Skip to content

Southeast Styria Context

“Right after the war 1Kg of wool, 1Kg of butter and 1Kg of honey would cost the same… Today 1kg of unwashed wool costs 40 cents…”
With this comparison Monika Reindl describes the problem of the gradual loss of the value of sheep wool in Southeast Styria. She is one of the 5 shepherds and craftswomen forming the Wollgenuss Association, an initiative to promote the use of local wool, felted and transformed into products through workshops and local activities. This initiative started many years ago also as a project to promote women entrepreneurs and over time they became very knowledgeable about wool in the area.

Abstract

The landscape in Southeast Styria is shaped by sweet hills covered in forests, meadows, vineyards, plantations and fields. Agriculture is small structured and many families are running their farm on the side, having a dayjob in a different field. Increasingly there is a shift away from farming since even a small farm requires a certain attention and time to manage and maintain it. Some families and small farms keep small flocks of sheep or goats to maintain the grassland in their properties, and occasionally to get meat, as we used to do at the FarmLab.

Actual situation in Southeast Styria

Once a year, the nomad shearers (a mixed group of young adults, including women, from different countries mainly from Europe) come to the farms in the area and offer their shearing service. The great majority of sheep owners do not take advantage of the wool from their sheep (nor the milk). Wool is processed as waste, or buried. According to Monika this is also due to the fact that back in the days wool was only used by the families themselves and quality control was not a topic, so wool got the stigma of being scratchy. Sheep farming has also still a bad reputation in the area, as ”poor people’s” livestock, since, a century ago, only people who couldn’t afford pigs or cattle would go into sheep farming. This has also an effect on the traditional austrian meals in the area, one doesn’t find dishes with sheep meat easily. The stigma remains even if there are sheep farmers who are reported to have a healthier business than some pig farmers. The situation is very different in other areas of Austria, such as the area of Upper Styria and Salzburg, where the traditional wool clothes out of Loden are still widely worn, and the wool business is a “thing”

The Alpaca hype

In recent years there was a real Alpaka hype and it is still going. Alpakas are known for their extremely soft wool which has very interesting properties in regulating temperature. Small farmers are facing tough choices when the farm is being handed over to the next generation, often it is just or not even profitable to keep the farm running as the parents did or there is no interest in butchering animals for example. Alpacas and Alpaca wool are for many people an alternative. Due to the rather high prize of the animals (breeders can sell stallions for several thousand Euros, and a female’s price starts at 3k €), the outstanding quality of the wool for certain products and the cuteness of the animals themselves allow the farmers to make different businesses:
Clothing
Accessories
Fertiliser (Alpaca gold…)
Alpaca yoga(!)
Alpaca hiking
Breeding and related services Sale of animals

Not everything is as rosy as it sounds though unfortunately. Apart from being expensive, Alpacas also need more attention because they are very sensitive animals with very different needs when it comes to food for example. The herds are also growing rather slowly because they get one kid per year max and giving birth is often rather difficult. Since they are cameloids there is also a lack of knowledge on the veterinary side and this lack often results in the loss of sick animals or farmers driving to Vienna (180 km away) to the University clinic with their animals.
On top of all they are super cute and people see only that and underestimate the responsibility and skill it takes to keep Alpacas.

So what about the sheep then?

Sheep have evolved with humans in Europe for thousands of years and have also been bred to better adapt to specific areas or for very specific human needs such as milk production, meat production and of course wool production.
The softness of the Alpaca wool comes from its structure, which is very thin and has, in contrast to sheep wool, a smooth surface. Sheep wool has, depending on the breed more or less, scales which make it rougher, with Merino or Jura wool being on the soft side of the spectrum and Bergschaf or Krainer Steinschaf (a local breed) on the rough side.
https://www.thenaturalfibre.co.uk/blog/wool-journey-part-1-what-wool

Now that’s one opportunity for sheep wool, it can be used to give structural integrity to Alpaca products since they disintegrate without having that little roughness for interlocking the fibres. The most common breed of sheep globally is Merino accounting for more than 50% of the global population feeding industrial quantities of wool into the growing market of wool based sports clothing - which is actually a comeback according to this article, since sports and outdoor clothing has been made of wool before the invention of synthetic fibres. Merinos need special care though, their skin is wrinkled to increase the surface area for growing wool. These wrinkles can cause issues with parasites and flies, which requires constant intense care and cruel measures from the farmers' side. A good alternative for small farmers in Styria who work a day job and run the farm on the side can be the Jura sheep. It too has very soft wool, needs less food and is pretty relaxed. For many people in the area the grassland has become more of a problem (what are we gonna do with all that grass??) than a resource so once or twice a year it is just mulched and left to rot, also here sheep could be a perfect option to help increase the biodiversity. We are part of the Natura2000 project which is a program to do exactly that and having grazing animals is strictly allowed. The “downside” of the Jura is the colour (light to dark brown), the industry needs white wool to dye it for serving customer’s needs though. On the other hand, for small brands it might be a good alternative to offer low impact fashion by using wool with its original colour. When it comes to treating the wool we have a great woman entrepreneur in the area, Manuela Roll, who, jumping onto the Alpaca hype before it became a hype, invested in machinery from Canada and now offers the full range of services from washing to carding to spinning local wool from various types of animals. This could be a catalyst for sheep keepers as well, wool could turn from a problem into a resource. Prices vary of course depending on which kind of final product is wanted. Another woman entrepreneur is Erika Schoberer, she also invested in machinery and is processing wool into different products like for example duvets. Thinking of duvets, the smoothness of the raw wool might be less important.

Sheep and alpacas types in the area

Huacaya alpacas, good for wool spinning
Mountain sheep, good for wool felting and good enough for meat
Jura sheep, good for wool spinning and good for meat
Krainer Steinschaf: heritage breed with coarse wool, mainly raised for keeping the breed alive and meat products ?

Wool local products

Felting for hats and soles
Filling for duvets
Loden clothes
Socks, gloves, …
Laptop and phone cases

About people and ecosystems

Video of description of the FARMLAB
Interviews
...

Key learning and projects


Last update: June 25, 2022