Pulling the Wool Over Our Eyes

The wool industry is a long way from cruelty–free

Imagine the headlines: an undercover reporter discovers that there is an industry that routinely cuts off parts of dogs without anaesthetic, leaving gaping wounds. Imagine what would happen if we discovered that somewhere in the world, cats were being farmed for their fur, shaved by rough, untrained handlers every year, and forced to give birth to kittens that were prized (and killed) for their extra soft fur. The animal lovers of the world simply wouldn’t tolerate it. Perhaps those outraged animal lovers are feeling comfy and cosy in winter woollies without giving a moment’s thought to the animals that provide that wool.
Many people find it hard to understand why vegans don’t wear wool, as it doesn’t appear to involve killing animals and is ‘natural’ – what would become of the poor shaggy sheep if we didn’t shear them? The answers make uncomfortable reading.

Often labelled as dim–witted, sheep are gentle animals but they’re far from stupid. They can learn their names, play with other animals and be taught tricks just like pet dogs. Whether an animal is intelligent or not shouldn’t be part of the consideration when it comes to working out whether it’s OK to hurt them, but for some so–called animal lovers, facts like this are a wake–up call. Once you’ve made the connection between the animals you share your home with and the animals that live on the farm, you can start comparing the way in which they’re treated. If you wouldn’t do it to a dog…

Cruelest cuts

Lambs are born with long tails and these are routinely cut off, to minimise soiling and the risk of attack by flies. No anaesthetic is considered necessary if the lamb is less than 6 months old. In Australia, a controversial practice called mulesing is often done at the same time – this involves using shears to cut away some of the skin around the base of the tail and the buttocks, and is done for the same reason. This creates a substantial wound and, ironically, makes the young animals more prone to infection and flies until it heals. Male lambs are also routinely castrated, still without any form of pain relief.
You don’t need any sort of qualification to do this and sadly there is plenty of evidence in the form of photos and videos online to show that it can be bloody, painful and sometimes result in serious injury.


Sheep are categorised as ‘prey’ animals – they don’t attack or fight (except sometimes amongst themselves!) and their survival depends upon being cautious and very aware of any potential threat. They are naturally very afraid of being handled by humans and sadly the treatment they receive from some callous sheep shearers is rough enough to cause injury, broken bones or even death. Shearers are paid by the number of sheep they ‘process’, not by the hour, so they don’t like animals that struggle and take up too much of their time.
Campaigners allege that in some cases, sheep are routinely deprived of food and water before the shearing day so that they are too weak to put up a fight. Faced with damning video evidence filmed by animal welfare activists, in which American shearers repeatedly hit, kick and stamp on animals, and one frantic ewe ends up dead after her neck is broken, one local sheriff said he had seen nothing in the films that was ‘outside the norm for the industry’. It’s considered acceptable for untrained people to shear sheep and the results can be traumatic for the animal, and can result in anything from painful nicks to serious wounds which can be stitched without anaesthetic.

Forced to breed

Over centuries, sheep have been bred to over–produce wool. Unlike cows, which have to be forced to give birth before they’ll yield the milk that humans want, sheep don’t have to give birth to produce wool, but ewes are still expected to produce lambs that are taken away from them and killed for their tender meat. Putting a ram into the field with the ewes is the old–fashioned method for getting them pregnant, and until recently it was possible to spot rams that were wearing bags or sponges soaked with paint or dye between their front legs, so that each ewe they mounted came away with a tell–tale splodge on her
back. But modern artificial insemination (AI) is faster and more reliable.
In Australia, where there are more than 80 million sheep, there’s no time for sentimentality. Laparoscopic AI involves piercing the ewe’s abdomen with a sharp metal rod which goes all the way into her uterus, and introducing the sperm that way. Again, no anaesthetic is considered necessary.

Free to roam?

Sheep are not safe from factory farming – thousands are confined in sheds for their whole lives, to make sure that their wool is super– soft and clean. Those that live outside are often kept on the most inhospitable bits of land, places where it’s simply impossible to grow crops, build, or make money out of the land in any other way. When the winter weather sets in, heavy fleeces can be a burden, making
it impossible for sodden sheep to clamber out of swollen streams or survive heavy snowdrifts. Come the spring, newly–shorn sheep, newborns, pregnant and mother ewes regularly die of exposure to the cold. When sheep are spread over inhospitable terrain, they may not be seen by the farmer for days – longer if the weather is bad. Disease, parasites and painful foot problems can all go unnoticed and untreated.

The final journey

33 million sheep go for slaughter every year in Australia. They’re routinely carted for many miles in overcrowded trucks to reach industrial abattoirs. Temperature conditions can be extreme. Millions more are exported, live, by boat to countries where they are subject to slaughter whilst conscious. A ship carries around 20,000 sheep.
They may legally be on board for up to 3 weeks, and the whole journey can take months. Horrifically, some ships are equipped with grinding machinery to dispose of the animals that inevitably die during the journey.
Sheep may give up their heavy fleeces willingly once spring comes around, but the fact is that even animals who are free to roam face rough treatment, forced pregnancy, losing their babies and eventual
slaughter. It’s not cosy, it’s not kind and there are plenty of alternatives to keep us humans warm.

Alternatives to animal fibres

As the market for animal–free wools grows, more unusual yarns are coming into the market, offering scope for craft projects ranging from soft baby clothes to durable mats and bags.

Bamboo: Super silky with a soft sheen, bamboo is great for luxurious tops and baby clothes.
Banana: Surprisingly soft, the banana yarns now available are often hand–spun and hand–dyed giving subtle variations in texture and colour.
Cotton: Once difficult to use because it had a tendency to shrink, eco–friendly cotton yarns have moved on and are now available pre–shrunk and in interesting thick–n–thin textures.
Reclaimed cotton ribbon: Always unique, this is made from factory off cuts and makes fascinating crocheted jewellery.
Reclaimed cotton T–shirt yarn is chunky and perfect for projects like slippers, baskets and machine–washable baby toys. You can also try making your own ribbon–style yarn by cutting or ripping up clothing that is too worn out to be sent to charity shops.
Hemp: Rough and tough, or ganic hemp yarn is ideal f or pr ojects that require some resilience such as bag handles, mats and bags. It also makes nice scrubby face cloths and works well in macramé.
Linen: A luxury yarn that is usually blended with other fibres to give it more elasticity. Reclaimed linen yarns are now becoming available and these vary in texture from quite firm and smooth (great for non–garment crafting such as bags, rugs and cat toys) to raggy, almost brushed textures great for scarves and high–fashion tops.
Synthetic fibres: Frequently blended with plant fibres to increase durability, acrylic fibres and nylon are vegan–friendly and come in a vast range of textures and colourways. Blends that include elastic nylon are particularly good for socks.
Rayon: Often mistakenly assumed to be a synthetic fibre, rayon is actually made from plant fibres which are subjected to an intensive process of chemical treatment to break them down. All sorts of cellulose–based material including wood and bamboo can be used to make it. The result is a vegan–friendly fibre, also marketed as Viscose, Modal and Tencel, that is very strong but surprisingly biodegradable. Arguments over whether it is eco– friendly are ongoing because of the chemical processes involved.

Not just sheep

Sheep aren’t the only animals that are farmed for wool – did you know that the fibres in your clothing and soft furnishings might have come from:

  • Goats – cashmere and mohair
  • Llamas, camels and alpacas
  • Rabbits – angora
  • Musk oxen – qivivut

PETA recently campaigned successfully for high street chains including Monsoon Accessorize, ASOS, Tommy Hilfiger, All Saints, Calvin Klein, Mango and French Connection to stop selling garments containing angora after under–cover videos were released showing the suffering endured by rabbits that are farmed for this luxury wool. Intelligent rabbits are caged for years and PETA videos claim to show the animals ‘screaming’ as they are stretched over boards to be clipped or have their short hair plucked by hand.

Taken from Jan/Feb 2015 (Issue 3) Vegan Life Magazine


The lifestyle magazine written by vegans for vegans.