Not What You Would Expect: A Brief History of Bison Fiber and The Buffalo Wool Co.
The North American Bison --- the “buffalo”, as many were raised to know the animal --- does not immediately evoke the image of a soft usable fiber animal. Yet the winter undercoat – the bison “down” – that grows each fall and sheds off each spring is the finest truly American luxury fiber available. In fact our most popular tag-line in advertising is “Seriously Warm-Surprisingly Soft” The curious and excited look we get after you hand someone a bison down garment to touch seems to confirm this. The down fiber is a fairly short staple, typically about an inch and a half and measures from about 17 mic to about 22mic. An adult cow bison will have roughly 1-3 lbs of down on her after it has fully matured (usually around the first of each year). That down is what keeps this 1000+ pound animal insulated through the winter months.
About the name; “bison” is correct, (picture of bison) Buffalo …the Asian Water Buffalo and the African Cape Buffalo are each and both scientifically distinct from our American animal. Old habits die hard: we as a country have called them “buffalo” for almost 200 years and we call our family companies “Buffalo Gold premium fibers” and “The Buffalo Wool Company” (and we will explain a bit about that further on)
We bought our first bison calves in 1991, just as a “why not”. We had some land, almost no knowledge of domestic animal husbandry and not enough sense to realize into what we were getting ourselves. Now, close to 30 years later, we still raise bison.
Our first encounter with the fine bison down was early spring when we started plucking bits of the shed fiber off the briars in our pasture. It was silky soft, had a beautiful faint musky scent and felt so comforting against our faces. We dutifully set about gathering what we could, knowing nothing about washing, felting, skirting, dehairing …. Nothing.
Time passes, winters and springs come and go. We then had about 6 boxes of the “fluff stuff”. Not knowing anything else, we offered it for sale on eBay. Imagine my surprise when two bidders were fighting over it. Through this, and without the boring details, I had the honor and privilege to meet Elizabeth Lang, then from Boston. Elizabeth is one of the most knowledgeable and personable fiber artists ever. So, patiently she explained as she experimented with the fiber. She asked questions and she lectured. “Never agitate the bison” became her catchphrase (most particularly as it pertains to hand washing bison the very short, very dirty, crimpy and easily felted fiber). ).
Elizabeth also led us to promote bison fiber to as much of the then bison industry as we could. That was then less than 400 ranches, most of them quite small (20 or less head of bison). We encouraged them to pick up the shed fiber; to contact local guilds and clubs; to use the fiber as a promotional tool to help the general population (well, at least the general fiber population) know that bison ranching had more merit than just meat. Even though sporadic, it did some of what was intended. It gave those hands-on fiber enthusiasts a chance to experience bison. All these years later, several of those relationships still exist; ranches that allow and encourage annual shed fiber harvests and the resulting beautifully spun yarns of bison down blends still get spring “pickers”.
A Brief History
On his epic journey to find the Pacific Ocean, Meriwether Lewis wrote in his journal:
“Saw several parsels of buffaloe's hair hanging on the rose bushes, which had been bleached by exposure to the weather and became perfectly white. it [had] every appearance of the wool of the sheep, tho' much finer and more silkey and soft. I am confident that an excellent cloth may be made of the wool of the Buffaloe. The Buffaloe I killed yesterday had cast his long hare, and the poil [perhaps pile, meaning fur] which remained was very thick, fine, and about 2 inches in length. I think this animal would have furnished about five pounds of wool.”
In the Red River Colony of Manitoba Canada, The Hudson Bay Company in the early 1800’s founded several new ventures to try and employ the settlers and use the local resources to produce goods to send back to England, one of which being the original “Buffalo Wool Company”. It, however, failed within a few years because the cloth woven from this wool (which was made from un-dehaired fibers) could only be sold for a fraction of what it cost to manufacture. They also, rumor has it, spent a large portion of their original investment capital on rum.
With of the mass slaughter of bison in the late 1800s, there was no longer a sufficient commercial supply of bison down available until roughly 1995, when the relatively new North American Bison Cooperative (NABC) in New Rockford North Dakota ramped up commercial bison meat production to over several thousand head per year. That allowed a relatively simple way to collect, in one place, the winter undercoat in a sufficient quantity to scour, dehair and ultimately, spin commercially.
Fun Bison Fiber Fact
Closer to home … and to my heart, during the first World War,, Texas Panhandle cattleman and bison savior Charles Goodnight ( the real life inspiration for “Woodrow McCall from the Lonesome Dove series) sent a pair of buffalo hair socks (again, whole hair and not de-haired down) to General “Black Jack” Pershing to keep his feet warm during the European and African winters, along with some ideas as to how to properly arm our cavalry against the cold and wet weather. We are, once again, working with the US Military to put bison fiber to a great use; keeping our troops as comfortable as possible regardless of the conditions
Two other pioneers in the current resurgence of bison down are worthy for you to “meet”. The first is Ruth Huffman and her American Buffalo Designs Company. Ruth was the first in modern times to work towards commercial application of bison fiber into usable products .. sweaters, ponchos, socks, cowls and they were all stunning designs.
Duane Lammers from Rapid City, South Dakota and more recently from Kona, Hawaii is the second. Duane was the first in recent history to amalgamate enough bison fiber (from the NABC) and have it scoured, dehaired, spun and woven into this beautiful cloth (photo to be enclosed). That all in around 2001. In fact, Ruth got her first commercial fiber from Duane. Good people and true pioneers in this modern age.
We now estimate between 450,000 and 500,000 bison alive, mostly in the US and Canada. This is almost double the estimated 250,000 alive when we started with bison. Annually, around 55,000 are processed for meat. It is from these production animals that we are able, during January, February, and March, when the fiber is at its longest and least matted, that we can harvest the fiber. Before that it is still growing and too short. After that, it is shedding and being rubbed into matts and balls that just cannot be untangled. We, like the native tribes before the great slaughter, try to use all of this great creature. Why throw away such a beautiful, durable, insulating fiber? No, we put it right to use.
After harvest, the fiber has to be thoroughly scoured. Bison have no body fat; no lanolin or similar body grease. And bison have no sweat glands. To keep cool, bison “wallow”; or roll in wet dirt to pack a layer of it next to their skin. As such, the short crimpy fiber retains a lot of the prairie … and that needs to be thoroughly cleaned out without felting the little short fibers. Lots of clean water; very very slow soakings … and repeat.
Next, the fibers need to be separated. There are 4 (possibly 5) separate fibers on a bison The dehairing machine separates the coarse fibers (primary coat) and guard hairs from the desired, fine fibers (secondary coat). The dehairer works primarily by using centrifugal force, transferring the fine fibers between cylinders operating at different speeds while the heavier coarse fibers are preferentially ejected. The down is predominantly dark brown but there are often light or white down fibers, as well. No discerned or measured differences between them, and when spun, it is all but impossible to see the white down. Unspun, it is relatively visible, but when the fibers are carded or combed and spun the down has a very consistent “milk-chocolate” color.
Blending and Spinning
Bison fiber can be blended with other certain other compatible fibers to both extend the available quantity and add other advantageous properties. Our first fiber blend was actually done to accommodate the machinery at a spinning mill. There is a “ladder”; basically a 6’ gap between two of the carding machines with a wooden conveyor apparatus. the down came out in such a fine web that it tended to break apart crossing this gap. Gary Boudreaux, the then spinner at Zeilinger's Woolen Mill suggested adding a bit of fine nylon to the mix to help create a longer and stronger web. This blending produced a yarn that was significantly stronger than the bison alone, resisted pilling, and has proven to make a very stable yarn that makes durable and comfortable goods. We have since explored blending with other longer staple fibers including Tencel, silk, mohair, camel, yak, and fine wools. With the bison being so short and fine, it takes a bit of preparation with any fiber we add, making sure that the blending fiber is fine enough, and cut to a length of 2” or so seems to work very nicely with the crimpy bison down. We currently produce six different blends in several different weights to produce our products.
Spinning bison fiber, like any luxury fiber, requires a technical knowledge of fiber, as well as an understanding of the desired end results. Finding mills who can dehair and spin the fiber to our specifications has been a challenge, but the journey has resulted in some great partnerships and collaborations with some first class U.S. textile processors. It has also taught us a whole lot about what it takes to spin a good yarn. We now design our yarns based on tensile strength, abrasion resistance, insulation properties, moisture regain and “hand”, the feel of the yarns in a finished garment.
Getting it to market
The economic viability of bison down has long been the question. Until recently, every prior venture to commercially process of bison fiber has failed. Availability, processing costs, and unknown demand have all been significant factors in the challenge to bring to market bison fiber and bison fiber goods. Bison fiber and hair have not traditionally a profitable part of raising bison, but by adding value to the animal, it becomes more economically advantageous to raise animals. More money= More Bison.
Our first saleable product was simply dehaired bison down roving, launched in 2005 at STITCHES West in Santa Clara, California, by Linda Cortwright of “Wild Fibers” Magazine, and the spinning community devoured it, to this day we still produce about 100 lbs of this carded fine down roving, and it sells out every year.
With a lot of help from some wonderful fiber enthusiasts, we then started developing and spinning yarns for knitters, crocheters, weavers and crafters, and working with designers to create knitting/crochet patterns and kits. A poorly plied batch of bison/silk/cashmere/Tencel yarn almost signaled the end of this experiment. We had put pretty much all of our fiber production and most of our available financial resources into a batch of yarn that was too loosely twisted together to be of any use for handknitting. As an attempt to save this yarn we decided to have some socks commercially knitted. Those socks created quite a stir, being extremely insulating, durable, soft, and wicking moisture like crazy. That lead to gloves, hats, scarves, shawls and more.
Today we produce over 200 different sizes, styles, and colors of socks, gloves, hats, sweaters, shawls, etc. We also produce an ever expanding line of felted bison/wool hats through our collaboration with the Bollman Hat Company of Adamstown, PA … this county’s oldest felt hatter.
We also have been developing uses for the secondary coarser fibers and have used them in everything from rugs and garden underlayment fabrics to fly tying kits and felted insoles, again echoing the native philosophy of “respecting the animal by using every part.
In 2011 we opened the “Herd Wear Store: All things Bison” in Goodnight, TX. In 2016 we pioneered bison product vending machines bringing socks and gloves to the residents, travelers, commercial fishermen and oilfield workers in Alaska. We also currently sell our ready to wear products at both the Herd Wear Retail Store (www.HerdWear.net) and www.TheBuffaloWoolCo.com and just recently we have launched an exclusive collaboration with some completely wonderful friends, Tom and Cindy Garland of Stunning String Studio for all of our American bison yarns, and they are dyeing, designing, and distributing all yarns and kits as part of their Stunning Buffalo Collection.
What is Next?
On May 9, 2016, the President signed the National Bison Legacy Act, making the North American bison the official National Mammal of the United States. This is a great milestone for an animal that once faced extinction. “Because bison are a natural part of the North American ecosystem, bison ranching can be a beneficial to the natural environment”1, but even with the increase in both public and commercial bison herds around the U.S. and Canada and the increased demand and production of bison meat, it is still a very limited and precious supply, with only an estimated 5000-7000 lbs of down available each year, it will never replace sheep wool, or even cashmere as a mainstream staple fiber. Bison down is a luxury and with responsible and sustainable practices we can enjoy and wear this incredible natural resource for generations to come.
___________________________1 “Bison Vs. Cattle Environment” - Modern Farmer July 2016 Dan Nosowitz
Outstanding article on the Bison, it’s shedding down, and your Company. I was/am very impressed with all the information and history. You have an ALL American Story that you can and I am proud of..
Leave a comment