Wool has been used by human civilizations since we’ve started keeping track of our history. It was an important cloth for the tribes that lived in the 80th century BC and before. Because sheep are very mobile, and their coats are easy to spin and weave, the popularity of wool quickly spread around the world.
The Persians, Greeks, and Romans began to selectively breed their sheep to produce an even finer quality of wool.
Wool was such an important commodity in the Middle Ages, there were strict prohibitions against exporting sheep or wool products without permission. In the 17th century, almost 70% of the foreign commerce generated in England was based on wool textiles. It was so important in Spain that anyone caught exporting sheep was subject to capital punishment.
Today, wool is still found in many clothing items. It is often used in carpets. Because it is biodegradable, it is a popular option for decorations, textiles, and much more.
Important Wool Industry Statistics
#1. The wool industry is able to produce about 1.16 billion kilograms of clean wool every year. (International Wool Textile Organization)
#2. A single sheep is able to produce an average of 4.5 kilograms of wool each year. That’s enough wool to create about 10 meters of fabric, which is enough for 6 sweaters. (International Wool Textile Organization)
#3. China is the global leader in wool production, responsible for about 14% of the total supply. They are followed by the Commonwealth of Independent States (7%), Australia (6%), and India (5%). (International Wool Textile Organization)
#4. In 2015, there were more than 1.16 billion sheep in the world. (International Wool Textile Organization)
#5. The majority of wool production occurs in Australia, which is responsible for over 20% of the finished product. China is right behind, with the same percentage. The CIS comes in third, responsible for 10% of global wool production. (International Wool Textile Organization)
#6. More than 500 different sheep breeds create wool in a variety of different colors, lengths, and textures. Since 2008, however, more wool is used for interior textiles than for apparel. (International Wool Textile Organization)
#7. In 2016, the amount of greasy shorn wool produced in the United States was 25.7 million pounds. That figure is about 5% lower than production levels in 2015. (Agricultural Marketing Resource Center)
#8. The average price per pound for wool in 2016 was $1.45, creating a total value of $37.2 million. High-value fine wool, which is 25 microns or less, is more than 50% of total wool production in the United States. (Agricultural Marketing Resource Center)
#9. The average sheep is able to produce about 7 pounds of greasy wool during its annual shearing. (Agricultural Marketing Resource Center)
#10. 90% of the wool that is produced in New Zealand is exported as fiber. They are the leading producer of strong (coarse) wool, which is primarily used in blankets, yarn, and upholstery. (Agricultural Marketing Resource Center)
#11. About 70% of the lambs who are finished in feedlots are shorn in the United States. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
#12. The 14 intermountain and western range states in the U.S. account for 72% of the sheep inventories and 77% of the wool inventories that are produced annually. These states are also responsible for 88% of the revenues generated by the U.S. wool industry each year. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
#13. Australia is responsible for about 25% of the greasy wool which is sold on the global market each year. For the 2016-2017 season, the total value of this product was $3.615 billion. (Department of Agriculture and Water Resources)
#14. Wool is produced in Australia in every state except the Northern Territory. Over 7.4 million sheep were shorn in the country during the last season, out of a population of about 80 million sheep. (Department of Agriculture and Water Resources)
#15. About 4% of the lambs which are born to farmers working within the wool industry die each year from poor nutrition. (PETA)
#16. Shearers are often paid by the volume they produce instead of an hourly wage, which can reduce the quality of work. An experienced shearer may work on more than 350 animals in a day, at a pace that is maintained for 4 weeks or more. (PETA)
#17. Australia is responsible for 77% of the global supply of merino wool that is 24 microns or finer. South Africa comes in second, providing 11% of the global supply. Argentina provides 7%, while Uruguay provides 2%. (New Merino)
#18. There are currently 88,000 sheep producers operating in the United States. Together, they are responsible for an economic impact totaling $5.8 billion to the U.S. economy. (American Sheep Industry Association)
#19. About $500 million is generated annually in the U.S. for lambs and sheep, with value added from processing and retail, a $2 billion direct contribution to the economy is made each year. (American Sheep Industry Association)
#20. In Australia, the entire wool clip of Western Australia is either exported or transported to different states. About 83% of the exports go to China, with India and the Czech Republic being important destinations as well. (Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development)
#21. There are currently 14.7 million sheep and lambs living in Western Australia, including 7.8 million breeding ewes. (Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development)
#22. 95% of the wool that is produced in Western Australia is merino wool, with 41% of the clip being 19.5 microns or less. (Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development)
#23. Texas is the top-producing state in the U.S. for wool, generating 1.95 million pounds in 2016. More than 270,000 sheep were sheared in 2016. (BizVibe)
#24. New Zealand is home to about 4 million people and 30 million sheep. (Stats New Zealand)
#25. There are currently 16,000 sheep farms in the country, making New Zealand the largest exporter of lambs. About 24 million finished lambs are recorded each year within the sheep industry. (Environmental Impacts of Pasture-Based Farming)
#26. Manawatu-Wanganui saw a 10% decrease in sheep numbers between 2012-2016 in New Zealand. Despite the declines, it is still the region with the most sheep, with a herd of over 5 million in 2016. (Stats New Zealand)
#27. Since 2008, wool measured at 18 microns has experienced a 30% positive price differential relative to 21-micron wool. Wool measured at 19 microns experienced a 16% differential. At 28 microns, there is a -46% differential. (Department of Primary Industries)
#28. China imports 43% of the world’s raw and scoured wool products each year. In 2001, China imported just 26% of the global share of raw wool imports. (Department of Primary Industries)
#29. China is also the leading exporter of finished wool garments. In 2013, they exported 38% of wool menswear and the same percentage for womenswear. They also account for 37% of the world’s total wool garments and 15% of the world’s wool carpets. (Department of Primary Industries)
#30. The leading exporter of finished wool products is also China. They account for 27% of wool top, 17% of wool yarn, and 32% of wool fabric. (Department of Primary Industries)
#31. The United States is a leading importer of wool clothing, accounting for 18% of the world’s imports of such products. Men’s wool woven wear hold an even greater share, at 25%. (Department of Primary Industries)
#32. 38.7% of wool clothing that is made globally is created as sweaters. Men’s suits are the next most-popular item, accounting for 14% of all clothing. Women’s overcoats account for 13.8% of wool clothing that is made. (Department of Primary Industries)
Wool Industry Trends and Analysis
Seasonal conditions always affect the quality of the wool that is produced. Severe changes in seasons may even limit the amount of wool that is available. For the 2018-2019 season, there is a forecasted 2% drop of wool availability in some markets, like Australia and New Zealand, because of expected weather issues.
Changes to the number of sheep being shorn is also affected the overall production numbers of the industry. In some markets, just 10% of the population may be shorn in a single season.
At the same time, prices are at low enough levels that some farmers cannot earn a living on the wool alone. For farmers in the United States, the per-pound price of wool is so low that it barely even covers the cost of shearing the animal. That means the yearly care needs of the animal eliminate any potential for profits. For that reason, the U.S. provides less than 1% of the global wool supply.
Although wool has been outperforming other commodities in recent years, a rise in oil prices and the availability of some metals is changing this. Consumers look toward lower cost items for apparel or textiles and wool is not always on that list.
How the weather holds, along with pricing and other commodity availability, will determine the future success of this industry.