Canada’s embassies in Copenhagen and Abidjan will soon boast bespoke carpets made from Canadian wool – the first step in what Ottawa hopes will be an expansion of the country’s wool trade after years of declining demand.
The rug project is part of a $150,000 investment in the industry, an effort to turn around a situation so dire that some farmers destroy their wool rather than pay to process it.
“They’ve been burning it. They’ve been burying it. It’s a waste of a resource, and that’s why we’re trying to find these new applications,” said Matthew Rowe, the chief executive officer of the Canadian Wool Council, at an announcement for the embassy project Wednesday.
Most of Canada’s 9,400 sheep farmers make the majority of their income from meat, which means the production of high-quality wool for textiles has dwindled. Meanwhile, the rise of fast fashion and cheap overseas manufacturing have led to the shrinking of the Canadian wool sector.
About a century ago, Canada had some 300 wool mills, and the industry employed about 12,000 people. Today, only three mills remain, according to Eric Bjergso, the general manager of Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers Ltd., which markets wool produced by Canadian farmers.
The new government investment, announced by Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, will be used to conduct market research, promote export opportunities and improve consumer awareness domestically.
Carpets make sense as a starting point because they can demand high prices, Mr. Rowe said.
The bespoke embassy rugs, which are geometric in form and range in colour from cream and café au lait to charcoal, will be hand-crafted by Cabernet Carpets, a custom rug manufacturing facility in Waterloo, Ontario. They were designed by Creative Matters Inc., a Toronto textile design company. It’s the first time they have designed rugs made of wool processed in Canada, said co-owner Carol Sebert. “They are just as beautiful and finely detailed as any other rug we could make.”
But rugs are just the start. Canadian wool can also be turned into a variety of biodegradable products. Jennifer McTavish, the general manager of industry association Ontario Sheep Farmers, says she has seen more experimentation in the past five years alongside growing interest in sustainable products.
“You can insulate your home with it, you can decorate with it, you can wear it. It’s a miracle product.”
One application is fertilizer pellets that disperse nutrients over six months. It can be turned into upholstery for office furniture or cubicle dividers. Some meal-kit delivery companies are using wool as biodegradable packaging, as it naturally absorbs moisture from food and maintains a stable temperature.
But solving Canada’s wool woes will require more than just new products, according to Mr. Bjergso. He says he believes Canadian prices will continue to languish until global markets come back. Wool prices plunged almost 20 per cent at the beginning of the pandemic as manufacturers cancelled orders, he said, just as shipping container costs soared from $2,000 to $20,000.
“Demand for new clothing for weddings, funerals and business meetings was pretty much non-existent, so it has really quite a significant impact,” Mr. Bjergso said. “Finer wools have rebounded quite nicely, but coarser wool is still struggling to find a market.”
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