Wool industry in the 21st Century

Wool as a commodity has fallen far in the lexicon of commodities to the point where those of us who trade it know what it feels like to be an anachronism. For someone who grew up in a notable 20th century wool town it is especially true once you get down to being one of two operations that originated out of the Boston Wool Trade. R.H. Lindsay has spent much of the 21st Century in semi-hibernation and it’s slowly over the past 5 or so years that we’ve begun to find a way to grow and thrive in today’s reality.

The reality in the United States today is we grow about 24 million pounds of wool a year and our mills consume about 20 million pounds. The first twenty years or so of my career wool consumption had slowly grown from 175 million to 190 million pounds. We had to import 2 pounds for every pound we grew in those days. Then in the late 1990s consumption hit the wall and drastically fell to 48 million in 2001.

We saw a lot of friends and associates find other work. I took a job as well. We continued our craft business and selling the odd truck load or two but essentially our business was as bad as it ever was even as far back as double knits in the early 1970s. Ironically the family member who had been denied his chance to take over the family business was the link that kept us going in those days. John D. Lindsay, Jr. kept our craft warehouse even investing in the reconstruction of our long rented alleyway garage in West Philadelphia.

When wool prices finally emerged from the crushing effect of the Australian Wool Corporation Stockpile around 2010 we got interested in collecting local wool again. It feels bad to pay $.50/lb which may not even pay the gas to bring ones wool to our location. We organized with Draper Knitting and held some wool pools where we’d collect it and Draper would bale it for us. The third year we were doing this the long-time R.H. Lindsay Company headquarters at 16 Mather Street was being sold and while we were waiting for growers to show up with their wool we started looking around the extensive Draper Lane property. Three months later we moved into 750 sq/ft of the old felt mill finish room and the Boston-area warehouse was born.

We kept a low profile using the Boston area warehouse to gather local wool and send be the back up to the Philadelphia warehouse that was straining at the amount of wool we had been shipping. We had a space limitation that kept us from adding new products. The Boston-area warehouse became the new product incubator. It really took off when we expanded our footprint to 3,000 square feet taking the entire room as roughly constructed. With the extra space we brought all our semi-processed wool in house from the scouring mill and local warehouses.

When we took a look at all we had it occurred to us to offer our scoured wool directly as scoured wool. Why not? There are over 100 mini-mill operations in the United States and it’s hard for them to get scoured wool in quantities appropriate to their business. After all, who wants to wrestle with a 750 pound bale of scoured wool when you can buy 20-40 pounds instead. Not that we don’t keep selling bales.

Anyway here we are in a spring that is unprecedented in our memories. While our founder was orphaned in an epidemic we know he survived and had a prosperous although relatively short life. Watching the industry fold in the late 1990s is still measuring up to be worse than what we’re seeing with the world slow down thanks to Coronavirus. Business has slowed but we keep hearing from enough of you who are planning to use our wool to fill weeks of enforced home time. We believe we’re not hearing from folks who are usually preparing for the spring sheep and wool festivals. While we canceled our Philadelphia Open Warehouse event, we haven’t  seen or heard of any other spring events being canceled.

Outside of the current health crisis when we get back to the core of this piece, it’s about time we looked forward and predicted what we see and hope for the future of wool in the United States. The good news is there are more sheep in New England than there were five years ago. Sheep numbers have stabilized or grown in most of the Mid Atlantic states as well. The plethora of small producers either using old equipment, newer boutique equipment or their own sweat and tears using wool is growing although incrementally. Industry-wise we expect those who are here may well continue to rally and hold their business together with an idea that they’ll be here when the industrial applications grow and people seek out local sustainable choices.

After all, despite the unfortunate off the mark accusations by those  who believe animals deserve human respect and that treating one like a farm animal should be a crime against humanity, there are enough rational folks who realize humans and sheep made a deal thousands and thousands of years ago and it would be most inhuman to stop that deal. The reason why modern sheep don’t shed is due to the fact that our forbears learned enough about selective traits to breed that characteristic out of sheep that happen to grow softer and finer wool than the shedders. Anyway, more and more of us are recognizing that sheep provide a lot of value in a sustainable way and they’re out telling that story.

The success of our ‘industry’ in getting the right story to be heard in the buzz of information that bombards us more each and every day is what we’re betting on. We’re betting on it so much a 4th generation Lindsay started working here part time in 2019 and sometime during 2020 we’ll see if we can increase our commitment to Grace Lindsay-Parks. She’s been a huge inspiration and she’s driven us to work outside of our comfort zone which means more choices of wool and other textile fibers for you. Our customers have benefited with new products like our line of Samplers and our soon to emerge Dyed Wool Line. Along with more products she’s also proven to be a whiz at the back office jobs that can tedious and an impediment for any small business.

So thanks for your interest in R.H. Lindsay Company and we expect to be here in 2020 and far into the future which we’re certain to successfully adapt around. When I started working in Boston in 1980 I had no clue that 40 years later I’d be packing wool for UPS and those shipment would be adding up enough to be a significant portion of our business. The old guys who were my associates in those days always scoffed at our little business and said it was a ‘drug store’ business. I always though that I didn’t know any poor pharmacists so that must be a good thing.  So we’ll hope for the best and hope we hear from all of you soon with your wool order. After all a recent motto we’ve adapted is based on our own lyrics for the old rock tune Wooly Bully… “Check out R.H. Lindsay…We’ve got the wool for you!”