The Wool Lab: Woven into the fiber of MSU

The Wool Lab was created in 1945 to serve Montana’s sheep industry and continues that mission today. As one of only two labs of its kind in the country, it provides research, education and service to sheep producers. Established during a time when MSU was primarily an agricultural college, the lab initially assisted ranchers in quantifying how much their wool was worth. It now houses the most advanced technological equipment in measuring fiber diameter in the United States.

Measuring fiber diameter is the lab’s primary function. Fiber with a relatively small diameter will bend when it comes into contact with skin, while larger diameters tend to poke (think of the common scratchy, old wool sweater). Sheep producers from across the country send in their livestock’s wool to be evaluated by the lab in order to determine which sheep have fibers of smaller diameter. That information assists ranchers in deciding which individuals to breed to produce more valuable wool.   

This process used to rely on projection microscopy, requiring hours of testing to find the diameter of a single sample. Now, with more advanced equipment, it only takes approximately 30 seconds for the same task. The lab is also responsible for cleaning the wool of dirt and oil, and determining which percentage is usable. Most wool has a yield of about 50 to 65 percent, depending on the environment in which the sheep were raised.

Whitney Stewart, Ph.D., is the director of the Montana Wool Lab, assistant professor of Sheep and Wool Production and extension sheep specialist in the Department of Animal and Range Science. He advocates sheep as being one of the most environmentally friendly livestock. “Where cattle prefer grass out on the range, sheep like to eat dry grass, weeds and even invasive species. In parts of the country where we could never produce a crop, we can turn out sheep and produce wool, meat and milk out of almost nothing,” Stewart explained.

Sheep populations in the United States are currently at five million, down from their population peak of 53 million in 1942. However, the livestock’s significance is growing, especially in the West. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, Montana produces the most valuable wool in the nation— what cheese is to Wisconsin, wool is to Montana.

Wool is now being recognized as a “miracle fiber” due to its qualities that synthetic material can’t mimic. Athletic wear utilizes wool due to its ability to wick away moisture, creating a microenvironment around the skin that prevents hypothermia. The fibers also produce a fatty substance called lanolin, which is used in cosmetics, skin treatments and moisturizers. Furthermore, lamb is considered one of the most nutritious meats.

The building itself holds history, though it is experiencing wear and tear. “Generations of ranchers throughout the West have come and taken classes in this building, were on the judging team or sent samples here,” Stewart explained. “This building is historically connected to the people of Montana.” Located south-east of the roundabout at 11th and College and constructed in 1947, it is the only A-frame building on campus.  

Despite a decline in sheep production, the Wool Lab still has plenty of assignments. There are currently three research projects and work in minimizing contamination in wool. They provide services to Duckworth, a Montana wool company, and the lab continues to educate ranchers and the public. Stewart explained, “We’re able to take what we do here at the university and make it part of people’s lives.”