In this blog post, we'll talk about everything a fiber artist should know about wool. We’ll discuss its composition, how it's grown and acquired, its benefits, fun facts, and more.
Let's first get a better understanding of what wool is.
What is Wool?
When you hear the word “wool”, you might immediately think of sheep. You wouldn't be wrong. Wool fibre can come from sheep, but it can also come from other animals, too.
We also get wool from llamas, goats, rabbits, musk oxen, and other animals. In other words, any animal that produces this natural fibre is considered wool.
Here are 9 types of animals that produce this fibre.
This natural fibre consists primarily of protein, and its composition is that of microscopic cuticles which appear as scales. These scales overlap and help hold the material together.
In its natural state, these animal fibres are considered to be non-superwash wool. To become something that you can knit with (or crochet, weave, etc.), the wool hair will undergo different processes to create wool yarn.
In other words, the fibre has only changed its form, but not its composition.
Let’s elaborate on this subject for a minute.
Let's take a look at wool under a microscope.
As you can see in the image below, the surface of natural fibres is layered with scales which overlap towards to the end of the fibre. This protective, waxy layer is called lanolin and is specific to sheep.
The natural make-up of the fibre can only be altered through chemical processing, i.e. a superwash treatment. You can learn more about superwash wool here.
Did you know that wool is an incredible natural resource?
Every day of every year, sheep produce new fleece with only water, feed, sunshine, and care. Amazing, right?
To clarify, though, allow me to explain the difference between fleece and wool. Fleece is the natural wool hair of the sheep before it has been harvested. When it is shorn from the sheep, it then goes through a process to become yarn you can knit with.
In this discussion, though, please don't confuse it with the man-made fiber of the same name. This other type of fleece, while designed to mimic wool, is made of synthetic materials.
Going back to the subject of harvesting, now let’s talk about shearing sheep.
When harvesting this natural resource, the wool from one sheep is called fleece, while the wool from many sheep is called a clip.
The most common questions about shearing are: How often do you shear sheep?; and When do you shear sheep?
Sheep shearing occurs once a year, often in springtime. Makes sense, right? You wouldn’t want to shear them in the winter as they could perish.
At the time of shearing, every effort is made to keep the wool fleece in one piece. More experienced shearers have no problem with this.
Just take a look at this video of a true professional shearing sheep and you'll see what I mean.
But you may be asking, how do sheep shear themselves in the wild?
However, domesticated sheep breeds need to be sheared for the health and well-being of the animal.
Wool fleece is often referred to as “grease wool” as it is still dirty and oily from the animal. In other words, raw wool is the sheared fibre in its natural state. Later, it will be washed, cleaned, and processed to remove any impurities.
Characteristics of Wool
Now that I’ve given you some context on sheep’s wool and how it's harvested, let’s talk about its characteristics. Here you’ll begin to see why this natural resource is so amazing.
Did you know that wool is a breathable material? It is. To be more specific, it's naturally hygroscopic. This means this fibre can absorb moisture from the air.
While wool is not waterproof, it does have the ability to wick away wetness. It can absorb up to half its weight, can carry up to 30% water weight, and can keep you feeling dry.
As it dries, it loses moisture slowly which helps keep your temperature regulated. Using this fibre in your knits can also protect you from sudden changes in temperature, and can maintain its natural equilibrium.
This fibre is naturally elastic and can be stretched up to 30% before breaking. This is such a benefit when you’re knitting wool sweaters or other woolen clothes.
Using this fibre for yarn also allows your garments to be easily be blocked to shape.
Speaking of blocking your knits, this fibre does shrink when it's wet, but not permanently. This is yet another reason why it’s important to knit a gauge swatch, wash and block it, and let it dry.
Wool is Strong
Pure wool is very strong, stronger than silk. The strength of the fibre will vary by sheep breed but, essentially, the longer the fibre, the stronger the yarn.
As I mentioned earlier, this fibre gets weak when it is wet. Here it can lose a quarter of its strength, but it's very resilient. As it dries, the wool's natural strength returns and suffers no damage.
Wool is Resilient
Speaking of resiliency, this fibre can be bent or stretched thousands of times without being damaged or broken. This goes back to its natural elasticity and strength. As such, using this fibre for long-lasting garments like wool suits or wool jumpers is ideal.
Of all natural fibres, especially ones used in apparel, wool is one of the most reusable ones. It's recyclable, which means any knits you’ve fallen out of love with can be taken apart and repurposed.
Not only can it be repurposed, but it can also be physically recycled. One way to do this is to mechanically process the fibre to return it to its original raw state. Then, it can be converted into knitting yarn again.
Some final ways to recycle this fibre is to repurpose it for industrial materials like wool carpets, wool insulation, wool rugs, and more.
Wool is Biodegradable
One alternative is to use it as a soil fertilizer. As this natural fibre decomposes in soil, it releases valuable nutrients back into the earth. This process benefits the natural cycle of growth.
Since pure wool has the ability to absorb moisture, it will typically not create static electricity or static cling.
And since we were just talking about repurposing this fibre, making dryer balls would be another great use as they reduce dry time and save you electricity. They’re also long-lasting, reusable, and 100% natural, unlike dryer sheets.
Here's a tutorial for making diy wool dryer balls.
Don't have time to make your own dryer balls? Purchase a set like the one shown above and forget about it.
Did you know that this fibre is naturally fire resistant? Natural wool provides a higher level of fire safety than other fibers.
Due to its naturally high oxygen content, it's not flammable. It does not burn if it comes in contact with fire; it will only smolder, and won't melt or stick to skin.
This is pretty amazing and incredibly useful information, in my opinion. It also makes sense why so many fiber artists choose wool yarn for baby blankets.
Here are some of my yarn favorites:
Another great use for wool is knitting UV protective clothing. This natural fibre is better at protecting skin against UV rays than synthetic fibres, and even natural cotton fibres. Plus, it’s suitable to wear year-round.
Did you know that of all the sheep in all the world, 90% are wool producing? This makes it a highly renewable resource.
But you might be wondering, how much wool is produced per sheep? A totally valid and important question.
The answer is this:
- A female sheep, or ewe, can produce up to 15 pounds annually.
- A male sheep, a ram, can produce up to 20 pounds annually.
These amounts can vary, of course, based on a variety of factors such as breed, nutrition, age, genetics, and sex of the animal. Still, that’s pretty impressive.
As you can see, wool has so many positive attributes and benefits. As a fiber artist, you can understand why it’s a fibre worth knowing about and worth using in your knit or crochet projects.
I hope you found this discussion insightful, useful, and inspiring. If you learned something new or gained a new perspective, drop me a note or leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!