Foreign buyers are clamouring to buy bison fibre. The only problem is figuring out a good way to get it off the hides of the ornery critters.
Frequently compared to cashmere, raw bison fibre fetches $1 an ounce while an ounce of cleaned, carded down sells for about $12 and finished yarn commands $18 to $20.
Even at those prices, demand outstrips supply.
Linda Sautner, a manager with the Bison Producers of Alberta, said she receives several calls a month from people who are looking for bison down.
“It is a viable idea,” said Sautner. “It’s amazing what you can do with this product.”
Moreover, a bison produces about three pounds of down each year, shedding the warm, soft undercoat in the early spring.
But how to collect it?
Adele Boucher, who raises bison near Peace River, has spent years trying to answer that question.
“We now know what doesn’t work, but not what does,” Boucher said at a recent Bison Producers of Alberta meeting in Red Deer.
Boucher isn’t a knitter, but quickly recognized possi – ble uses for bison fibre when she first touched a handful of down clinging to the trees in her bison pasture. One promising method was developed af ter watching bi son rub against trees or posts. Large finishing nails are pounded into sections on the planks around bison corrals – the fibre hooks onto the nails but does not tangle as it does in brush bristles and can be easily picked off the nail boards.
Even if bison were docile, brushing the hair from their hides isn’t an option – brushing does a good job of getting the fibre off the bison, but often results in a tangled mix of the down and coarser bison hair.
“If this mixture cannot be untangled in order to card the fibres into one direction, then it is not possible to spin it into yarn,” said Boucher.
Shearing hides does not work well either, as bison guard hairs are very coarse and usually caked with dirt and grit, which dulls the shearing clippers after only a few passes. Shearing the down from hides also results in a shorter fibre which does not hold together well for spinning. As well, shearing creates a stiff end to the fibre and can cause a finished product to feel itchy whereas a shed fibre has no itch factor.
Hides from bison that are slaughtered during the shedding season provide a great opportunity to collect the fibre. The down collected by this method is relatively clean and requires little effort to be processed into yarn.
Bison hides have five different- size fibres and the soft down is the most prized. It is very fine, only 20 to 25 microns in thickness, and is ranked as one of the top five exotic fibres in the world. However, it doesn’t dye or bleach well, since it does not contain lanolin. And never call it wool – that only applies to what comes off sheep, everything else is called fibre.
Bison down can be blended with other fibres such as qiviut (fibre from musk ox), camel, cashmere or yak, and with natural plant fibres such as silk or bamboo. It can be processed, but only under particular circumstances, says Fen Purves- Smith owner of Custom Woolen Mills in Carstairs.
“It needs to be blended with other fibres or wool. In some cases it even requires a specialized machine,” said Purves-Smith.
Processed fibre is sold by weight for high prices and pure bison can be made into items such as baby-wear, ladies’ sweaters and scarves.
The fibre market is a viable value-added side to raising bison, said Pierre Cormier, a member of the Bison Producers of Alberta. The price for bison fibre, because it is so exotic and hard to come by, doesn’t fluctuate as meat prices can, he noted.
Boucher’s ongoing research has been supported by the Canadian Bison Association and the Bison Producers of Alberta.
“It is a viable idea. It’s amazing what you can do with this product.”
– LINDA SAUTNER, BISON PRODUCERS OF ALBERTA