There's no doubt about it; wool is one of the best insulating fibers known to man. Imagine trying to warm up after a day on the slopes without your favorite wool sweater. Think how cold winter would feel without a wool blanket tucking you into bed. Versatile, temperature regulating, moisture wicking, and gorgeous.wool is the heavyweight champ of the fabric world.
It was only natural that mankind would want to imitate the sheep's natural ability to stay dry and comfortable in pelting rain, freezing cold and even heat. For centuries, we've been doing just that, making sheep's wool into all manner of clothing and textiles. But sheep aren't the only animals to get into the wool act; angora rabbits, alpaca and the exotic camel all produce luxury "wool" fibers used in knitting yarns and fabrics.
The challenge lies in distinguishing one type of wool from another. Is camel hair finer than cashmere? Is mohair softer than merino? Shetland more luxurious than Super 100's wool? Are manufacturers trying to pull the wool over your eyes? Certainly not! But it can be confusing. That's why we've created this helpful Guide to Wool, so you can understand the benefits of one kind of wool over another and distinguish between the many types of wool fibers.
The quality that distinguishes wool fibers from hair or fur is the presence of a hard, water-repellent outer layer that surrounds each hollow fiber, overlapping like shingles on a roof. The fiber's core absorbs up to 30% of its weight in moisture vapor without becoming damp or clammy, while the hard outer layer protects against outside liquid moisture. Water is repelled, but humidity is absorbed, and that helps with thermal regulation.
Besides keeping outside moisture away from the skin, wool also wicks away perspiration. When you sweat, that sweat cools your skin-which is not what you want when it's cold outside. Wool fibers absorb perspiration and wick it away from your body, thus keeping you warm and dry.
The crimp of the wool produces insulating air spaces that retain body heat. These warm air pockets next to the skin are kept dry while the hollow wool fibers absorb moisture vapors and the hard outer surface moves liquid moisture away from the body.
Wool has a very wide comfort range, essential for adapting to changing weather conditions. This unique property makes wool the perfect fiber to be used in the production of outerwear, because it has the versatile ability to warm in colder conditions and cool in warmer conditions.
Wool can be blended with many different natural and synthetic fibers to create a multitude of fabric options.
There is an old Spanish proverb that says; "Wherever sheep's feet touch the ground, the land turns to gold." Obviously the Spanish were onto something. Sheep's wool is the most popular type of wool, due to it being widely available and highly versatile. Very fine quality wool is used to make high-end fabrics for use in luxury garments likes suits, dresses, sweaters, and other apparel. Medium quality wool is used in the production of heavier sport coats, sweaters, and light blankets. Coarser wool is used for heavy blankets, topcoats and outerwear, and upholstery products.
Raised in the Shetland Islands off the northern coast of Scotland, Shetland sheep produce very fine, lustrous wool from the down of their soft undercoat. The warm, lightweight Shetland wool is only available in limited quantities and natural colors and is mostly used in the production of high-end knitwear (most often cable knit sweaters), sportswear, and coats.
Merino wool has superior shine, legendary softness, great breathability, and a lot of warmth for minimal weight. Merino sheep are most often raised in the mountainous regions of Australia and New Zealand. The wool is lauded for its easily dye-able pure white color. It is fine, strong, naturally elastic, holds dye well, and its softness resembles the hand of cashmere. Merino wool does not have the itchy feel of some wools, is odor absorbent, and provides high levels of UV protection.
Today, there are more than ten varieties of merino sheep worldwide. Some well known merino breeds are Australian, Peppin, Saxony, Rambouillet, Vermount, and South African.
This is the highest quality of sheep's wool on the market. Lambswool is taken from sheep at their first shearing (usually at around seven months old). It is supremely soft, smooth, resilient, elastic, and has superior spinning properties. Because of its soft silkiness and warmth, lambswool fibers are used in the production of garments worn close to the skin. Lambswool is the most hypoallergenic of all wools and is resistant to dust mites, making it an ideal choice for bedding and linens.
Loden wool originated in the Tyrolean Alps in the 16th century and is still highly popular among sportsmen today. It is characterized by a slightly `greasy' feeling and is most often used in the making of heavy coats. Loden's luxurious nap is combed downward, creating a shingle effect that sheds water very effectively.
Melton wool is thick with a smooth surface. The wool is napped and very closely sheared. Melton wool makes a very solid cloth due to the finishing processes that completely conceal the weave. It's durable, wears well, and is wind resistant. In its thicker weights, melton wool is used in the production of heavy outerwear. If the wool is a thinner weight, it is used mostly in the production of sweaters.
The type or grade of wool is selected to suit the needs of the product being made, with appropriate fiber length, fineness, and other properties to ensure the best end result.
Softer and sturdier than cashmere and lighter than sheep's wool, alpaca fleece is a luxurious commodity that produces warm, silky, durable, and feather-light garments. Alpaca wool boasts tremendous warmth and insulation with soft drape and texture.
It's used in upscale suits, sportswear, sweaters, the linings of outerwear, draperies, bedspreads, upholstery, and baby clothing and blankets.
There are two breeds of alpaca, the Huacaya and the Suri, and they produce more than 20 different colors of fleece between them. The common Huacaya breed produces dense, thick, crimped, and fast-growing fleece. The rarer Suri alpaca have long lustrous fleece that takes more time to grow.
The Angora goat produces mohair wool, known for its silkiness and lustrous sheen. A very good insulator, mohair is also strong, durable, breathable, and lightweight. Although it accepts dyes well, natural mohair wool fabric is exceptionally beautiful because of its color variations. Mohair fabrics tend to be non-crushing, non-matting, and non-pilling. Mohair is used in high-quality suiting, sweaters, dresses, scarves, blankets, upholstery, and baby clothing and blankets.
Angora wool is an extraordinarily soft fiber produced from the fur of the Angora rabbit. Angora fibers are hollow, which gives them loft and a characteristic `floating' feel. They're exceptionally soft and possess the highest heat retention (two-and-a-half times warmer than sheep's wool), and best moisture-wicking properties of any natural fiber.
Pure angora fibers are rarely woven into fabric because the fibers are so fine and fragile. Rather, they are blended with other wools to increase warmth and enhance softness. Angora wool can be worn outside in very cold conditions and then immediately worn inside without overheating.
Because Angora involves a laborious harvesting process and a small number of producers, most angora wool products are expensive. Angora is used in luxury undergarments, underwear, thermal base layers, sweaters, scarves, and sportswear.
Cashmere is an extremely soft, luxury fabric made from the hair of the Kashmir goat. Native to India, Tibet, Turkistan, Iran, Iraq, and China, the Kashmir goat produces hair with a lofty feel and natural crimp.
Technically, cashmere is the downy wool that grows beneath the goat's coarser outer hair and is gathered by combing the goat rather than clipping it. Only a few ounces of cashmere can be harvested per goat each year.
The natural crimp of cashmere fibers helps them interlock during processing and allows the fibers to be spun into a very fine and lightweight fabric. The crimp of the fiber correlates with the fineness of the spun yarn and the softness of the finished product. The fabric retains the loft of the fibers which makes it warm without weight. Because of its extreme warmth, light weight, and softness against skin, cashmere is used in sweaters, scarves, and undergarments. Coarser cashmere is used in outerwear.
Because cashmere has a high moisture content, its insulating properties change with the amount of humidity in the air, making it comfortable in all climates (even warm ones).
Like other luxury wools, camel hair is extremely soft, durable, lustrous, lightweight, and warm. Clothing manufacturers prefer the fabric in its natural state (a buttery, golden brown), but it is sometimes dyed navy, red, or dark brown. Since it is so highly prized and expensive to harvest, camel hair is usually blended with sheep's wool to make it more economical for the manufacturer to produce.
Camel hair comes from the Bactrian (two hump) camel, which is bred in the extremely cold climates of China and Mongolia. The hair is gathered when the camel molts instead of by shearing or clipping. The fibers are used in the making of suits, coats, blazers, jackets, skirts, hosiery, caps, and robes. Because of its warmth, camel hair is also widely used for sweaters, gloves, scarves, mufflers, overcoats, quilts, etc.