How did New Mexico become a player in the wool industry?
by Karen Christensen
Prior to the Civil War, the small sheep farms in the East and Midwest provided most of the wool to users in the United States. Until the Civil War, cotton was king in the textile mills in the United States and the overseas. Due to the Northern Blockades during the Civil War, cotton prices became very high and cotton was too expensive to use. As a result, wool production grew dramatically for the rest of the 19th century and early 20th century. Mills all over the world and United States converted to wool and linen. Wool during that time became an important export commodity for the United States economy.
So how does New Mexico come into play - remember the Navajo Churro? Sheep are usually bred to be either mutton or wool, not both. The Navajo Churro breed was unique in that it produced both mutton and wool, so this breed became a very desirable commodity. The Navajo Churro fleece is light, low grease, can be cleaned and combed easily, and can be spun finer than wool. Navajo Churro wool was used for weaving blankets, carpets and sturdy but inexpensive clothing.
During the Civil War, the demand for wool was skyrocketing as it was needed to make uniforms and blankets for the troops, as well as other applications for inhabitants in the Northern states. This demand for wool continued into the early 20th century and wool products outproduced cotton products.
During this period, millions of pounds of wool, largely Navajo Churro, from New Mexico was being sent to the mills in the Northeast to produce goods and the sheep were being retained as wool producers and not meat producers.
During the 1880's there were over five million sheep/lambs in New Mexico, and by the early 20th century, the United States was the third largest producer of the wool in the World. By the 1890's, America's consumption of wool was the largest in the world.
Alas, all good things must come to an end and they did for wool in the early part of the 20th century. Demand for wool decreased and cheap imported wool from overseas flooded the United States market-- wool prices decreased, world wide production decreased, and the wool trade in New Mexico declined as well.
Sorry to end on such a sad note but the next article will discuss what currently is happening in the New Mexico Wool Community - and it is good news.
Sources Used: New Mexico History website, Navajo Churro Sheep Association website, Santa Fe New Mexican article, Chimayo Weavers website, Wikipedia, American Sheep Industry website, The Sheep Industry of Territorial New Mexico - Wallace and the Slow Food website.