Kaos Blanket Project

Written by Stephany Wilkes
Photos by Paige Green

Kaos Sheep Outfit is turning necessity to invention, turning trade wars and low commodity-wool prices into the inspiration for a mutually beneficial wool blanket produced with their winery grazing partners. 

Robert and Jaime Irwin are filling pens with sheep at a Lake County ranch, preparing for shearing school students who will soon learn to shear those same sheep. Jaime hoses the dust down, kicked up by the sheep’s hooves, while a young guardian dog sniffs around for the next item to steal and secret away to the cow pasture: a water bottle, a wool hoodie. 

“Did Rob tell you about the blanket?” Jaime asks. No, but it’s as good a time as any to find out.

For nearly 15 years, the Irwins’ Kaos Sheep Outfit has provided expertly managed, targeted grazing services to wineries, almond orchards, rangelands and more throughout Northern California. They have historically sold their wool on the commodity market through Utah Wool Marketing. But, as seems to be the way of things lately, everything is changing, and fast.

“I need to make $33 more per ewe next year just to keep up with labor costs,” Robert says, petting a new border collie pup perched on the back of his truck. “I never paid the bare minimum to anyone and I’m not going to start now. The vineyards can’t afford to pay more for grazing, and we want to keep that non-pesticide use, grazing alternative happening for them. We’re at the top of the lamb market. There’s nothing else to take, nowhere else to take it from, so that $33 per ewe has got to come from the wool.” 

Which itself is not exactly simple or straightforward. 

“Commodity wool prices are bad,” Robert continues. “I just sold our 2019-2023 wool at $.15/pound. There’s no market for medium wools right now, and we had the trade wars with China under Trump, then Covid, and then Italy shut down – all that wool fabric and textile manufacturing just shut down. It was like a fire sale on wool, ‘everything must go.’”

The Irwins aren’t alone. Global trade is complex, affecting everything from solar panels to washing machines, fast fashion to sorghum. At risk of oversimplification, here are some of the issues in a nutshell. Over the last several decades, corporations (including American ones) relocated textile production (including wool apparel) to countries with lower environmental regulations and wages. Exports came to account for more than 60 to 75 percent of U.S. wool production, depending on the year. Until 2019, China had been the top buyer of American wool for more than a decade. 

Chinese imports of wool and cotton plummeted in 2019, due to two years of trade wars that began in 2018 and intensified in 2019. The Trump Administration announced significant changes in tariffs on a variety of imports to the U.S., and trade partners retaliated. China placed 10 percent, and then 25 percent, additional duties on U.S. exports. This tit-for-tat activity continued in several distinct phases. In addition, the Biden Administration has preserved and even added to some of the prior administration’s trade tariffs.

The resulting drop in U.S. wool exports between 2018 and 2019 was severe: 83.4 percent. In 2019, the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) estimated that, as a result, wool inventory carryover “was the highest it has been in recent memory…at least as high as 20 percent of the 2019 annual clip” and possibly as high as 30 percent. Then, wool exports in 2019-20 dropped again, by 48.5 percent. By ASI’s best estimate, the combined carryover from the 2019 and 2020 wool seasons alone was 10 to 12 million pounds of clean wool (20 to 24 million pounds of greasy). A significant portion of this unsold wool was being stored on-farm and in warehouses, and the pandemic left few options for selling it in 2020.

The U.S. government provided some assistance to farmers through the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), which administered a Market Facilitation Program. This program distributed payments to American farms for losses caused by international trade disruptions in 2018 and 2019, to the tune of $23 billion for those years. But these payments are not necessarily a panacea –  or sufficient. “I’ve received about $60,000 from the government since 2020, and shearing costs me $30,000 a year,” Robert laughs.

So what do you do?

“Honestly, we were pretty down about all of it,” Jaime says. “Then we went to San Angelo, to Texas A&M, and were so inspired by this wool blanket they made to commemorate the first 50 years of research at the Texas A&M AgriLife Station. It was beautiful and we thought, ‘We could do something like that.’” 

The blanket was approximately three feet wide by six feet long, made of 100%, 18-micron Rambouillet wool from the resident sheep flock. The wool was sheared by students of the AgriLife Station shearing school. Together, three natural colors of yarn – undyed white, pale gray, and charcoal gray – created a pastoral scene showing different sheep breeds and a guardian dog on the landscape, trees and windmill behind them. The blanket was designed by Stacy Fisher of HF4 Ranch and Halbert Heritage in Sonora, Texas, and processed and manufactured at Mountain Meadow Wool Mill in Buffalo, Wyoming. Proceeds from blanket sales support graduate student research. 

“And I do have some photos I think would work great for the image on our blanket,” Jaime says with a grin. 

“So we’re starting now,” Robert says. “We’ll have the wool scoured and processed to combed top, and the blanket made at Mountain Meadow.” As far as financing the project, Robert hopes to earn enough from initial, first-run sales to pay for subsequent small runs. “Sales from one run will fund the next, I hope, and help us hit those machine minimums at mills.” Robert is referring to the minimum amount of wool required for a mill to turn their machinery on and pay for the labor to run it. 

The wineries that the Kaos sheep graze will sell the blankets, and the wineries are excited about it. “We are partners,” Robert says. “They appreciate that I’m trying to be proactive on not raising rates, which ultimately means not using Round Up because the grazing got too expensive. You can’t make so much work for yourself that you lose sight of where you started and what matters: the sheep, our customer service, and to support the companies who work with us. If someone doesn’t get enough to eat they’re going to leave your table, so that doesn’t happen at my table.”

“We can only pull this off now because we have the staff that enables us to even have time to think about it,” Jaime adds. “We can do this because we have Diaz and Pablo as foremen who can run field operations. We couldn’t do this three years ago because we had to be in the field all the time ourselves.”

It’s an important point, because adding a value-added product is adding a new line of business, and all the supply chain management that comes with it, not just shearing but proper wool classing, blanket design, development of a sketch suitable for a weaving machine, freight costs, spinning, weaving, labeling, marketing, sales and merchandising, to say nothing of email.

“This product is part of the larger story the wineries are telling,” Robert says, “of their move away from pesticides, of the shearing days we have and the reality of where these fibers come from. The product is part of the benefit they are bringing to the landscape, that the sheep are bringing, as partners.”