Shaniko Wool: A conversation with founder, Jeanne Carver

Posted by Elizabeth Williams on

Shaniko Wool: A Conversation with founder, Jeanne Carver

In an era of outsourcing and disconnect, Jeanne Carver of Shaniko Wool has led tirelessly with traceability and accountability, building relationships across the domestic textile industry.

Working at the very roots of her family’s Imperial Stock Ranch (est. 1871) where their sustainability effort begins, Jeanne is helping rebuild the importance of traditional skills, connections to the origins of food and fiber, while strengthening the local, regional, and domestic supply chain.

Jeanne Carver

photo courtesy of Shaniko Wool Company

Jeanne believes the most important story she has shared is how well-managed herds of grazing animals on their ranch have revitalized grasses and contributed to healing streams and the restoration of traditional salmon runs in Buckhollow Creek, a major tributary to the designated wild and scenic Deschutes River.

With her latest Carbon Initiative, Jeanne is investing in the research and measured and verified results of an even greater story: the positive ecosystem impacts of Shaniko Wool Company ranches across a broader piece of the American landscape.

Jeanne’s story is one of perseverance coupled with successful adaptation to changing market needs. Since 1999, she and her late husband Dan, moved from selling commodity lamb and wool to selling retail products that are ecologically sensitive. With the founding of Shaniko Wool Company, she has overseen the expansion of RWS certified American wool into a variety of products and markets by working first with the ranchers, and with designers, brands and exclusively U.S. supply chain partners which now includes The Checkroom!

 RWS Certified American Wool

photo courtesy of Shaniko Wool Company

Liz: Jeanne, I am so excited to have connected with you. As an American fashion designer who has been searching for American-made wool for the past 7 years, I am SO thrilled to be partnering with you along with the wonderful folks at American Woolen in Connecticut to bring my customer a truly American-made wool coat! How long have you been a rancher? And why did it take us so long to meet!?

Jeanne: I’m laughing at that question! I married my husband 33 years ago and returned home to my roots, after college and a career in a different industry. I guess it took awhile to find me because I’m not out at trade shows, and I’m not fond of social networking. I work with those who find me! I began taking our wool direct to market and built a presence in yarn, apparel, and textile markets until about 2015. That may be when you were ready to begin your journey? But then I stepped away to care for my husband who developed an incurable degenerative disease. That put me on the sidelines of my wool journey until I decided to step back in, but in a way that would allow me to still care for my husband.

Jeanne Carver

photo courtesy of Shaniko Wool Company

In 2018, I launched Shaniko Wool Company to scale the supply of wool meeting the leading global standard for responsible sheep and wool production, the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS). I have slowly worked with U.S. manufacturing partners to get our American certified and fully traceable wool into their programs.

I’m thrilled to be working with you and the gorgeous fabrics they make at American Woolen. This is from start to finish – origin of fiber to beautiful coats – a great partnership!

Liz: In your lifetime what changes have you witnessed in the wool industry good and bad?

Jeanne: I have lived through the decline in appreciation and use of wool in our textiles, due to the rise of man-made synthetic performance fibers. We shifted from natural fibers to synthetics for their perceived superior performance, but mainly due to the fact that they were cheap. They were also notoriously easy to care for. But cheap and easy has had its price. Sometimes it takes decades to see the results of our actions.

One result of our unquenchable consumption of cheap synthetic textiles is today’s massive waste and its contribution to an increasing climate crisis. In our shift to anonymous products, we became disconnected from the places, processes and people who create our clothes. That disconnect from place means we lose the motivation for stewardship.

Today we are relearning the importance of place and understanding there’s a connection between mountains of cheap synthetic goods and environmental degradation. Wool and other natural fibers that are produced in a responsible manner can actually have a net positive environmental outcome.

I am now living through a return to natural fibers like wool. Some good things are timeless… Wool is one of them.

Another change in wool has been the study, breeding, and genetics of fine wool. Wool is the most versatile fiber and is good for numerous applications. All wool is good wool – coarse or fine. But you need to match the quality of the wool with its proper use. Today, we have wool so fine that it is commonly used for next-to-skin layers and comfortable even as underwear.

Regenerative Wool

photo courtesy of Shaniko Wool Company

Liz: What does it mean to you to be RWS (Responsible Wool Standard) certified?

Jeanne: I’m very proud to be part of a community of people all around the world, who work to achieve the benchmarks of the Responsible Wool Standard. These are the leading protocols for land stewardship, animal care and worker welfare. We are learning from each other and stronger because of it.

The development of the RWS took place over a 3 to 4-year period and included a broad group of stakeholders. That group included farmers from around the world, fashion and textile brands, non-profit organizations like The Nature Conservancy (environmental) and Four Paws (animal welfare), and textile manufacturers.

This standard ensures full traceability of the fiber from origin to finished product, and that the leading benchmarks for land, animal and worker welfare are met. The annual third-party audits to this standard by credible Certification Bodies promote confidence for brands and their customers in the products made with these “preferred fibers.”

I’m grateful for the community of people involved in this voluntary effort that are raising the bar on these important issues; and that provide the support for us to get there.

Liz: Was it difficult to obtain the RWS certification?

Jeanne: The most challenging part was the written plans for how you operate, and the record keeping. Most farmers and ranchers keep records because that information helps you improve. But few of us had written management plans, written flock health and welfare plans, written nutrient management plans and so on. The paperwork portion of the standard had to be created, and that was a hefty job to begin with.

The ranchers of Shaniko Wool Company have all been on their lands more than a hundred years. We’re multi-generational with deep experiential knowledge. Farmers and ranchers have a plan! They couldn’t operate without one, but it may not be written.

I’ve developed a system for bringing ranches into my RWS farm group that creates the written documentation required of each ranch. This streamlines the process for the ranchers while bringing us up to the requirements of the standard.

But in terms of how we operate day-to-day and year-to-year, I would say, “No, it wasn’t difficult to be RWS certified.” We’re progressive thinkers and practitioners, putting the health of natural resources as our focus. If the health of the land and animals are your top priorities, then your philosophy already aligns with the RWS.

Most farmers and ranchers I know are always trying to do a better job. We’re observing the land and animals every day, doing some monitoring, have yield data, work with local natural resource agency partners and other industry experts, and are always working to make things better. We also stay current with industry standards, best practices, and ongoing education.

The third-party audits bring a level of credibility to our work we wouldn’t have without the RWS. Without that, people only have your word about how you do things. In today’s culture, that’s not enough. It does take time to coordinate with the procedures and requirements of the standard.

But I see this as an opportunity to showcase good work in agriculture and increase our market competitiveness by being designated “preferred fiber,” based on our credible performance in meeting the benchmarks of the standard. There are more than 270 criteria of land, animal, and worker care that we meet to be certified to the RWS.

American Made Wool

photo courtesy of Shaniko Wool Company

Liz: What are the benefits of using domestic wool?

Jeanne: The first thing that comes to mind when you ask that question, is that you are more connected. And I think that’s important. It goes back to “place.” The origin of fiber is the beginning of the value story. When that value is close to home, it has more meaning to everyone who touches it.

Using wool produced in your own region or country contributes to community and purpose. It also improves the carbon footprint of your supply chain. We are not crossing an ocean to create your fabric.

Shaniko Wool aggregates the wool from the ranches in our group, and by doing so, we are able to offer a range of microns “at scale” that allows a company like yours to source 18 or 19-micron fine Merino wool for your coat fabrics. Shaniko wools range from 16 to 25 microns. Our wool is stored at the scouring and top-making facility. When a brand places an order for a certain micron wool for their program, we can pull wool that meets the specs of the order and prepare it to move into the supply chain.

Shaniko Wool is a continuation of my efforts in taking wool from our family ranch direct to market that began in 1999, and over the years, we’ve developed excellent relationships with our spinning, dyeing, and manufacturing partners in the U.S. These are important relationships with each step important; and we strengthen each other.

Liz: Do you enjoy wearing wool?

Jeanne: I am around wool every day and I wear it every day. There is no better fiber than wool; it truly is a miracle fiber. I like it best on the sheep! They live and work in it, and they’re in the harshest of elements, whether it be heat or cold, wind or rain. They are always comfortable. How could we do better? We can’t… I love putting my hands into the wool while it’s on the sheep; love how it feels and love how it smells. Nothing else feels like that. Wool is versatile, timeless, simple. It is a gift of creation and I’m grateful for it.

Liz: Shaniko Wool is also a NATIVA™ certified, meaning that you use regenerative farming techniques. What goes into “regenerative” farming?

Jeanne: Yes, we are certified to the NATIVA Regen standard. Regenerative agriculture is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to farming systems, which works to improve ecosystem performance, meaning the health of the land.

You work to improve soil health, the water cycle, biodiversity and enhance ecosystem services like carbon sequestration. This increases resilience to climate extremes and improves disease resistance. There can be many practices that are regenerative and vary with the geographic region.

But the key principles are:

  • Reducing inputs like synthetic fertilizers.
  • Improving soil health.
  • Increasing vegetation to protect against soil loss, improve water outcomes, and provide better forage and habitats.
  • Planting perennial species or increasing plant diversity to provide ecosystem stability.
  • Integrating livestock where appropriate to remove crop residue through grazing, lower synthetic inputs, add natural nutrients and help mulch organic matter into the soil adding complexity.

Shaniko Wool began a comprehensive research and measurement initiative in early 2020, to actually measure the impacts of our ranching practices. This project is documenting whether we are creating a regenerative effect. Our preliminary results in the first three years are very positive.

Shaniko Wool

photo courtesy of Shaniko Wool Company

Liz: What does the future hold for Shaniko Wool and its RWS and NATIVA™Regen certified wool?

Jeanne: My hope is that our work to meet these leading global standards for responsible sheep and wool production will draw brands home to source our American wool and make goods here in the U.S. Additionally, our measurement initiative is quantifying the climate impacts of our wool supply, putting truth behind meeting the standards, and helping fashion brands meet their sustainability goals.

We have built strong relationships with the spinning mills, dyers, knitters, and weavers, and offer an improved environmental footprint to those who choose to work close to home. This work is supporting U.S. farmers and ranchers, and U.S. textile manufacturing partners.

Liz: Our partnership would not be complete without Charguers and American Woolen. What does it mean to you to be part of this American made supply chain?

Jeanne: Getting to know the people who wash and comb our wool, spin, and dye it, knit, or weave into gorgeous fabrics or finished goods, has been a great pleasure in my life.

I’m connected to these people and their businesses and places where they live, in a way I never was before. I care how they’re doing and that they succeed.

We learn from each other and develop deeper understanding of the importance of each step along the wool textile journey. These connections make life richer. We fight the challenges together.

Liz: What can people reading this do to support American-made products at every level to ensure that our shared industry continues to exist for future generations?

Jeanne: The traditional skills of turning fiber into strands or yarn, knitting, or weaving those yarns into clothing and home textiles, and making our own clothing and shelter necessary for survival are fundamental to every culture and country in the world. It is critically important we do not lose those skills in this country.

I ask people to give thought to the origins of things they purchase; ask questions and read the tags. Support our efforts that help keep America strong. We’ll do our part by delivering the highest quality. Support brands like you! I am so grateful you found me. Thank you…

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