Why Bison Fiber? A Q&A with United By Blue

Ultimate American Jacket - United By Blue - Why Bison Fiber

United By Blue is an apparel and accessory manufacturer with a mission-like focus on ocean and waterway cleanup. In a landscape rife with B Corps and other good actors, their passion is as unique as it is admirable. So when United By Blue unveiled bison fiber socks and its Ultimate American Jacket, it was logical to wonder “why bison fiber?” For that and several other reasons, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing founder and president Brian Linton.

In this first segment of our two-part interview, Linton explains why bison fiber was a logical choice for UBB’s new clothing line. Not only does bison fiber have sustainability attributes which we’ll cover in Part Two, but it also has great insulation qualities that cold folks like me can wholeheartedly support. Not surprisingly, that’s where this interview will begin….

When you were considering non-merino natural fibers, what drew United by Blue to bison fiber rather than other wool alternatives such as llama fleece and yak wool? Were there any specific attributes that compelled you to choose bison fiber over the others?

Bison are an amazing animal. They are not only beautiful, bison also have a rich history across the North American continent. They helped shape the American west and were the lifeblood of Native Americans. Being hunted to near extinction, they are now an important and growing industry for American farmers across all 50 states. Due to their historical significance, many people believe the bison should be our national animal and not the bald eagle. As a fiber, it is also beautiful. The soft, inner coat is as soft as cashmere and has a rich brown color that needs no dye nor chemical alteration to be pleasing to the hand or eye. It’s incredibly warm due to its hollow fibers, and it stays warm even when wet. It also does not have lanolin (unlike wool) which is an allergen that some people are allergic to.

Are there certain insulation, “machine washability” or other attributes that give bison fiber an advantage over substances?

Bison washes similarly to wool, but unlike wool, it does not shrink when washed.

In an apparel world full of synthetic materials (and now even aerogel), why did you feel it was important to look toward a natural fiber?

At the end of the day, nature is a master designer. No one person can do quite what thousands of years of evolution has accomplished – and even if man can recreate something, nothing is as sustainable as letting nature create it for you. United By Blue has a strong focus on sustainability and rejects synthetics whenever there is a natural alternative. Bison is a fiber that we believe is an underutilized natural fiber, and by using it, we are honoring the land and a beautiful animal at the same time.

How does the insulation-per-weight of bison fiber compare to other natural fibers like merino wool, yak wool or llama fleece?

Our initial studies indicate it is warmer than wool – this year we will be doing additional studies to further validate our initial research.

What’s the process like to gather bison fiber? Does it involve shearing, gathering whatever’s been molted, …? Are bison bred for fiber specifically, like some geese for their down?

There are multiple ways that the bison fiber is collected. Every spring bison shed their winter coat. This comes out in clumps that can then be collected. As bison like to rub up against fences, trees, or any other object, the clumps of shed fiber tend to collect in concentrated areas.  The other way is a byproduct of the meat industry, where the hides are shaved after the animal is processed for meat. This is the most scalable and efficient way to collect the fiber. No bison are bred for fiber – it is exclusively a meat industry.

Why do you suppose more companies haven’t broadened their natural-fiber selection to include bison fiber?

Bison fiber is not something that you can easily procure. You can’t just call up your local wool supplier and ask for bison instead of, say, merino. As a result of its limited availability, bison fiber is not commonly used.

Read Part Two of our interview with Brian Linton, which explores bison fiber sustainability, design considerations and potential future uses for the material.

Jonas Allen

Jonas spent 17 years covering travel, technology and entertainment for regional and international media. He now writes about gear, clothes and tips to stay warm. He hopes his lessons will help other people who get cold (re)discover the great outdoors.

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