The weird (but true) economics behind my $24,900 sweater

Note: The photo above isn’t actually a photo of me. But this is a dude who clearly knows a quality sweater when he sees one, and feels about it the way I feel about mine…or will feel, when it exists.

In our family we have a motto: “Sweater weather is better weather.” Coming purely from northern stock, we lack the genes necessary to resist heat stress. There is such a gene, and I personally have been shown to lack it. This discovery was a relief: my preference for staying in the basement for half the summer is not the personal failing I thought it was—it is my ancestral right! Which also explains why we in our family have a strong preference for spring and fall weather, i.e. sweater weather.

You can always go out and buy a sweater. A good one is expensive, but it will last a long time if you manage to keep it from the moths and the clothes dryer, the dogs and the campfire, and if you remember to bring it home from where you left it draped over the park bench, or lying on the soccer field, or in the taxi. Loss of a good sweater is, after all, a minor tragedy. And though buying a new sweater is one of life’s great pleasures—like discovering a new and unexpected friendship—there is a pleasure still greater: making a sweater.

Not that I have ever made a sweater—though I plan to. That is to say, that I have never finished making a sweater—I leave that to the family knitter, a.k.a.. my wife, Mary. I have only prepared the materials.

A harder (i.e. better) way

There are several ways to prepare the materials for a sweater; the simplest being to go to the wool shop and carefully select and purchase the most fantastic yarn you find, and leave it in a suggestive heap on the dinner table.

I don’t know if there is a gene for doing things the long and hard way, but this is the way that I usually end up doing things, and making sweaters is no exception.

For me, I like to start a sweater by acquiring a bit of pastureland. A few acres will do. Next I find the hardiest and most cantankerous breed of sheep with the most unusual type of wool: Icelandic sheep suit my purpose admirably. Though they welcome comfortable housing, Icelandic sheep require merely the shelter of the woods in winter, where they can weather any hurricane blast the North Atlantic hurls at them. (Of course, this necessitates that I purchase a measure of woodland in addition to the pasture). This weather hardiness is largely due to their unusual double-layer of dense wool. They have a silky outer layer of wool that sheds the rain and snow, and a shorter, springy, fine layer of insulative wool that does not allow the cold to reach their comfortable hides.

Next you have to put up some fencing. This is actually the trickiest bit. Icelandic sheep in particular seem to have developed a capacity for the “vertical” which would make Michael Jordan envious. You wouldn’t think it to look at them: they are a sheep both low to the ground and short from snout to tail, though very broad in the beam. Ungainly, you would have thought them, to watch their mincing waddle. But when the mood takes them, that nice high fence you put up looks sadly ridiculous. My children think that they are, as a breed, possessed by the devils that give super -“human” agility. But I  think that you just never can tell with Icelanders.

My sheep. Michaelangelo once said about one of his statues, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” If you look closely enough, you can see my sweater, awaiting liberation.

Having eventually discovered the means to keep them where you want them, you put them out on the, ideally, low-quality pasture-land (check!), provide them with water (check!), and let them at it. They will stay alive and well as long as the coyotes and bears are eating someone else’s sheep. And then, along comes the late summer.

Having already shed or been shorn in early spring of their felty winter’s wool, the Icelandic sheep will have regrown a sufficient fleece for a second shearing by late August. This is the proper spinning and knitting wool. For the spring lambs, this will be their first shearing ever, and their fleece is utterly magical: the outer wool is the finest in diameter that it will ever be, so the difference between the quality and character of their outer and inner fleece is less pronounced and can easily be blended into that light, beautifully insulative and delicate, though strong, yarn that the Icelanders call lopi.

It is generally rumoured that sheep do not have a strong intelligence. I will say that this is something of a literary legend, but one that is unfortunately true. One would think that removing the sweater that causes a creature to overheat constantly, driving it daily into the deep bushy shade and making it pant fanatically, would be an occasion for celebration and gratitude. But sheep cannot be convinced of the logic of this. They would rather jump off a cliff than allow you gently to tackle them, spin them over onto their rump, hold them in a suffocating grip, and carefully glide a pair of razor-sharp shears within millimeters of their unprotected vital organs and genitalia. If I put myself in their place, I can almost see why they balk at the proposition, but then I don’t go around wearing sweaters in August.

Three bags full

Having sheared my unwilling companions, I now possess raw fleece which is available for a number of processes that will clean and organize the wool so that it is ready for the spinner’s art. This means skirting, washing, and carding.

Now, you don’t have to do any of this preparatory work to the fleece if you don’t want to, though skirting is a good bare minimum. Skirting means removing areas of wool from the fleece that are too poopy, rough, or worn to make good yarn. After the skirting, you can either wash your wool, removing excess dirt, weeds, seeds, and lanolin, or you can leave all those reminiscences of the field in and spin “in the grease (i.e. lanolin)”. This is a matter of preference. Wool is naturally resistant to bacteria, so “dirt” does not mean the unhealthy stuff. Moreover, Icelandic wool is curiously lower in lanolin than most breeds, so it lends itself well to spinning in the “light grease”. And I happen to like moss, sticks and thorns in my sweaters—as I say, a matter of preference—so we don’t wash our wool, an exception to doing things the long and hard way.

We do, however, card our wool, though a good spinner needn’t. There’s such a pleasure in using the hand cards, covered as they are in dense rows of short, bent needles that comb the wool out and drive all the fibres in the same direction. Once you have carded and carded a bit of fleece, you invert the cards in respect to each other and drive them toward and past each other, with the effect of rolling up the wool into a long tube, called a “rolag.” The goal is to make several hundred of these. These rolags can now be spun first into a long single string that wraps around and fills a big “bobbin”, and then the spinner will use the natural twist of these single strings and “ply” them into two- or more- stranded yarn.

Next you unwind the bobbins into a long skein, wash the new-plied yarn in lukewarm water, mild soap, and a splash of vinegar. Lift the skein out of the water like it was your newborn firstborn, hang it to drip dry with a weight on the bottom so the twist settles. Give it a few days drying, and repeat the whole process until you have ten good skeins.

Now, the sweater may be knit.

I am largely ignorant of the arts of spinning and knitting. They are the province of my wise and goodly wife: mistress of the finer things. I do know, however, that now there is nothing wanting to the process of making a sweater beyond time, skill and a couple of rather ingenious sticks they call “knitting needles”. Et voilà, a sweater. Easy.

Sweaternomics

But this was supposed to be an article about the economics of the sweater. So let’s do some tallying, and make a comparison of the cost of the easily purchased, store-bought sweater, the more easily prepared home-knitted sweater with pre-purchased wool, and my long- and hard-fought grassroots sweater—I think that the results will prove fascinating.

Perusing the webpages of companies whose men-sweaters I find appealing, it looks like the kind of sweater I would enjoy wearing (meaning: genuine wool, attractive knit, and good “cut”), would cost me around $150—$350 CDN. I am talking about a nice Aran, Norwegian, or Cowichan garment. A worthy investment, and, having paid, you get a sweater. Hopefully, one you keep track of and out of the jaws of moths and dogs, etc.

If you are, or know, a good knitter, you could buy a machine prepared lopi wool, for instance. You would need about 1000 yards, or roughly ten skeins of wool at, say $15/ CDN skein for a really nice wool. In which case, you’re looking at roughly $150 CDN for a nice, crafted-with-love sweater, one that you are more likely to keep from the moths and dogs because of the (unpaid) time and care that went into that garment. It will literally feel like a hug from the giver that keeps on hugging. So make sure you like the person that knitted you that sweater.

Another benefit of the hand-knitted sweater is that it constitutes the continuance and practice of skill in the knitter, and keeps alive a traditional craft that can be used when/if times get harder and (quality) machine produced items are less available.

The hand-knitted sweater costs something like the low end for a store-bought sweater, but the returns are more for that money. You support the dying (not dyeing) consumer wool trade, you support traditional skills that can be passed on, and you engage in a productive activity that embodies love and care.

A more economical sweater?

Now, my sweater is going to be a little pricier than the $150-$300 CDN range of the first two sweaters, but I hope I’ll convince you that it is the best way to go, if you want a sweater.

We started with the land. Canadian land prices are all over the place. Good dairy pasture land can go for $20,000 an acre – or so I heard from a Southern Ontario dairyman about five years ago – while my own overgrown Cape Breton scrubby pasture with a house was purchased for about $750/acre CDN just over four years ago. But let’s assume, since we’re in real estate bubble land and the bubble is still being blown, that you get five acres of marginal land (since sheep don’t need, or even necessarily thrive, on rich pasture) for about $20,000, or $4000/acre. Already, that’s only 100 times more than it costs to buy a sweater, or so. (Here’s where I would insert my “Come and Live in Cape Breton: An Affordable Heaven for the Homesteader” ad.)

Now you need fencing, and let’s say that we want some good, Icelandic-, and generally lamb-, proof, fencing. We need posts and woven wire. Now because geometry is a thing, and if you can keep pasture shape somewhat square, you get this nice effect where, as you increase the length of the perimeter, the area contained by that perimeter rises not in arithmetic proportion, but in geometric proportion, i.e. faster, to that growing perimeter. What this means is that it is takes less material per acre to fence five acres than it would to fence one acre. Substantially so. So let’s be conservative and say that we can acquire woven wire fencing at about $1/linear foot for a four-foot high roll. Five acres, plus a bit of change is 2000 ft. more or less. So that’s $2000 for the wire, and then we need posts, staples, and perhaps a rented auger to drill post holes, or a tractor to drive the posts. Let’s say we spend another thousand on that. We will have the sheep fenced for $3000.

If we have included some woods in that pasture, then our hardy friends will have sufficient shelter, if not, we may provide a small home to the order of a couple of hundred or less—some posts, pallets, and a bit of old steel roof or plywood can work marvels. Let’s say we spend $200 here. Of course, classier folks will spend more on this, and introduce the architectural element.

Now we need some sheep. I purchased my starter flock of a ram and three ewes at $300/head, i.e. $1200. Most of the year they eat what grows from the ground, but in Canada, for about four or five months, you can’t see the ground. So you need some hay. Four sheep will eat roughly 30 lbs of hay per day, meaning: they will pick through whatever hay you give them, select out the nicest, sweetest blades, and leave most of the rest on the ground and walk all over it. 30 lbs. of hay in small square bales will cost about $3.00 or 10¢/lb. But in large round bales will work out to roughly 6¢/lb, or just over half the cost of the small bales. There are a lot of variables to play with, and this estimate is very rough, and there are pros and cons to either manner of hay storage and use, but let’s say you can deal with round bales, they weigh ca. 500 lbs. each and winter is 150 days. At 30 lbs x 150 days, you need 5000 lbs of hay, or ten rounds, at $30/round. Their winter feed costs $300. Some sheep breeds need extra nutrients in winter, but I have not found that is true of Icelandics.

So, to get these sheep, feed them, control them, and keep them alive and safe, it is going to cost you maybe:

$20000 for land
$3000 for fencing
$200 for housing
$1200 for the starter flock
$300 for a winter’s feed
$200 for incidentals: buckets, shears, hoof trimmers, etc.

                          __________________

 TOTAL:                                     $24,900

This sweater is starting to get expensive, but we’re not there yet. Once we have sheared our sheep, we need tools to process the wool into yarn: carding combs ($100), and a spinning wheel ($1000 for a good one). So we’re up to $26,000. This assumes, of course, that we are happy with the natural colour of the wool and don’t want to dye it.

Now, if you think that this is developing into an argument why not to start a sweater from scratch, and why my life is full of regret and remorse for not doing this exercise and making these tallies before I set out to make a sweater the hard way, then you’re dead wrong.

Join me for the second half of this article, The Economics of a Sweater, II, where I make the airtight and infallible case for why making a sweater my way is the more economical choice when compared to buying one from the store, or knitting one from purchased wool.