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She Tortures Wool for a Living: Meet the Woman Helping Revive Commercial Wool Testing in the United States

Clara Parkes
Clara Parkes
29 min read
She Tortures Wool for a Living: Meet the Woman Helping Revive Commercial Wool Testing in the United States

Greetings from Wool Channel HQ!


🐑  Foundation Flockers, our Flock Talk Q&A is this Monday, August 30th, at 7pm Eastern. Send me your questions, comments, and concerns. This is our time together. 🐑


I have a new episode of Voices in Wool for you! We meet Dr. Dawn Brown, the woman tasked with overseeing the return of commercial wool testing to the United States.

Last year, the American wool industry lost an extremely important link in its production chain when the Yocom-McColl wool testing lab closed. It would be easy to add this to the list of tragedies to befall the American wool industry, to point to it as another sign that everything is disappearing, but that’s not actually the case. Before Yocom-McColl even closed, industry stakeholders were already in discussions about what to do.

My guest Dr. Dawn Brown is a key part of that "what to do" discussion. She is the new manager of the commercial wool testing lab that is being added to the Bill Sims Wool & Mohair Research Laboratory at Texas A&M’s AgriLife Research and Extension Center in San Angelo, Texas. (Say that ten times fast.)

Please note: Since this podcast was published, I learned that we've actually had two entities working to bring commercial wool testing capacity back to the U.S. In April 2021, Wasatch Wool Laboratories opened in Midvale, Utah. It is a privately funded partnership between GRIP6 Manufacturing, a Salt Lake City-based wool sock manufacturer, and Albert Wilde, a 6th generation Utah sheep rancher from Wild Valley Farms—the same farm that introduced wool pellets to the U.S. market. I regret the error.

Knitters, we have reason to rejoice! Dawn is one of us. In addition to raising sheep and angora goats, Dawn just happens to make beautiful yarn at her mill, Independence Wool.

Dawn and I first met at the American Sheep Industry Association conference several years ago. We bonded over both our mutual frustration over the current state of affairs and our mutual drive to make things better. When I learned that she was the new manager of this lab, I knew we had to talk.

We discuss how the lab came about, what she does at the lab (hint: it involves torturing wool), how she managed to get $400,000 worth of equipment from Australia to Texas, and what her hopes are for the future—not only for the lab and wool testing but of wool in general. You'll find a full transcript here on the episode page.

I hope you enjoy our conversation.


🐑  Dawn and I went down a rabbit hole about the conflicted world of textile industry standards, and she had lots to say. So much so, in fact, that I pulled that part out and will be sending it to Foundation Flockers as an exclusive deep dive. Stay tuned for your link in the coming days. 🐑


Other Wool News

I trust you've seen Ben Jackson's beautiful tribute to his aunt, whose funeral he was unable to attend because of lockdown in Australia. He showed his love for her in the best way possible.

And in the U.K., retailer John Lewis has just announced a new line of wool mattresses that will use fully traceable wool sourced from sheep farmers who supply the Waitrose supermarket chain. The Campaign for Wool has more on this.

Until next week,

Clara

Transcript

Clara Parkes (Host) (00:00):
The American wool industry lost an extremely important link in its production chain when the Yocom-McColl wool testing lab closed in 2020. That lab had been in operation for more than 50 years. And by the time it closed, it was our only remaining commercial wool testing lab in the country. Now, why does this matter? Because any kind of trade, whether it's buying or selling wool requires accurate commercial measurements — to be able to know what you're buying or selling. Testing for things like cleanliness, how much dirt or grease is in the wool, how fine is it? How great a variation is there between the finest and the roughest fibers? What am I really getting? These are all important things to know, because wool comes off of a living, breathing animal. It doesn't come out of a spigot. It's not out of a test tube. It's not an easily controlled substance and there's lots of variation.

Clara Parkes (01:00):
So when Yocom-McColl closed, American producers had no choice but to send their samples to New Zealand for testing. And New Zealand has some extraordinary facilities for testing wool. They can do it very quickly. They're very, very good. And they're in New Zealand, which is a long distance for wool to travel on a routine basis from the United States. It would be easy to add this to the list of tragedies that have befallen the American wool industry, right? To point to it as another sign that everything is disappearing, but that's not actually what happened. Before Yocom-McColl even closed, industry stakeholders had begun gathering to go over a plan. Now what's involved in setting up a commercial wool testing lab anyway? Like, what kind of equipment do you need? What barriers might you face, and why does any of this matter? My guest today has a very fresh perspective in trying to answer these questions.

Clara Parkes (02:02):
Dr. Dawn Brown is an obstetrician turned Angora goat and sheep farmer, turned mill owner, who has recently stepped into what she calls a bucket list job opportunity. She is the manager of the new commercial wool testing lab that's being added onto the Bill Sims Wool and Mohair Research Laboratory at Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in San Angelo, Texas. By January, 2022, the lab is set to be up and running. Dawn let's get right into it. How did this new lab come about, and what kind of work are we talking about to get a lab set up?

Dr. Dawn Brown (02:40):
Well, so let's, let me talk a little bit about the background. You mentioned Yocom-McColl, and, correct. When Angus McColl retired and closed his operation, we had notice that that was going to happen, right? The industry was aware this was going to happen. Buying his lab outright was not possible. Uh, so the industry stakeholders, representatives, gathered in San Angelo, Texas in the summer of 2019 to meet and go over a plan. Our lab, you know, Montana has an academic wool lab, but they were really not set up to expand their operation the way AgriLife was here in San Angelo. So when they looked at all the options, San Angelo, became the most viable, uh, option. And, you know, that was, you know, Texas A&M AgriLife has had a longstanding relationship with the American Sheep Industry, American Wool Producers, and the lab itself had been doing vital research for many years and had a good reputation.

Dr. Dawn Brown (03:44):
So that sort of set the ball rolling. And then, you know, business plans had to be created. Funding had to be found. While we had the majority of the equipment already in place and operational here at, at the AgriLife lab, we did lack key pieces that would enable us to rapidly process samples. And I'll get into that in just a minute. So we did need a few pieces of very expensive equipment, of course, right? Only made in Australia.

Clara Parkes (04:16):
Of course.

Dr. Dawn Brown (04:16):
Of course! And so, so this plan was crafted and we ran into some obstacles, right? Obviously COVID was a huge obstacle, but, um, the other obstacle became trying to navigate a public / private partnership. The Sheep Venture Company, which is the, uh, for-profit or business arm you could say of the American Sheep Industry, became an investor in this equipment. There was all this navigation of, of, you know, who's doing what and who's paying for what in the background.

Dr. Dawn Brown (04:54):
And that's certainly, when you're dealing with a university, an academic institution, and a public institution at that, nothing moves quickly. There's no sense of urgency, right. You know, they didn't understand, wool is a commodity as a season, that it's, you know, it's grown, it's shorn, it's, you know, it's baled, it's sold, it's marketed, you know, and while you can store it for a very long time period, that's not the goal. You know, they didn't understand any of that. So this process, we were hoping to be open in 2020, which did not happen. It didn't happen in 2021 either, because of other factors. But we settled all of that. And, and were able to order the equipment, uh, a year ago. So all of that is in place. The funding has come in place, you know, things have really settled down. But for a while, it was really up in the air and, and, uh, kind of concerning, you know. I want to mention one other thing about the Sheep Venture Company. So this may ring a bell with some people, but the Sheep Venture Company was vital in investing with, uh, the superwash plant at Chargeurs. So that was a very successful investment that Sheep Venture Company had with that technology. So they were able to leverage some of that success into our lab. Which is wonderful because we all know the superwash plant was a big, was a, uh, just a game changer for American wool. So...

Clara Parkes (06:24):
Definitely a game changer. So getting back to commercial wool testing, what do you do exactly? Could you walk us through the steps?

Dr. Dawn Brown (06:34):
So commercial testing, you know, that can mean several things depending on which sector you're talking to. But when we talk about our lab in particular, we are a research facility that has tested wool for commerce to individuals, right? So we have individual growers that will send in their samples to test fleeces for sale, to test fleeces for, uh, genetic, you know, breeding decision-making. So we have done that for payment, so to speak. So you could say, okay, well, that's a commercial wool lab. You're doing business, your samples come in from individuals, you test them, you get reports and they go out. So the lab has done that here for years. When we say expansion of the commercial arm of the wool lab, what we really mean is, it pertains to the global trading requirements for wool. So we're talking about the commercial wool industry. We're talking about, what, does the US grow 15 to 20 million pounds of wool? Uh, we are primarily an exporter of wool depending on market conditions.

Dr. Dawn Brown (07:49):
You know, we may export 60, 70, 80% of our wool. So no matter how the wool is exported or traded, it has to be tested. So, as an example, we'll have a warehouse. It's sharing season. Baled wool is coming in. They have a buyer that wants a container-load of wool, right? So generally that's almost a hundred bales, 40,000 pounds of wool. We'll just use that as an example. Well, they need to know what's in the bale. So, in the warehouse, the bales are cored and depending on the number of bales in the lot, it determines how many core samples are taken from each bale. And those cores are gathered up anywhere from 500 grams, 1,000 grams, somewhere in that, they will send their core sample to our lab.

Clara Parkes (08:49):
Could you explain what a core sample is for those who don't know?

Dr. Dawn Brown (08:52):
It's a steel tube they, they actually manually have to drive into the bale, and it pulls out a three quarters of an inch section in a, in a long, let's say three-foot tube of wool. And they will do that. Let's say they core every bale, one time out of that whole lot, that goes in one bag. And then it goes to the lab. When that will gets to the lab it's then subsampled. We do an A sample and a B sample, and it goes through testing to determine its various impurities, and micron, of course. So, you know, sample A sample B are washed or scoured. Then they're tested for vegetable matter. They're tested for ash, which is like mineral or dirt content. They go through an extraction process with certain chemicals, alcohol in the case of what we do in our lab. And that removes any residual grease left over from scouring. And then the fourth section is going to be your, your micron. And in the case of commercial wool trading that is done with the laser scan, not the OFTA people may have heard of the optical fiber diameter analyzer. It's not acceptable to use OFTA technology for commercial trading of wool. So we use a laser scan, which is pretty fun. Um, that's pretty cool instrument.

Clara Parkes (10:18):
Is the laser scan the one where it's dissolved into a solution of alcohol?

Dr. Dawn Brown (10:22):
Yes. We... our... It can be different solutions, but ours is a propanol-driven system. So that's kind of the scenario of what happens to that wool. Then your wonderful high-order math calculations come in and create all kinds of... There are different types of yields that add back different amounts of moisture regain. There are correction factors for everything.

Clara Parkes (10:49):
Uh-oh! Math!

Dr. Dawn Brown (10:49):
Right. I never, you know, when you did calculus and all that math, I thought, oh my God, I will never, ever, ever need any of this nonsense again.

Clara Parkes (11:00):
Famous last words.

Dr. Dawn Brown (11:02):
Right? It is real... People really use it!

Clara Parkes (11:06):
You sound surprised.

Dr. Dawn Brown (11:08):
I am! I was like, surely this is a waste of our time, but no. You know, I'm an obstetrician. I need 10 centimeters. I just need a 10. That's all I need. [Laughter.] Uh, so, but no, the math is actually... I have, I've learned to embrace some long-lost appreciation for math. But it's really fascinating.

Dr. Dawn Brown (11:30):
A test report that is used to sell the wool is created ultimately after we put the samples through all this processing. And the report is just as complicated as the entire process. And it has a little bit of everything. But all of these processes and standards that we go through are created by the IWTO. The International Wool Textile Organization. It is the standard-making arm for the global wool industry. And these are, you know, these are very rigid standards. Like how many decimal points, everything has to be to, and how many, um, what the humidity of the mill should be, I mean the lab should be, what he temperature, the humidity, the, uh, the temperature of dissolving your vegetable matter. Your... I mean, everything is... They have put years and years and years of effort into creating these regulations and specifications. And we abide by them. So that, whether you're buying wool here, that's been tested in our lab, or you're buying wool that was tested in New Zealand or Australia or the UK, you know, all of our results through testing with round trials, you know, we all participate and we make sure that that results are representative. You know, that we are providing as precise a data as we can between labs.

Clara Parkes (13:01):
All the way down to the temperature and humidity within the lab...

Dr. Dawn Brown (13:04):
Everything yes. Decimal points, and, you know, the balances have to be certified that we weigh on. And the, you know, you can't have any air movement around the scale or the balances. You have to, uh... I will say that, um, we are adding some, some other technology that will help us to alleviate how long it takes us to process the samples. As you can imagine, dissolving wool for the vegetable matter test, we dissolve that in sodium hydroxide. It dissolves away the protein wool fiber and leaves only the vegetable matter.

Clara Parkes (13:42):
Rest in peace.

Dr. Dawn Brown (13:43):
Yes. Right. I mean, it just, it vanishes. It's horrifying. You know, the wool is gone, it's just twigs and burrs and, and it's gone. So that's very, labor-intensive, right? You have to use chemicals to do that. And the other section, just like dissolving the grease, we basically boil a wool sample in alcohol for four hours to melt away or extract any residual soaps or grease or lanolin leftover after scouring.

Dr. Dawn Brown (14:16):
So obviously that takes a long time and involves boiling alcohol, which you need to obviously have a vent hood for that.

Clara Parkes (14:24):
Ha! Yes.

Dr. Dawn Brown (14:25):
And then the other section is the ash. Well, if you're burning wool, you're ashing it, right? Just like that sounds. So you set it on fire...

Clara Parkes (14:37):
Oh, it's a, it's a torture chamber that you have!

Dr. Dawn Brown (14:39):
It is! You set it on fire, and burn it to a black ash, and then you're not done. You have to put it in the incinerator oven at 700 degrees Celsius. Now get your mind around that 700 degrees Celsius.

Clara Parkes (14:59):
That's what it takes to incinerate wool. I mean, already it's hard to burn, but...

Dr. Dawn Brown (15:03):
Right. And it stays in there for several hours, and then you take it out. Carefully. [Laughter.] And then you weigh the pitiful remains of what was once wool. And again, the ash, what's left after that incineration, is going to be sand, dirt, you know, some type of mineral.

Clara Parkes (15:23):
And that will tell you...?

Dr. Dawn Brown (15:24):
So if you think about what's in that bale, it's greasy, and it's going over to, let's say, uh, Italy has bought this bale of wool. And here's the greasy weight, but here's truly how much vegetable matter, ash, and residual grease that are going to remain when you wash it. And then of course it'll have the fiber diameter. So that gives them an idea of what their yield is, what type of impurities remain within the bale. Obviously we weigh these samples before and after scouring, so there is just a regular oven-dry weight.

Dr. Dawn Brown (16:02):
And again, that, that oven-dry weight gets factored into a calculation with your VM, your ash, your residual grease, and then there's another calculation that adds back humidity factors. It puts a regain correction factor in there for atmospheric conditions. Because we know wool is... It likes to absorb moisture. And it will, it will absorb the moisture of the environment in which it's in. So they have a standard for that. We know at 65% humidity, wool is going to absorb so much moisture. So they, they try to factor in that as a humidity or regain, to the weight of wool.

Clara Parkes (16:45):
Oh, so you couldn't cheat and put all your bales in a super humid room and then weigh them and sell them based on that.

Dr. Dawn Brown (16:50):
[Laughter.] Right. Exactly.

Clara Parkes (16:52):
Darn it!

Dr. Dawn Brown (16:53):
Yes, no cheating.

Clara Parkes (16:54):
That's really what I love about this is that you're trying to establish some form of order and control over a material that is innately super flexible and chaotic. So good there.

Dr. Dawn Brown (17:06):
Yes. And the extent that they have gone to, to try try to do so, is just really amazing. Now, one other interesting tidbit of technology that we are using... Like I said, to create this vegetable matter test, the ash tests, the alcohol extraction tests, laborious chemicals, open flames, you know, generally, you know, some hazards involved.

Clara Parkes (17:31):
Just a few.

Dr. Dawn Brown (17:31):
So surely there's a better way to do this, right? So what has become a new standard, and that we are doing here at the lab, expanding into, is the NIR machine. Near infrared spectroscopy. So it has a lot of uses, whether it's medicine, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, food. It has a lot of different applications. So here's what we can do, and what they do in New Zealand and Australia, and what the IWTO has set forth as a standard, is you can create an equation, right? With a correction factor that solves the mystery of doing ash and the alcohol residual grease extraction.

Dr. Dawn Brown (18:18):
So in a nutshell, you test X amount of samples in the standard method, hence open flame alcohol extraction. So that's your standard. But you test the wool on the NIR and try to correlate back your results to the NIR scans. So the NIR scans, our raw sample, it scans our scoured sample. We put our samples through this, the standard test method, with the open flames and the ovens and the chemicals. But there is a correlation that's created, a calculation made, and a correction factor that gets us around — with accuracy — gets us around testing every single sample through those more time-consuming and hazardous methods. So that's very exciting. Obviously the old school method is the standard and you have to do enough samples to create your equation so that your equation for the NIR is accurate. And thank heavens, we have a PhD student here to do that. [Laughter.] She loves math. She loves Excel spreadsheets. She is fabulous. And yes. So yeah, we're very excited about that.

Clara Parkes (19:40):
That has the potential not only to save time and human power, but also I imagine just an extraordinary amount of energy that is required.

Dr. Dawn Brown (19:49):
Yes. Energy, hazardous chemicals. You know, when I was hired for this job, you kind of have to start from the ground up. And one of the things I had to tackle was the safety of the lab. It is a lab. Obviously we have hazardous chemicals in the lab, and finding ways to minimize that exposure is better for the environment, obviously, but better for your, your employees. Uh, so that is certainly something we're doing. And the NIR is going to help a lot with that as well as just the speed, right? Wool is a commodity. The dollars given for a bale of wool can change. And, and you want producers to have the results as soon as they can, so they can have a chance at, at the best possible pricing. So speed is important. The health and safety of your staff, the environment, energy consumption, very important.

Dr. Dawn Brown (20:40):
One other context. We talked a little bit earlier. We were getting this new equipment from Australia. Basically the pieces that we're adding to the lab are a high-capacity washing or scouring system and a drying system. Because right now, you know, we're washing wool by hand. 75 gram samples with a protocol. You know, we have to wash it a certain way, says the IWTO. But this machine will actually take the place of a lot of hand washing and oven drying, because it rapidly dries the wool samples. But going back to environmental concerns, the scouring agents that are used in the high capacity washing machine, you know, those are not exactly environmentally friendly. Actually one of them's not even available in the US. So we're having to search and find a better alternative, you know. Not using an anti-foam silicone solution, not using... The agent they were using was called Hydrapol BD40.

Dr. Dawn Brown (21:40):
And I think, gosh, it sounds like it has gasoline in it or something. It's really harsh. So we're actually going back to my experience within the wool mill. We're working with Unicorn Power Scour to see if we can utilize a product that's here in the US, that isn't as sensitive to high temperature, right? If we can use water that doesn't have to be quite so hot, that saves money. Their product, the Beyond Clean product is the one I use in the mill because it's unscented. It works just as well as Power Scour, it just, it doesn't have any scent in it. We actually have our samples of Beyond Clean ready to go. And we're working with them to determine, because we're washing such small amounts of wool in the new machines at a time, right? Each sample is about 75 grams. We're trying to come up with the right dilution, the right amount of soap. So we're conscious of how much soap we're going to need, how much we're going to use, how much that's going to cost. So cost and energy are big expenditures to consider. And if we can make any type of improvement in the wool lab, that's a benefit for our bottom line, as well as our employees and the environment. So we're excited about that.

Clara Parkes (22:59):
Will you need to run this by IWTO? Do they want everybody to use the same scour?

Dr. Dawn Brown (23:04):
No, actually they don't. Actually, the soap is the one thing. And I guess really, because regionally, everyone can't use the same soap. Uh, everyone's water is different. There are some allowances, but happily, they don't have any stipulation, uh, for that.

Clara Parkes (23:21):
So, and you're still waiting for this equipment. Like this is a lot of prep work that you have to get set up.

Dr. Dawn Brown (23:27):
Yes. I have learned a whole new language, for any of those that do international shipping or commerce, the Incoterms for getting $400,000 worth of equipment. Extracting it from Australia and getting it on ship on its way to Texas is a challenge. And I did not learn all this on my own. Luckily again, going back to contacts within the wool industry, ASI, Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers, just over the years of me being involved with those associations, you know, you meet people, uh, who, who trade wool all over the world and you call upon them to help you. So I owe a really, really fine bottle of Scotch to some people for helping us get our equipment out of Australia. I don't know what's on your world clock on your iPhone, but, uh, mine is, uh, Auckland and Melbourne.

Dr. Dawn Brown (24:30):
I have to like, are the, are the New Zealanders awake yet? Can I contact them? I need to call them, you know. So you have to figure out what time zone everyone is in and try to make this deal happen. And we had the best help. The New Zealanders helped us. The equipment was actually fabricated in Australia with Australian Wool Testing Authority. So it was actually left Melbourne. You know, we had this huge global team trying to put together this deal to get our equipment on a ship and to the US. And this is so cool. You can actually track where your ship is at any given time. They have these apps where you can like find out like, where is my ship? The ship we were on was called the Maersk Inverness. Right? What a cool name? Inverness. I was like, that's great. So that ship is docking today in Cartagena. So we know it's there. And now here's the trick. It has to get off of that ship and be put on another ship to come into the Gulf of Mexico and into the port of Houston. It's due to be in Houston, August 14th. So not too far away.

Clara Parkes (25:43):
Don't you sort of wish that we could have an arrival party, like get a big mariachi band...

Dr. Dawn Brown (25:47):
Yes. We've just been lucky. We just have been holding our breath for so long. The sad part of this whole transaction is we should have gone to New Zealand, right? And I should be training. I should be training in their lab. Our staff should be training in New Zealand. The New Zealanders should come here and help us set up our lab, but they can't. We are going to go, we still are going. It's just unfortunately, an unknown timeframe. Right? But so we're having to do everything we can remotely, but we're going to do it. And we have great help. You know, I couldn't ask for better support from the New Zealanders. They're just wonderful at the Australian team is as well. But mostly what I've dealt with in Australia has been engineering of the equipment, getting the manuals, and getting all that sort of the nuance of the setting the lab up in the testing art... The art of testing wool, uh, is, is coming from the New Zealand side.

Clara Parkes (26:49):
Mmmmm, the Art of Testing Wool. Will that be your book title? [Laughter] When, when your memoir comes out?

Dr. Dawn Brown (26:55):
Oh gosh, wouldn't that be quite the read?

Clara Parkes (26:58):
It blows my mind having reported on technology, for example, where there was a lot of hoarding of information and hoarding of knowledge and competitive kind of espionage kind of stuff. Everything that I've seen in the wool industry, obviously, wherever you have people you're going to have complications. But there is such a fundamental generosity. Everybody wants wool to succeed. They want it to, I don't want to say come back. That makes it sound like a, a museum piece, but it's like, everybody wants it to succeed. They're putting that before their own personal business interests, for the most part.

Dr. Dawn Brown (27:32):
Yes. It needs to get all the recognition it deserves. And the fiber is amazing. The animals are amazing. The people that dedicate their lives to, uh, ensuring that they're farming and ranching in a sustainable manner so future generations can carry this on. You know, of course there are bad people everywhere. There are accidents, there are terrible things that happen, but they're not the standard. The standard are this group of people that have worked very hard to get where we are and they deserve... The fiber deserves the recognition, the animals and the benefit they bring to the environment, uh, deserve the recognition, the textile deserves recognition. And I think this is a great way to do it. Voices in Wool, The Wool Channel. I think all these things inspire... This is what I'm seeing. They inspire the sort of hardened technical science data-driven side of wool to embrace that. We do need to tell the story. But sometimes the people that are really only interested in the data, they don't realize that, oh, no, there's a, there's a whole world of people that would like to know what you're doing. And, uh, you can share that.

Clara Parkes (28:48):
Part of me, I feel bad for ASI because they are it for the United States. So it's like they could use all the help. They can't be everything to everyone, but they're like the major force. And so part of what I'm trying to do is take some of the heavy lifting off in terms of building a consumer movement. So that yarn companies and clothing companies don't have to spend half their time just explaining where wool comes from and why it's such a remarkable fiber, and all the different people that it touches along the way. Then ASI, they can focus on supporting the producers and continuing to fund investments in great equipment, like what they're doing for you.

Dr. Dawn Brown (29:27):
Yes. And a huge amount of their work is dedicated to the trade of American wool, uh, which is a lot going on in the background there, uh, and policies. If you think about comparing Texas to the mountain west, Texas, we're privately owned. If you Google the history of how Texas came to be a predominantly privately owned state, that's pretty fascinating and stuff, you know. We were our own nation. Uh, when we became part of the United States. We still behave like we're our own nation. Um, so that's just a Texan thing. But if you compare that to the mountain west, yes, there are privately owned ranches, but a enormous portion of wool relies on federal land. Access to grazing on federal land. And so ASI has to navigate all of that policy and represent those mountain west states, because that's where most of our wool is grown in the U.S. It has a, a delicate dance to do with the federal government. And so very important work they do.

Dr. Dawn Brown (30:40):
But I would encourage people, uh, you know, take a look at their website and you'll, you kind of get a grasp of what it is they do and what they support. And if you are a sheep and goat raiser, someone that has a wool driven business, consider participating. Sometimes your state associations allow you to join as an industry associate, even though you're not a farmer or rancher. And, and honestly, when it comes right down to, to how I landed this position as manager of the wool lab, that foundation was created through the relationships and participation from those organizations. I became a member. I paid my dues. I showed up, I worked on committees. I went to conventions. I volunteered, I helped. I learned I became a wool classer, I continued to expand upon the wool classing knowledge. Since that, that was 2016, when I became a wool classer. You build these relationships, and you gain your knowledge and skills, and then lo and behold, one day there's a job that you can do to help service the American wool producer in a, in a different way.

Dr. Dawn Brown (31:52):
And I, I love the mill, but this was a chance for me to work with a very impactful organization and group of people. And I don't miss a lot about medicine, but you know, the labor unit and the surgical suite, you know, we were a well-oiled machine. We got our work done. We took great care of our patients, and everybody was safe. So, you know, you see you really, you start to miss that aspect. And so, uh, I enjoy working in the mill, but the more agricultural side, the producer side, I just, these are my people.

Clara Parkes (32:27):
So how many people work in the lab with you? Is it just the two PhD?

Dr. Dawn Brown (32:31):
Uh, we have a senior research associate who has been with the lab for 35 years. I think? And he's of course, nearing retirement. So here's the thing. You look at the aging population of farmers and ranchers, and there's a gap there. We've got to inspire young people to want to follow in their footsteps. So that's why I'm so tickled to have these PhD students. I have, there's another Master's student here. We have undergraduate students here. And creating an environment where they are inspired, enthusiastic about the sheep and goat industry, the wool and mohair industry, is really part of our duty.

Clara Parkes (33:20):
Toward that end, will you be hiring?

Dr. Dawn Brown (33:22):
Uh, we do have plans. If anyone's looking to be hired as a wool lab technician, we will be hiring a full-time technician, maybe two technicians to work on all these fabulous machines. And you know what the other cool thing about this job is? We do a lot of cool stuff out here, not just in the lab. We have a ranch full of sheep and goats right here at the center. We also have research ranches. One of them is 5,000 acres. That is just about an hour from here. So we have lots of land and animals to conduct research with. And I don't want people thinking we're doing some horrible research to them. You know, this has to do with genetics and it has to do with wool. We're not doing some horrible physiological experiments out here or anything like that.

Clara Parkes (34:07):
Right, and basic needs not only for the producer, but for the animal, for its best life, too.

Dr. Dawn Brown (34:13):
Right. It's about maximizing the genetic traits for better goal, better lamb, better carcass traits, the whole package. Because wool is a dual purpose, you know, fine wool sheep are a dual purpose animal. So when we do have a seasonal downtime within the lab, you get called on to do other things like go out to the sheep pens, they're working sheep, we're sharing sheep, we're collecting fleeces for the angora buck tests. So we're weighing samples and bringing them to the lab. Or you pitch in where you can, and you get to see and learn some really cool skills. And we draw blood on some of the animals so that we understand what's going on with their cortisol, what's going on with their stress level. All of those things are vital to growing wool and lamb. You know, you learn a lot of other cool things out here with this job. Now ultrasounding sheep for pregnancy, it was... That was something I had to learn to do, but it was not too unfamiliar. [Laughter.]

Clara Parkes (35:13):
That's true!

Dr. Dawn Brown (35:14):
Yes. I was ultrasounding one of the ewes at the clinic the other day. We had a clinic to teach producers how the ultrasound, their sheep. And I said, oh, this one's having a ram lamb. We had a gender reveal for, yeah, for mom. Congratulations, you're having a ram. [Laughter.]

Clara Parkes (35:31):
She was like, darn it. I wanted to keep it a secret!

Dr. Dawn Brown (35:34):
Yeah. You know, I work with a great group of people and it takes a good team to get your work done and to have that environment where people feel valued and that they're contributing. And I feel like we have that here. When we put out the notice for wool technicians, if anyone is interested.

Clara Parkes (35:51):
Absolutely. And that dovetails rather nicely with my final question for you, Dawn. Based on your experience raising animals, making yarn, and now testing wool and mohair, what is something you wish you could get the world to understand? How can we help you?

Dr. Dawn Brown (36:11):
Oh gosh. That is a big question. And I guess from my meager experience so far within the wool industry and considering the audience in which we have here, I think obviously inspiring people to buy American wool, right? And lamb. I mean... If you're a vegetarian, I'm happy for you. But we have to recognize that these animals have a dual purpose. And the meat that they do provide is one of the best, as far as nutrition, protein. And American American lamb is supporting that arm of the industry is, is vital. But from the wool standpoint, do everyone a favor and think about the yarn that you use, think about the textiles that you buy. I'm sitting here talking to you today. And I have... My wool socks are from Duckworth that I have on the camisole that I have on under my work shirt is Duckworth.

Dr. Dawn Brown (37:26):
Again, American grown. Every stage of their processing is done in the US, and these garments they are a little more pricey, but they really do last, and they are worth every penny. So that that's kind of one arm. When you tackle the issue of yarn in our industry, I feel like, I feel like there's a disconnect between all the beautiful hand-dyed yarn you see circulating out in Instagram and on the web, versus where the yarn really came from. And I would encourage more knitters to press. And I have no qualms about saying this because I'm a fairly direct person. That for far too long indie dyers have gotten away without telling people where their yarn came from. And I think it's shameful. And I'll just say that you can think what you want about me, but hands down, if you are an American indie dyer and you don't have a, at least a line within your offerings of an American grown and processed wool, I won't buy from you. Period. Now I get to make my own yarn, but I do like to buy other hand-dyed yarns. I just won't buy it. And I think that there should be more pushback from handknitters in the US to ask their indie dyers. Where's this come from? Where are you buying this from? Not, not a name, give me a country, give me a pasture of origin. And if they can't, or won't tell you that information, ask them why. If we can't create demand, we're not going to create more people growing wool.

Clara Parkes (39:19):
That's really the bottom line. Isn't it.

Dr. Dawn Brown (39:21):
You know, the numbers aren't going to grow. And it's demand for lamb is demand for wool textiles is demand for wool yarn. I think that's a pretty simple question. And in today's desire to know where your food comes from, where your textiles come from, where's your hand knitting yarn come from?

Dr. Dawn Brown (39:41):
Where is it from? Now on a larger scale? I would like to say the other thing that faces the wool industry, and you have to remember the wool industry in the US is very small. You know, we produce about 1% of the world's wool. We are a small industry as it is. The wool that we grow is exceptionally fine and has lots of value. It's good wool, it's quality wool. But we're a small industry. And the other thing I would ask people to do is to think about where does your wool grow? Who grows it? Where do these sheep live? Where are the sheep raised? What's the environment that they're raised in? What are those communities like that ranch? Because I think there's some misconceptions about rural communities, about agriculture. And I think that taking a step back and realizing that the food you get at the grocery store, the yarn, you get the wool garments that you buy.

Dr. Dawn Brown (40:53):
They aren't ranched on the Miracle Mile. They're not in Manhattan, you're not in Central Park. They're not in San Francisco. They're not in Los Angeles. We have to recognize that there are groups of people that live in rural communities that work very hard to bring you nutritious food and exceptional wool. And I think it's far too easy in our current climate of social media hostility and, and division and hatred and all of that, that we, we tend to write people off in rural America as being something that they're really not. And let me tell ya, you're going starve to death without these people. That's just, you know, we have to have people that love what they do and love those communities in which they live and support rural communities. I mean, we have to have these people. We have to have wide open spaces to raise food. This is vital to our survival. We're not going to live without people who are dedicated to agriculture. And those people are in rural areas across our country, across the globe. We have to have food. We have to have fiber and has to be grown and provided by someone. So recognize that. Thank a farmer, thank a rancher.

Clara Parkes (42:14):
And thank the person who tests your wool too! Speaking of which Dawn, our time has come to an end. And I just want to thank you so much for talking with me today. This has been a great pleasure.

Dr. Dawn Brown (42:27):
Thank you for inviting me and for your interest in what we're doing here in the wool lab. Again, whether you're a commercial producer or small individual, small farm plot producer, the lab is an important tool for your operation. And if you have questions or comments or need to clarify anything, please reach out and we'll be happy to work with you in the coming months.

Clara Parkes (42:48):
Fantastic. This has been a conversation with Dr. Dawn Brown, OB GYN turned sheep and angora goat farmer turned mill owner, who most recently stepped into the position of commercial wool lab manager at the bill Sims Wool and Mohair Research Lab at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in San Angelo, Texas. Voices in Wool is made possible by members of The Wool Channel, a platform publication and community dedicated to giving wool a voice in the world. To find out more, including how you too can join the flock, go to thewoolchannel.com I'm Clara Parkes. And until next time, bye-bye.

Clara Parkes

Wool is life. I make The Wool Channel go.