Wool is nothing short of brilliant in its simplicity.
A renewable and regenerative resource when managed with care, good wool from happy sheep has virtually unlimited uses – not least of all to delight the hands & minds of those who love wool crafts. We believe a little understanding goes a long way in developing meaningful connections & enjoying something to the fullest, so we put together some fabulous facts about our favourite fibre (repeat 5 times) for your enjoyment.
Welcome to wool school.
Miss Blossom is inquisitive, sociable and a little cheeky. She is a proud mama and a loyal friend. She also happens to be a sheep. Along my wool journey, nothing has surprised, delighted or inspired me more than experiencing the charm and unique character of sheep.
- Lesson 1: Once Upon A Time
Around 10,000 years ago in Central Asia people started keeping flocks of sheep – they are mild mannered little bundles of wandering fibre, milk & meat; like to live in groups and happily munch on whatever the local landscape has to offer – what’s not to love? Since then, these little wool covered animals have played a key role in the support and expansion of many civilisations. Australia is currently the worlds largest wool producing country.
- Lesson 2: Same Same but Different
Sheep grow wool like we grow hair. Both are protein fibres containing carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur. Just as hair can be so very different from person to person depending on where they live, what they eat, what they do day to day and most importantly who their parents are, wool varies dramatically too. Think or thin; long or short; curly or straight; there are over 200 distinct sheep breeds and each have their own unique wool.
Because of this broad scope, wool (and sheep) tend to be categorised by the fineness of their wool fibres (measured in microns – smaller micron means finer wool). The range runs from the softest of soft finewools (less than 25 microns) like Merino through to the medium wools (24-31 microns) like the Corriedale which are a little more durable yet still comfortable for mid layer wear. Then there’s the Down and Downtype wools (24-34 microns) like the Oxford which are fantastically lofty and add lightweight bulk to yarn mixes, and the Longwools (24-41 microns) like the Bluefaced Leicester which can create smooth durable yarns from their finer fibres and hardy material for the textile industry from their rougher ones. Finally there’s the Primitive wools like the Shetland which remain basically unchanged from modern breeding and can have an amazing mix of fibres in a single fleece.
Such a variety of breeds have developed because sheep live all over the world – often in places of extreme climates and landscapes. So how do the masters of adaptability & adventure thrive in such places? Well, obviously they have a wool coat, which as we’ll learn is a pretty handy thing to have. Sheep also produce a waxy substance we call lanolin to protect both their skin & their wool from the weather (it acts like a water repellent layer) and bacteria.
Wool has another barrier against moisture & dirt – a layer of tiny scales covering each strand of fibre (they look like really really small fish scales). These scales firmly hold wool fibres close to, but not against each other – important for keeping sheep (and you!) warm and for spinning strong & supple yarn. Finewools tend to have the smallest scales (which reflect light in every direction giving the wool a soft matte glow), while Longwools tend to have the biggest ones (reflecting light in fewer directions giving it a more bright & lustrous appearance). Finer fibres with smaller scales tend to feel very smooth and are comfortable for next to skin wear, whereas thicker fibres with larger scales don’t bend so easily and may ‘poke’ the skin – potentially causing an itch on sensitive skin and making the wearer feel uncomfortable.
Another thing common to all wool is crimp – a natural curl in the fibres – which also plays an important roll in creating warmth for the wearer (the sheep & you) and spinning a stable yarn. Again, fine wools generally have a finer crimp which can create a lofty and elastic yarn, as the crimp holds plenty of space between each fibres. Longwools on the other hand tend to have a much more open crimp and so the fibres can snug in closer together when spun, creating a smooth fibre with amazing drape.
- Lesson 3: The Ultimate in Elegant Multitasking
So fresh and so clean: wool is antimicrobial, which means odour causing bacteria has no chance to build up (a big problem with synthetics and cotton). So more wear and less washing – win win!
Roasty toasty: wool’s thermo-regulating properties makes it the absolute champion of cold weather – all the tiny pockets of air trapped in the spun yarn act as insulation, keeping you nice and warm when it’s cold!
Hygroscopic: wool loves to absorb moisture from the air, in fact it will still feel warm and dry until it’s absorbed 30% of its own weight in water. In this way, wool ‘breathes’ – happily absorbing moisture from areas of greater humidity and releasing moisture to dryer areas to create a balanced environment for the wearer (& the sheep). As well as absorbing moisture from the atmosphere, wool also absorbs perspiration, allowing for a dry layer of air next to the skin, which helps keep us warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s warm. Thats a pretty cool trick.
Campfire companion: on a low humidity day the moisture content of wool sits around 10-14%. This makes wool flame retardant – it will char and put itself out once removed from a flame, rather than burn (for temperatures below 600 degrees Celsius).
No tissues required: the relatively high moisture content of wool also means that it does not conduct static electricity, which tends to act like a magnet and draw dirt & dust into the fibre. Cleaner garment = cleaner breathing = good news for allergy sufferers.
Bend and stretch: wool loves to move – it can be bent 20,000 times before it shows signs of weakening (compared to 3,000 for cotton) and can stretch 30% of its length (60% when wet) & happily return to form when released. This durability and elasticity are due to the natural crimp & coil in the fibre and make it really hard to wrinkle something made from wool. I don’t think anyone will complain about that. Ever.
Shake it off baby: Lanolin is a natural waxy substance produced by sheep to help protect their wool from the weather (it’s like a waterproof layer) and bacteria. While it’s mostly stripped from the wool in processing, good wool care involves lanolising the fibre when it is washed. This helps maintain the soft, durable and water repellent characteristics of the fibre.
- Lesson 4: The Wooly Elephant in the Room
Does wool make you itchy – to be avoided at all costs for fear of needing to pull a few funky monkey moves? While there is no denying that some of us have a true allergy and should avoid wool, it has been proven to be quite a rare allergy. For the rest of us, the discomfort felt while wearing certain types of wool may be overcome with a bit of common sense and smart layering.
As we now know, wool being a protein fibre, has scales. And these scales can cause some serious itch. Finewools, like merino, tend to feel the softest as they have the smallest scales and diameter (think soft baby hair). At the other end of the wooly spectrum, Longwools, such as the ancient Cotswold, tend to be a courser fibre as they have larger scales and diameter of fibre (think a rugged beard on a handsome man). So for those with sensitive skin – the softer wools can be worn next to the skin, and the courser wools as outer garments.
Something else that may cause irritation has nothing to do with the wool itself but rather with how it has been treated. Hand processed yarns straight from the paddock, while stunning in their raw beauty, may still have bits of vegetation present. So if you’re allergic to grass for example, you may be reacting to the grass in the wool. If this is the case, choose wool that has been more throughly processed.
On the other hand highly processed wool has probably been treated with a toxic mix of chemicals during cleaning, spinning and dying. Best to stick with minimally processed yarn if this is a concern for you. One of the reasons we chose to work with biodynamic wool and have it processed to organic standards is to ensure maximum usability of our yarn.
- Lesson 5: Spinning Straw into Gold
So how is this wonderful wool transformed into the vibrant balls of yarn we all know and love? Through a delicate and involved yet straightforward process that has been developed and refined over thousands of years.
The basic steps are ::
First up – getting the wool off the sheep. Sheep are generally shorn once a year, ideally before lambing season and after the coldest months of the year. A skilled shearer will remove the wool (fleece) in one uninterrupted piece. This is important for ease of handling and maintaining the length of the fibres (longer fibres are easier to process and create more durable yarn).
Next the fleece is skirted – laid flat so the undesirable pieces of large vegetable matter & unusable fleece can be removed. From here the fleece needs a good bath (called scouring) to remove the excess lanolin, dirt, dust and other bits picked up by the sheep in everyday farm life. Hot water, gentle agitation and soap are the go here, with plenty of rinse and repeat as required.
The cleaned fibre is then ready for carding, which separates the fibres and gently aligns them into roving – a luxuriously soft & airy cloud of fibre.
The next step depends on whether the fibre will be spun woolen or worsted. Woolen yarns are spun straight from the roving to produce a lofty and adaptable yarn that is incredibly warm but also susceptible to wear. Worsted yarns have their fibres further aligned (so they are all running in the same direction) and then twisted to produce a smoother and more durable yarn with beautiful lustre and crisp stitch definition.
- Lesson 6: Ground to Ground
From a yarn lovers perspective, it seems that wool can be reused infinitely if cared for correctly. With a seasonal wash & conditioning and correct storage a wool jumper can last multiple generations, then (if you dare unravel a family heirloom, or get lucky and find a wool jumper at the op shop) the yarn can be rewound and made into something new.
While I have never personally experienced yarn at the end of its usable life, I know that one day I may come across some yarn that can no longer be used for anything. The good news is that it’s totally biodegradable and simply needs to be buried in the garden or put in the compost bin – remember the raw ingredients of wool are grass, sunshine and water so you will be returning valuable nutrients back to the soil.