I just spent the past 2 years researching wool, so when a friend posted this new video ad from Woolmark, I had to click. And then I had to critique.
The video moves through 4 moments of imagined historical innovation. Scene 1: Two dark-skinned hunters clad in leaves carry a sheep to a pale-skinned, red-haired man chipping away at a stone wheel. Rather than kill the sheep for food, he snaps his fingers—the sheep is instantly shorn, and The Innovator’s patchwork leather tunic is replaced by a soft woolen one. His companions apparently die of starvation, indicated by skulls buried deep under the desert of Scene 2. Here, two women wave palm leaves over a bored-looking guy outside a tent; all have brown skin, vaguely Middle Eastern clothing, and green vapors wafting from their armpits and feet. The Innovator is here too, sniffing his armpits in dismay until a big fluffy sheep wanders into frame. Snap! Wool robe, stink lines vanish, the ladies drop their palm fronds to come fawn all over him. Scene 3: Tudor England? (I’m not really up on my British historical costuming) The Innovator is kicked out of a pub when his now-companion sheep curls up in front of the fire. Snap!—Bulky layers replaced by slim lines of insulating wool, they leap back in. This one honestly makes no sense to me, but at least it doesn’t denigrate people of color. Finally, Scene 4: a contemporary exercise class; a blond woman sweats in shiny Spandex. The Innovator’s energy is flagging until, snap! He perks back up in some new (presumably wool) workout clothes. The view zooms out—guess what? The palm-frond ladies are here, and the hunters, looking none too pleased at the aerobics routine until they are one by one magicked into leggings, sports bras, and big grins as the sheep prances to the front of the class.
Although the comments on Vimeo all rave about how “amazing” this piece is, the only thing I found amazing was how much casual racism could be packed into under 2 minutes. The only people of color in the video are depicted as primitive and smelly, doing physical labor (hunting and carrying prey, operating as human AC units) while The Innovator bests them through his mental prowess. They are eventually granted a happy ending by joining the modern world (or at least the gym). Although the tag-line at the end declares wool to be “naturally innovative,” everything leading up to it shows progress as the effortless output of a white man who just has to think things up to make them happen.
And let’s talk a bit more about that effortlessness. With a literal snap of his fingers, The Innovator dismisses all the labor required to take wool from the sheep’s back to a human wearer’s body. In the ancient scenes, wool would have been plucked during shedding season (not whenever The Innovator happened to think of it), then washed, carded, spun, and woven—all by hand. Most of that work would have been performed by women. For the contemporary scene, a global network of wool industry workers is erased—from the shearing crew (in the U.S., most likely migrant contractors from Mexico and South America) to international brokers and regulators to mill employees (most likely women in China).
I know, it’s a cartoon, not a textbook for Global Garment Trade 101. But it follows a pattern that I see across the industry as a whole. Shop for wool clothing online, say, some of the workout wear featured at the end of the video, and you’ll see sweeping panoramas of snowy mountain slopes dotted with sheep. You might see a rancher in Stetson hat, plaid shirt, and hyper-saturated colors, but you won’t see a sheep shearer. Marketing firms urge producers to “tell the wool story,” but we keep getting an abridged version.
In positioning wool as a “natural” fiber, and “natural” in opposition to “man-made,” the industry renders a vast segment of itself invisible. The “natural” narrative erases not only the immediate work of the shearing site (and subsequent transport and manufacturing), but years of flock management by ranchers and millenia of selective breeding by pastoralist communities around the world. Wool is both natural and made by humans. It’s a product of tangled, multi-generational collaboration between sheep, shepherds, landscapes, machinery, currency exchanges, and many more actors than I can possibly name here. I think that’s where the real story is.
Wool is an amazing fiber and its story is too complex to tell in a 2-minute video ad. But Woolmark has done better before. 2014’s “Lost and Found: The journey from farm to fashion” follows a stray puff of wool as it floats away from a shearer’s hands. The wool makes its way through each piece of mill equipment (complete with dramatic music and Matrix-style slow-mo) to eventually become the red thread of the Woolmark logo stitched on a garment produced from the rest of the fleece. The camera zooms out to reveal the logo on the sleeve of the shearer, who releases a shorn sheep to join the rest of the flock.
“Lost and Found” is unusual in its focus on industrial processing and inclusion of shearing in the wool story. That video doesn’t tell the whole story either, but it does provide glimpses of skilled human labor and machine manufacturing, and hints at the cyclical nature of wool production. It allows for the coexistence of nature (in the pastoral scene of the flock) and technology in the path “from farm to fashion.” Moreover, it tells its parts of the story without obscuring others, without relying on racist stereotypes, and without advancing a white supremacist progress narrative. In “Lost and Found,” Woolmark found a way to convey some substantial information about wool processing within an eye-catching ad. With “The Innovator,” unfortunately, Woolmark seems to have lost its way again.
 Fellow feminists, I know, right?! This is the terminology I see in a lot of industry copy, so I’m using it here. We’ll save that rant for another day.