When I finished reading this book today, I experienced a range of emotions. First I was excited that someone had done such a fantastic job writing about the modern wool industry. Much of what is written is supremely pessimistic as it is only looking at statistics and the history of the wool industry (which, admittedly, is fairly depressing). Stephany Wilkes takes a very clear-sighted look at what is happening right now in the industry and the people in it.
Then I was little sad that the book was done. It’s a very recent release, so it’s written about events into 2017, so it’s not like she stopped writing about her life randomly. However, I wanted more of the story!
Finally there was an emotion that I had trouble naming for a little bit but then it hit me, I was jealous. This is the book that I would love to write. Raw Material: Working Wool in the West is an extraordinarily well-written book about what it’s like to actually get your hands dirty working with sheep. Stephany details what exactly it takes for wool to get from the back of a sheep into your socks. Her descriptions of shearing school were so spot-on I was laughing with relief that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Her writing of the fear and trepidation that you have holding the shears for the first time made my stomach clench a little remembering my own experience. The whole “why the hell am I doing this?” range of emotions that first night after you have sheared and are utterly exhausted in a way that you have seldom been in your entire life. The burning and aching of muscles that personal trainers have never worked, let alone left shaking and jellied, like shearing the first time does. She looks at the obstacles to modern, local, wool production with a very clear lens. Even shepherding, which she doesn’t do, is looked at honestly without excessively romanticizing it.
Stephany does have a few detours in the book. One is a chapter on natural dyes and their production. I don’t begrudge this chapter in the least because chemical dyes are really toxic and it was fascinating to learn what work is being done to re-start production of natural dyes on a macro scale again.
Another detour was about carbon mitigation using sheep. She explained what is really a fairly complex scientific system in easy-to-understand language without dumbing it down. A lot of folks in certain “animal welfare” and environmental circles like to point the finger at livestock production as a major source of the worlds ills. Anyone who has actually looked into it has seen that it’s primarily our dependence on fossil fuels (which make a lot of the “vegan friendly” fabrics that some groups like to promote) that are the issue and not sheep farts.
I would like every single person who does anything with wool to read this book. I don’t care if you are a knitter, spinner, or outdoors-person who wears wool base layers. Read. This. Book. I don’t care if you buy it or request it from your local library, go get it and read it. Stephany Wilkes has done for wool what Michael Pollan has done for food and that is she has exposed the human side of it.