Fabric series: All about Wool

In the cold winter months, we are all looking for cozy, warm and stylish pieces of clothing. Wool is one of those textiles materials which is highly sought after by many consumers.

What is Wool?

Wool is a type of textile which is obtained from the hair of sheep, but also other animals such as goats, alpacas, etc. The chemical structure of this fibre is quite different from others, as wool consists of a small percentage of fats (lipids) and protein. Wool is easy to spin, and its bulkiness causes it to be breathable at the same time as retaining heat.

A brief history of Wool

Somewhere between 400BC to 300BC, the first wool garments were made. During the times of Roman empire, the finest wool came from Tarentum, Southern Italy, whilst England was the main exporter of raw wool. Wool trade was so important for England that it imposed special taxes on wool export and the presiding officer at the House of Lords sat on a "Woolsack" (a chair stuffed with wool), as a symbol of the pre-eminence of the wool trade. After the 16th century  the German wool market overtook the British market. In the 20th century, due to the inventions and industrialisation of synthetic fibre, wool production significantly dropped. 

Types of Wool

There are 10 main types of wool.

  1. Merino - This is the most common type of wool which is obtained from sheep.

  2. Alpaca - Widely used and produced in Latin America, and it comes from alpacas.

  3. Virgin - This is called virgin because it is coming from lamb’s first shearing.

  4. Cashmere - This is very luxurious and expensive. Cashmere is obtained from goats, and pashmina is a type of cashmere.

  5. Camel - Incredibly insulative, however at the same time less durable than others.

  6. Mohair - Mohair comes from angora goats, and it is very thick and wavy.

  7. Qiviut - It is coming from muskoxen which is native to Alaska.

  8. Llama - Very suitable for outwear clothes as it is so rough for skin.

  9. Vicuna - This wool is native to Peru and a relative of alpaca. Vicuna wool is the most expensive of its kind.

  10. Angora - It is obtained from a special breed of rabbit which has amazingly soft and fine hair.

To learn more about some of them check this link out.

How is Wool processed?

Wool processing has two stages: shearing and scouring.

Shearing

Shearing is the process in which the woolen fleece of an animal is trimmed or cut off. This process is followed by separation of wool into 4 categories: fleece, broken, bellies, locks. The technique of wool classing is used for determining the quality of fleece, and a specialised person who is doing this is called wool classer, who measures the size of wool in microns. A Micron is the measurement used to describe the diametr of a wool fibre, and the smaller the micron measurement, the finer and softer the wool.

Scouring

Scouring is a process of cleaning wool from vegetable matter, dead skin and pesticides. This grease contains lanolin, which is a waxy oil used for skin care and other cosmetic purposes. The wool can be cleaned in a warm bath or in an industrial process. Industrial processes could be use chemicals such as alkali or detergent, or a technique known as carbonisation.

Which countries produce Wool?

Australia, China, the United States and New Zealand are the world’s top wool producing countries. Australia produces 25% of the global wool production, China, US and New Zealand are 18%, 17% and 11% respectively.   

Characteristics of Wool

Wool and other protein fibres are natural, and they have their own unique characteristics.

  • Wool is natural, renewable and biodegradable

  • It is fire retardant

  • Wool has natural UV protection which is much higher than most synthetic fibers and cotton

  • Wool is very durable

  • Wool is resistant to acids, but not to alkalis

  • It retains heat more than other natural fibres

What is Wool used for?

Wool is mainly used to make clothes, as well as home furnishings such as carpets, bedding and crafts. Wool can also be used for insulation of buildings and improving energy efficiency of our homes. Wool is preferred by many interior designers as it brings a required combination of strength and comfort for products such as upholstery and soft furnishings for hotels, public places, hotels, offices.

Wool and the Environment

Wool is a natural fibre and has minimal impact on the environment. This is ONLY if its shearing is done naturally to ensure animals are not subjected to inhumane behaviour. However, unfortunately this is not always the case. The vast majority of wool production is both inhumane and environmentally degrading. Capitalism and a desire for maximum profit is the main cause. Production of Mohair wool is such an example, and PETA wrote about the horrific condition that angora goats are subjected to. PETA or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is the largest animal rights organization in the world.

Furthermore, sheep breeding causes soil degradation and other kinds of land damage. Also, fecal matter of sheep is very poisonous. Although it is used for killing parasites, it also pollutes waterways and overflows into the affected environment.

Sheep and cows produce enormous amounts of methane. In New Zealand, methane emissions coming mostly from sheep, make up more than 90 percent of the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Like other animal agriculture practices, raising sheep for wool depletes precious resources. Land is cleared and trees are cut down to make room for grazing, leading to increased soil salinity and erosion and a decrease in biodiversity. 

Can Wool be recycled?

Global attention on the circular economy since the 2010s has resulted in increased recycling practices in the apparel industry. This awareness mainly increased in recycling polyester, cotton, nylon etc. However, this is less so for wool recycling. Currently there are very few wool recycling hubs in the world. The biggest ones are in Prato (Italy) which has nearly hundred years of experience in wool recycling as well as in Panipat (India). Let’s have a look at some numbers in the report by European Outdoor Group:

  • Of the total amount of clothing donated for recycling by consumers, 5% of all clothing donations by end-consumers are wool.

  • The Italian district of Prato alone processes an approximate 22 Million kilograms of post- and pre-consumer ‘primary textile materials’.

Unlike other fibres, wool is very suitable for recycling through open loop and closed loop processes. It is commercially exploited as a raw material for at least 200 years.  If you are interested in the recycling process itself and its methods, you can check the Recycled Wool report by the European Outdoor Group.

To learn more about other main fabrics, check out our fabric series on our blog.

Sources:

https://www.britishwool.org.uk/what-do-we-use-wool-for

http://www.historyofclothing.com/textile-history/wool-history/ 

https://sewport.com/fabrics-directory/wool-fabric 

https://www.woolwise.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/WOOL-422-522-12-T-05.pdf 

https://www.woolx.com/blogs/woolx-journal/it-s-all-about-the-micron-itch-free-wool-clothing 

https://www.dermstore.com/blog/is-lanolin-safe/ 

https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-world-s-top-wool-producing-countries.html 

https://textilelearner.blogspot.com/2011/08/wool-fiber-properties-of-wool-fiber_5920.html 

https://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-clothing/mohair/ 

www.peta.org 

https://theecologist.org/2019/mar/12/environmental-impact-wool 

https://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-clothing/wool-industry/wool-environmental-hazards/ 

https://europeanoutdoorgroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/2018.04.13-EOG-Recycled-Wool-Report-Final.pdf 

https://www.heddels.com/2016/09/know-your-wools-cashmere-lambswool-angora-and-more/ 

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