Ah, wool — so warm in the winter, so cozy in the late fall! But it’s not just sweaters and beanies: Every fine men’s suit or winter coat is made out of the stuff, not to mention an increasing amount of activewear. But as anyone who’s ever touched their fingers to an old, itchy sweater knows, not all wool is created equal. So what’s with all the different kinds? Why is wool so expensive? Why is some wool softer than a newborn baby, while some is like sandpaper? Alongside Laurie Brewer, an adjunct faculty member in Rhode Island School of Design’s apparel department and an associate curator of costume and textiles at the RISD Museum, we sheared ourselves off some answers.
Soooo… it comes from sheep, right?
Most of it does, but certainly not all. Cashmere, for example, comes from goats. Then there are all the wools from various species of camelids: llama, alpaca, vicuna. Basically, Brewer says, this fur or hair makes such a fantastic fiber because you can felt it. The reason you can do this is because, under the microscope, it has a scale pattern — kind of like those illustrations you see in shampoo commercials — which gives it an advantage over, say, silks or manufactured fibers, because the scales allow wool to grip and bind with one another, and the resulting loft is what creates warmth.
How’d someone come up with the idea to turn sheep hair into a sweater, anyway?
Hard to say, but since at least 6,000 B.C., people have been doing it. It hasn’t always been easy. Brewer says the famous cashmere wool was originally foraged for; goats in this mountainous region (of Kashmir, to be clear) are skittish, and people would basically look for tufts of it on bramble, eventually gathering enough to make a shawl. It was these shawls that made cashmere famous, as Napoleonic soldiers would return home from their war campaigns with them as a gift for the special woman in their life (or, being French, probably multiple special women).
Why is wool so expensive?
When it comes to price, the laws of supply and demand come into play: It’s not only getting more popular, but also, the finer the wool, the thinner each strand is, meaning it takes more wool to create that sweater/beanie/suit/coat.
Why is wool itchy sometimes, and what makes cashmere or merino better?
Brewer highlights a few things that separate luxurious, expensive, soft wool from what you’d find on a vintage sweater, or pretty much anything at a military surplus store. Softness is a function of a few things: The smaller the hair’s diameter, the less crimp it has, and the longer it is (meaning how long this fiber can naturally grow) the smoother it will feel. There’s also that scale pattern previously mentioned. Merino (which, by the way, is a variety of sheep) and cashmere have finer scale patterns and alpaca even more so.
Then it’s down to the hair or fur quality of the particular animal?
That’s part of it, but there’s another element too: A lot of cheaper wool — certainly during wartime, but also beyond that — might be off-cuts from a weaving studio. It’d come off the looms, get gathered up, then re-spun. “And the shorter you get, it’s going to be that much rougher,” Brewer says of the individual hairs. In fact, this industry was once pretty big — it was literally called the shoddy industry, in which fibers collecting on the looms would get reused into a lesser grade of woolen product.
Then there’s yet another element to itchy wool, Brewer points out. Sheep have a natural conditioner on their hair called lanolin, and people have always found that if you leave this grease on the wool, it acts as a pretty effective water repellent. The trade-off, though, is that it’s anything but soft! It makes the wool much stiffer, in fact. Woolen maritime apparel like the sweaters and P-coats you’ll find in an army-navy surplus store will often have the lanolin left on, Brewer says. The same goes for Irish sweaters.
Why is the wool in exercise clothes not itchy?
Oh, there have been many advancements in wool. The wool found in performance wear use finer grades of wool, for one thing, but they’ll also blend it with something else, like silk.
Still, it’s the 21st century. Why are we using animal hair for clothing at all?
Hey, wool is a great material. It’s organic, not synthesized in a lab out of plastic or petroleum products. It’s also recyclable in so many ways; some companies take back sweaters and repurpose them. Other than that, Brewer has ideas: “You can always ask someone like myself, ‘Is my sweater too far gone? Can I mend it? Can I darn it? Could I utilize it for something else in my house?’ Sweaters are super easy to turn into a pillow for sure. You could felt that sweater to densify it to make some nice pot holders or trivets in your house. You could try to unravel it and take it apart and then make something else with that yarn.”
It’s totally biodegradable, too, if you want to just toss it. Wool is even being used as building insulation fiber these days for its natural loft and flame-retardant properties — and because it’s way better for the environment than that crazy pink fiberglass.
So it’ll always be in style?
It comes and goes. There was a time when it started to go out of vogue — not coincidentally, shortly after most Americans started owning washing machines. (Until then, it obviously didn’t matter whether a particular item was machine-washable or not.) Since wool was generally non-machine-washable, people switched to the latest and greatest synthetic fibers that you could easily throw in the washing machine. Same with central heating — before that came around, Brewer says, wool items were thick and heavy for winter and nighttime warmth.
But advancements keep happening on this ancient material, and now there are many kinds of wool that you can easily put in the washing machine. And regarding warmth, there is such a thing as tropical-weight wool, which is fine and lightweight enough to be worn on hot days. Wool is basically humankind’s first technical material: It’s water-resistant, breathable, alternately warm and cool, and sweat-wicking.
But the animals…
That’s problematic, it’s true. They’re bred for this purpose, and have been domesticated to such an extent that the hair of many kinds of sheep doesn’t stop growing naturally, making shearing pretty important to their survival — it’s as if they’re on super-strength hair growth vitamins. Then there’s the case of the vicuna, a non-domesticated animal in South America that was rigorously hunted for its hair once it became trendy, until authorities stepped in. Still, though: Ever looked at how much water it takes to grow cotton? Or where synthetic materials come from? Wool seems to have a lot going for it.
How do I know whether that item of clothing is good wool or not?
For one thing, just feel it! You’ll immediately know — just as Shakira’s hips don’t lie, neither will your own fingers when they touch wool. But rest assured the blends are especially nice these days. Secondly, if it’s made with a recognizable style of wool — merino, cashmere, Harris tweed, Shetland, Icelandic — you can be pretty sure it’s quality.
This is all to say that the itchy sweater, scratchy trousers and irritating wool socks are mostly a thing of the past. The only place you’ll find them are surplus stores and vintage shops. Sweater vests, though? Who knows — you’re on your own there, pal.