Material Series VIII : Is Wool a Winner?
The next material in our series is wool. Frankly, I have never been a huge fan of wool since my skin is very sensitive to it and it itches like mad :-)
That said, I did buy a merino wool sweater last year and fell in love with it, soft, pretty, easy to care for and most importantly, not itchy. I was so happy to finally be able to wear wool without any issues. However, after doing my research for this piece, I’m not so sure anymore. Allow me to explain.
Wool consists of protein together with a few per cent lipids. In this regard, it is chemically quite distinct from the more dominant textile, cotton, which is mainly cellulose.
There are many different kinds of wool and they don’t all have the same properties.
Here is a quick overview:
1. Wool comes from sheep: Described simply as "wool" on fibre labels, it has a scaly exterior. While these scales protect the fibre, they can also make it feel itchy.
2. Lambswool comes from Lamb: Not to be confused with sheep's wool, lambswool is the wool from the first shearing of a sheep when it's just several months old. The fresh wool is extra soft, smooth, and resilient, meaning it won't wrinkle as easily. It's rarer since you can only shear a baby sheep's virgin hair once, thus it's more expensive.
3. Merino comes from Merino sheep: Compared to sheep's wool, merino wool is finer and has smaller scales, so it's not as bulky. And, because it's full of finer fibres, there's less pilling and shrinkage. It is also great for temperature regulation.
4. Cashmere comes from Cashmere goat: Cashmere has been in use since well before the 13th century when Marco Polo allegedly encountered wild goats that had been domesticated by humans in caves in Mongolia. It wasn't until the 19th century that the fabric made its way to Europe, at which point it became known as "Kashmir," named for the Kashmir Valley region of the Indian subcontinent the goats inhabited. With temperatures hitting as low as -40°C, the region's goats have developed undercoats that allow them to survive the six-month winters. This soft, downy wool comprises the fibre we know and love today, but its shearing process has evolved over time. To start, the quality of the fleece is evaluated by three factors, as stated by the U.S.-based Cashmere Goat Association: the hair's length, thickness (measured in microns) and degree of crimping, all of which are direct reflections of the animal's overall health. Cashmere is often considered the most luxurious type of wool, cashmere is a fine fibre that is stronger, lighter, less itchy, and more durable than traditional sheep's wool. It provides excellent insulation yet can be worn in the spring and you won't overheat. Because it's rare and harder to produce than traditional wool, it's more expensive. One reason: Sometimes it takes the fibres from two cashmere goats to make just one sweater.
5. Mohair comes from Angora goat: It has a silk-like texture, so it's very soft and shiny, but still has a lot of insulation to keep you warm. Unlike traditional wool, mohair has few scales, so it's smoother. It's also strong and resilient, so it won't wrinkle easily.
6. Angora comes from Angora rabbit: Angora rabbit fibres are hollow, meaning that while they are lightweight and fluffy, they still offer great insulation. In fact, they are much warmer than traditional wool and perfect for colder climates. However, because the fibres are more fragile you'll often find them as accents — perhaps on a collar only — or blended with other fibres to make it stronger. Angora is also rare and requires a lot of work to produce, so it's generally more expensive than other varieties.
7. Alpaca comes from Alpaca (a llama-like mammal): Alpacas are a South American relative of the Camel. A closer relative is the trained llama. Alpaca wool is lightweight, soft, silky, and durable. It's similar to traditional sheep's wool but is warmer and less scaly. (Read: not as itchy.) There are two different types of Alpaca: Huacaya, which you'll find in knits, and Suri, which is silkier and often used in woven garments like suits. Unlike other types of wool, it's naturally available in a wide variety of colours (though it can still be dyed).
Wool is a great renewable resource with plenty of benefits:
• Wool is biodegradable – unlike synthetic materials, wool will decompose. Once a wool garment has been worn out, you can literally just bury it in the ground and it will eventually compost.
• Wool is a breathable and a natural insulator.
• Wool has a unique ability to react to changes in the body’s temperature, meaning it keeps you cool in summer and warm in winter.
• Wool is easy to care for and is pretty much resistant to staining! There is no need to wash wool very often. Usually airing the garment is often enough to make it smell fresh again.
• Wool is fire retardant because of the way the wool fibre is structured. Wool requires more oxygen than is available in the air to become flammable. Wool is accordingly an excellent fibre when it comes to fire safety. Furthermore, it does not melt, drip or stick to the skin when it burns. Of the commonly used textile fibres (cotton, rayon, polyester, acrylic and nylon), wool is widely recognised as the most flame resistant as it is also self-extinguishing. Wool’s inherent fire resistance comes from its naturally high nitrogen and water content. In addition, wool’s cross-linked cell membrane structure will swell when heated to the point of combustion, forming an insulating layer that prevents the spread of flame. This also means that wool produces less smoke and toxic gas than synthetic fibres.
• Wool's natural flame resistance properties make it an ideal fibre for interiors such as carpets, curtains, upholstery and bedding as this will reduce the risk of fire spreading within a house. Wool textiles also protect firemen, military and anyone else exposed to fire or explosives. Wool's attribute of only smouldering and not melting or dripping into the skin can be a lifesaver.
• Wool is quite easy to recycle and several brands are known to work with recycled wool, for example Patagonia uses recycled cashmere, I recently bought cashmere sweaters from The Reformation where 70% is recycled cashmere and there is a Dutch initiative called Loop.a life, they recycle wool and create new garments with the yarn.
The Bad and The Ugly
Despite this long list of benefits of wool, I need to tell you about the dark side as well. You guessed it, most of it has to do with the treatments of the animals and how the intensive farming of the animals impacts the environment.
Intensive sheep farming uses methods harm the environment. Industrial size livestock grazing can also increase land clearing and degradation. There are holistic land management methods of grazing like animals being grazed in smaller paddocks for shorter periods of time, allowing the paddock to be in recovery for most of the time. Unfortunately, these practices are not widespread but they are gaining popularity and support.
There is a similar problem with cashmere due to increased demands and lower prices have led to more cashmere goats being raised than the land can handle.
This affects both the goats and the pastures on which they're raised. The goats have sharp hooves that can break through the topsoil. The way they eat is they eat the grass and the plants all the way from the roots up so that it's really hard for the grass to regenerate. That combination of having so many goats that the land can't handle combined with the land not really having a chance to recuperate is a big issue, as well as concern for the herders' well-being and welfare.
The biggest problem, however, is related to animal welfare.
In Australia, which produces around 25% of the entire wool supply, the wool industry has a high standard of animal welfare, with sheep that produce quality wool, high in lanolin. Lanolin is a grease produced by sheep to help maintain and protect its fleece. It is harvested for its own properties and is a great moisturiser.
Unfortunately, despite high industry standards for merino sheep, there is a lot of controversy over the practice of mulesing the sheep. Mulesing is done to reduce flystrike. Flystrike happens when blowfly eggs laid on the skin hatch, and the larvae feed on the sheep’s tissue. It can cause infection and even death. It also decreases the quality of the wool produced. Mulesing involves cutting skin from the buttock region, and this is generally done without anaesthetic.
Flystrike can be avoided without mulesing with regular surveillance and increased use of insecticides. However, the sheer size of Australian farms and low labour levels mean that it is difficult to ensure that all sheep receive this level of care and attention.
Aside from the mulesing, there is also the issue of abuse of the sheep by the shearers. Often the shearers are paid on volume, not by the hour which encourages fast, violent work and can lead to severe cuts on sheep’s bodies. PETA has made video footage of several cruelties done by the shearers from punching to kicking and cutting the sheep.
Similar practices are happening in China with the Angora rabbits. They are kept separately in tiny cages. There are no laws in China protecting the rabbits from getting plucked which is an extremely painful process where the rabbits suffer a lot! If in the rare case they are sheared, they are completely conscious and strung up by their feet being terrified and wanting to escape so get cut often. The best option is actually not to buy angora at all because currently none of it is made cruelty free.
I don’t like to talk about this but it is something we all need to be aware of when buying these products. I am a huge animal lover and this really breaks my heart.
There are organic and recycled wool options out there so they will definitely get my preference from now on.
Angora wool, however, is definitely out for me! A lot of brands have already banned it but please look out for it. It might be soft and beautiful but please don’t get tempted. Lovely little fury rabbits have suffered greatly for this and it is just not worth it!