UW Sheep Program launches Wyoming Wool Initiative
Last year, the University of Wyoming (UW) Sheep Program launched the UW Blanket Project. They designed, created and sold limited edition blankets made from the wool of the UW sheep herd. Those blankets sold out in three months to 29 states and three countries. Now, that program has become the Wyoming Wool Initiative and it's more than just blankets. The initiative used the funds from last year's blanket sales to buy a sock machine, which will be housed at Mountain Meadow Wool in Buffalo, which they partnered with to create last year's blankets. The socks will be made with wool from Wyoming producers.
"Being number one in the country in terms of wool production and value, it's important that we have [an] immediate tie back to our producers," said Whit Stewart, UW's Extension sheep specialist and head of the initiative. "And so that's something that we'll continue to expand upon with the program."
Expanding the reach of products made with Wyoming wool is one main goal of the initiative. It also ties into another goal of the initiative: learning more about uses for Wyoming wool.
"I think the scope of taking a look at the proceeds and saying 'How can we have the biggest impact?' was probably what shifted us into this initiative that's targeted towards innovating, processing, marketing and all aspects of the wool industry since we are such a big state with wool production," said Laramie Research and Extension Center Director Scott Lake. "Having those targeted initiatives and the proceeds really fuel those efforts was a logical next step for us, I think."
The initiative is unique because it's self-sustaining. The proceeds from last year's blanket sales funded the purchase of the sock machine, and sales from this year's limited edition blankets, the socks, and any future products will continue to fund it.
Not only that, the initiative wants to give back to the Wyoming sheep industry by sharing research and information.
"But we don't need to be the source of saying 'Here are the products that need to be made, and this is how it's done.' We want to be the clearinghouse of information for private industry to come to us and say, 'How do I make this work? How can you help me connect the dots?' That's really what we're leveraging," said Stewart.
To get that research and information, the initiative is placing interns at Mountain Meadow Wool and partnering with others across campus, like the MBA program.
One of this year's interns is looking at expanding the uses of blockchain in the wool industry. Last year's blankets had a QR code stamped on their labels that used blockchain technology to give purchasers more information about them.
"One of our master's students, Courtney Newman, her whole project is working toward seeing where blockchain technologies fit within the US sheep industry," said Stewart. "We've been talking with other international partners, seeing how they've made it work in their sheep industries, and we're tailoring it to the uniqueness of our industry. So that's forthcoming."
The project recently reached Level III: Certify status with the American Wool Assurance Program, and the initiative has added it to the digital history of the blankets.
This year's blankets will be available mid-August from the book store. Due to supply chain issues, the delivery of the sock machine from Italy was delayed, and the socks will be available after further research and development. Stewart said they hope to have at least two patterns available and may partner with design students in the future to create limited edition runs.