that growers could do only one or the other well.

“You get two paychecks per year,” says Angelo, who has watched wool values grow 40 to 50 percent in 10 years. “You get a paycheck for your wool and you get a paycheck for your lambs. You want the most bang for your buck.”

Today, the family sells lamb to national grocer Whole Foods and has watched “Colorado lamb” earn culinary accolades outside state lines. On the wool side, the family built a shearing shed and formed a wool marketing group to classify and sell wool at a premium. The family, like other Colorado wool growers, shears ewes once per year ahead of lambing.

“Since it takes all year long to have our clip, we have several factors that influence wool quality,” says Anthony Theos, Angelo’s son. “It starts with breeding.”

colorado wool

Photo: FFM Staff

How Breeding and Genetics Affect Wool Quality

Quality Colorado claims an advantage in sheep genetics as home to Rifle-based Jewell Merinos, a premium supplier of quality breeding stock to the U.S. sheep industry.

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While the fine-wool Merino breed and genetics contribute significantly to wool quality, Colorado families recognize other details, too. The quality of the shear and the cleanliness of shearing facilities matter. Weather conditions and nutrition make a difference. Weed control and contaminants (like cocklebur and off-color wool) impact the quality and value of wool.

“We’ve all upped our game here in Colorado,” Hansmire says. “We’re constantly trying to produce the best ewe that can raise a couple lambs and can produce a beautiful fleece.”