Reducing Contamination Vital to Wool Quality

Reducing Contamination Vital to Wool Quality

Ron Cole
Sheep Industry News Consultant

Wool buyers, exporters, and processors, both of top and fabric are reporting increased amount of “hair and medulated fiber” is being seen – not only in raw wool but also in top, yarn and fabrics.

Barry Savage, ASI’s International Wool Consultant, reported that wool processors in other countries expressed similar concerns about U.S. product.

“In 2013 I visited our Chinese, Indian and Italian customers, and there was a great deal of concern regarding the quality of U.S wool – especially in terms of wool preparation to eliminate polypropylene, kemp and medulated fiber [including from hair sheep], un-scourable paint and, to a lesser extent, colored fiber,” Savage said. “Most commented that especially the amount of kemp and medulated fiber has increased in recent years and is a major concern.”

As Savage noted, it is important to realize that black and colored fiber means that the wool cannot be used in light/medium shades. If kemp and medulated fiber is present in the wool, it cannot be used in dark shades because the kemp and medulated fiber will not dye with wool.

Even small amounts are a problem because they spread throughout the lot in processing. If either are present in the wool, then the wool cannot be used for fabric.

“At one combing mill in India, I observed U.S. wool being sorted in this way due to the presence of all the above contaminants in significant amounts,” Savage said. “I took samples from the out sorts and took photographs. “This wool preparation is costing our industry dearly and needs to be eliminated.”

Ashley Bullock, of ITG Group ( formerly Burlington), said the challenge concerning hair sheep contamination continues to grow with the influx of hair sheep into the traditional wool growing areas.

“When we see it, it is too late and we are looking at its results in the fabric on a table with a person standing there picking it out by hand,” Bullock explained. “As in all contamination issues, the most cost effective place for prevention and control is truly at the point of production and harvest.

“We may get lucky and see something in a bag of greasy wool or in a sample of wool top that is pulled for testing, but the true odds of that occurring are higher than a 100 million dollar Powerball drawing.”

Bullock said that it is unlikely that his company could catch it in the combing plant or in early stage processing at the dye house.

“There is no place to catch and correct in our production process,” he said. “We do not see it until it is in dyed fabric. It does not accept dye, so it cannot be covered up and it stands out against the color of the fabric. It has to be manually picked out of the fabric. It is fragile, so it breaks apart into little specks.

“There is absolutely nothing good about polypropylene contamination either, but at least when you mend the fabric, it is strong and you can pull it out in pieces. It seems to catch us periodically; we will go along OK and then we will get a rash of contamination.” All of that contamination may have been just a small amount, but with the process of blending and drafting, it spreads over such a large number of yards of fabric.

“It is, by far, becoming our most expensive contamination issue we have to address when we have a rash of it hit our finishing plant,” Bullock said.

Rick Powers, of Lempriere USA, expressed his concern about these fibers during last No- vember’s wool panel discussions at the Tri- State Sheep Meetings in Jackson, Wyo. Following that meeting, Powers indicated that international buyers of both wool top and finished fabric are now more diligent in testing U.S. wools and the fabrics created from these wools.

“Blends using U.S. wools have had to be changed to meet more rigid standards in the worsted, woven fabric side of the industry,” Power said. “The incidence of medulated fibers and hair in the 20-23 micron, long, white Choice wools, is limiting where we can send the top in 2013-2014.

“Since these are the highest-dollar value fabrics, and more rigid testing has ensued, we have received more conversations about medulated fibers and hair contamination, which ultimately has increased the amount of ‘financial claims’ or refunds back from us to these buyers. It is limiting our use of the finer U.S. wools and we have had to narrow our range of wool types to meet these needs with lower contamination levels.”

Even with wool top produced for knitted fabrics, there is increased scrutiny – and clean, uncontaminated wools will bring a big premium over contaminated wools produced in Europe and parts of Africa and South America.

The U.S. producer who is not removing contamination and not selecting his sheep for elimination of hair is guaranteeing themselves the lowest wool price in the international market for that micron of wool, which in knitting can be 0.50 to 1.00 per pound lower than clean, uncontaminated wool – and more when compared against choice wools that can be used for weaving types.

Today, more than ever, it really pays a big dividend to produce quality bred wool which is prepared properly.

So what is the best approach from a wool handling standpoint for U.S. wools? Following are some points to help with the process. 1. Prior to shearing, review the quality and breeds of sheep being sheared and make sure that any hair sheep or crosses are sheared last. Keep this fiber separate and encourage growers not to market with the wool, but dispose by burning or at waste site.

2. Prior to shearing, make sure shearing trailer and floor is totally clean and well swept.

Black fibers from shearing bucks or hair sheep at last site could have contaminated trailer.

3. Increased medulated fiber and kemp being noted in fine wool breeds – watch for those long, hairy topknots or hairy britches. Also note the increased amount of “kemp” in topknots and shanks in some herds. Keep and label this wool as a separate line. Do not include these in normal PCS line as this is a contaminant. Mark these lines as PCS – R.

4. Technically, hair sheep that are run with wool sheep cause the entire wool clip to be labeled as “R” indicating “Risk Wool.” This label alerts further users of the potential issues of this wool.

The grower has made the choice to run these sheep mixed and ultimately must be held accountable for those decisions.

Labels, Tags and Bales

Another issue that needs to be addressed are the terms being used to label some offsort bales – TAGS and PIECES. Tags are what we shear off in the fall (crutchings ) or those heavy, muddy or manure balls in the spring. These need to go under the trailer or left in the lot as they have little value.

The label we should be using is PCS – which include topknots, shanks, cheeks, skirts and sweepings.

These are higher in value than TAGS and should be labeled as such. By doing so, we will eliminate some confusion within the wool marketing system.

Bale weights should be kept between 425- 450 pounds and of uniform size and shape to fit into overseas containers.

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