Wool is a short staple, protein based fibre. It can come from a number of animals including goats, rabbits, camels and yak, however these are usually referred to in textiles by other names (outlined below). When referring to wool as a textile / fibre it usually comes from sheep.
Wool is obtained by shearing (shaving) the fleece (the wool coat) from the sheep. Different parts of the fleece have different levels of quality with the wool around the legs being lower quality (often containing plant matter) and the wool on the back being higher quality. The quality of the wool also varies between sheep breeds and between individual sheep. Merino wool is prized for its quality as this breed of sheep provides finer, smoother wool. The quality of wool fibres is measured in microns with the smaller the number the better quality the wool is.
Wool has excellent insulating properties due to the air space created between the crimped shaped fibres, making it suitable for cool weather clothing. It is also highly absorbent, able to hold water and moisture whilst still feeling dry and warm.
Like other fibres wool can be used to make both woven and knit fabrics. Unlike other fibres however the outer surface of wool is scale like or hook like, this means that it can be turned into a third type of fabric, non-woven, in the form of felt.
Australia is the biggest exporter of Merino wool with 80% of all Merino wool coming from Australia.
Context of Use
- Wool is commonly used for outerwear in the form of coats, jumpers, skirts and trousers. These garments are usually best suited to cooler climates or cold weather. Due to its insulating properties and dry feel wool is an excellent choice for bad weather.
- Ultrafine (usually Merino) wool has gained popularity in high performance wear and athleisure in recent years. The lighter weight fabrics made from this wool can be layered for additional warmth or can be worn in single layers that are highly breathable, absorb perspiration without feeling damp and don't hold on to bad smells. This has made it a popular choice for garments for travel, camping and some sports.
- Wool has been used for interiors including carpets, rugs and blankets and in decorative wall hangings and tapestries.
- Wool also has a number of industrial uses such as felt for lining car interiors and as insulation.
The following is a general guide to caring for this textile, however you should always refer to and follow the instructions on the care label of each garment.
How to Wash
Care should be taken when washing wool to avoid accidental felting of the garment. Wool is best hand washed although some garments can be gentle machine washed. Some washing machines now even carry a Woolmark certification, meaning they have a cycle specifically for washing wool. Larger or more delicate garments may be better suited to dry cleaning.
Wool should be washed in cool to cold water. Using hot water will lead to shrinkage and felting.
Detergents and Bleach
Wool should be washed with a delicate detergent/shampoo specifically designed for protein fibres, these detergents are usually labeled as wool wash.
Do not bleach.
Wool should have excess water gently removed by pressing with a cotton towel, do not rub the wool whilst removing the water as this could lead to felting. The garment should be gently reshaped and laid flat to air dry to avoid the weight of the wet wool stretching the garment out of shape. Tumble drying should be avoided as the heat of the dryer and agitation of the garment will lead to shrinkage and felting. Lighter weight, more structured wool garments such as suits could possibly be dried on the hanger or line.
Wool has excellent drape and isn't overly prone to wrinkling if air dried so it would be very rare to need to iron wool. If it were required, such as in the case of suiting, use a medium heat setting and apply very little pressure.
Being a protein based fibre wool can be prone to moth damage. Consider long term storage of wool (such as over summer) in cotton garment bags or lightly wrapped in un-dyed, acid free tissue paper. Moth deterrents such as cedar blocks or dried oranges and cloves can be placed in wardrobes. Allow plenty of air flow and keep away from direct sunlight.
- Wool has a long history of being recycled with the city of Prato in Italy reclaiming and recycling the fibres since the mid 19th century. Wool is shipped there from around the world, sorted into colours, deconstructed and re-spun. The city has its own wool certification, Cardato Recycled, guaranteeing that wool with the label has been safely recycled in Prato.
- Whilst wool makes up only 1% of the total textile market it outstrips all other textiles in terms of recycling with 6% of wool currently being recycled.
- Being a natural, protein based fibre, woollen garments at the end of their useable life can be safely home composted or placed in home worm farms.
- Some local vets and animal shelters may take woollen garments and homewares such as blankets to assist in the care of animals
- Larger wool textiles such as carpets may be recyclable at commercial recyclers or council resource recovery centres, check with these services in your local area.
Other Types of Wool and Protein Based Hair Fibres
AngoraAngora comes from the angora rabbit. It can be combed out of the rabbit as it moults, is plucked or shorn. The wool produced from angora is very delicate and often has a fuzzy or "halo" like appearance when spun into yarn. It is often blended with sheep wool to make a stronger yarn.
Alpaca / LlamaAlpaca and Llama wool comes in shades of white, black and tans and is obtained by shearing the animals. Alpaca wool is slightly stronger than Llama. Unlike sheep, their wool doesn't contain lanolin, the grease like coating on the wool fibre, making it dryer to touch when raw. However raw Alpaca and Llama wool can still require extensive cleaning due to the animals rolling in dirt/dust to clean themselves.
CashmereCashmere is a luxury wool fibre from the Cashmere goat. It is ultra-fine and delicate. The goat produces two layers of wool, the fine cashmere that is obtained when the goat moults and is either collected after the goat has shed it or is combed out of the coat. The second layer is coarser, known as guard hair and is shorn from the goat.
MohairMohair is also obtained from goats but from the breed Angora (not to be confused with the angora rabbit). It has a high lustre (shiny) and is often used in luxury textiles.
YakYak fibre comes from yak and is straighter than sheep wool and similar to cashmere in appearance and texture. It is often blended with sheep wool and used in light weight apparel such as cardigans.
CamelCamel comes from two humped camels and is straighter than fibres from sheep. Camel hair is used in luxury apparel, usually in outerwear such as coats. The fibre from camel is rarely dyed, instead it is prized for its natural "camel" (beige/tan) colour. Most modern "Camel" coats are actually made from sheep wool with camel only referring to their colour and historic use of camel hair.
Qiviut / VicunaQiviut comes from the musk ox of Canada and Alaska and Vicuna from the South American vicuna. Both fibres are considered luxury and rare.