To begin, it helps to understand some of the benefits that all types of wool offer. Wool has several characteristics that other natural fibers like cotton and linen simply can’t compete with.
Wool is water resistant.
Unlike human hair or animal fur, wool fibers are actually hollow with a durable, flexible and water-repellent exterior. The structure of wool fibers is composed of small, overlapping sections, kind of like shingles on a roof. Each fiber's core absorbs up to 30% of its weight in moisture vapor without becoming damp or clammy. Meanwhile, the hard outer layer protects against outside moisture from rain and snow.
Wool wicks moisture.
Aside from blocking most external moisture, wool fibers wick perspiration away from the body. Normally, as your sweat evaporates, heat is drawn away from your skin. This effect is comforting in hot weather, but can dampen your clothing and give you chills in colder weather. Unlike cotton, which absorbs moisture and tends to remain wet, wool actually wicks perspiration and allows it to evaporate quickly, thus keeping you warmer.
Wool is a wonderful insulator.
Wool fibers are not perfectly smooth or straight. Instead, they’re crimped, which helps produce tiny insulating air spaces that retain more heat. In a way, wool functions similarly to the puffy fiberglass insulation inside the walls of a house.
Wool is breathable and regulates temperature.
Wool has a wide comfort range, which is very helpful for adapting to changing weather conditions. This unique property makes wool the perfect fiber for crafting outerwear and insulating apparel, since it has the ability to provide warmth in colder conditions and also breathes well as temperatures warm up.
Wool is naturally odor-resistant.
You may have noticed that synthetic fabrics like polyester and polypropylene can begin to retain odors over time. Wool is much more resistant to retaining odors. Sheep’s wool is also naturally resistant to wrinkling and static.
There’s an old Spanish proverb that says: "Wherever sheep's feet touch the ground, the land turns to gold." Clearly the Spanish were onto something. Sheep's wool is the most widely available type of wool and is sorted into several quality levels. Fine-quality wool is used to make luxury garments likes suits and dress pants. Medium-quality wool is used in the production of heavier sport coats, sweaters and light blankets. Coarser wool is ideal for crafting heavy blankets, topcoats, felt boot liners and upholstery products. Wool fibers have many good qualities, including the following:
- Wool maintains its shape when stretched and is colorfast when dyed
- Wool does not melt when exposed to flame, like most synthetic fibers
- Wool is biodegradable
There are several unique varieties of sheep’s wool, and each has specific characteristics.
Raised in the Shetland Islands off Scotland’s northern coast, Shetland sheep produce very fine, lustrous wool, which is cultivated from their soft undercoat. Warm, lightweight Shetland wool is only available in limited quantities and natural colors. It’s most often used in the production of high-end knitwear, sportswear and coats.
Cultivated from merino sheep, this type of wool has superior shine, incredible softness and great breathability, along with an excellent warmth-to-weight ratio. Merino has a nearly pure white color that accepts dye very well. It’s also very strong, naturally elastic and soft against the skin. Merino wool doesn’t have the coarse, itchy feel of standard wool because merino fibers are much finer than standard sheep’s wool. The vast majority of merino sheep are raised in the mountainous regions of Australia and New Zealand. Today, there are more than ten different varieties of merino sheep worldwide. Some well-known breeds include Australian, Peppin, Saxony, Rambouillet, Vermount and South African.
This is considered to be the highest quality sheep's wool on the market. Lambswool is taken from a sheep at its first shearing (usually when the sheep is about seven months old). Lambswool is incredibly soft, smooth, resilient, elastic and has superior spinning properties. Because of its silkiness, softness and warmth, lambswool can be worn comfortably against the skin. It’s also the most hypoallergenic of all wools and is resistant to dust mites, making it a fine choice for bedding and linens.
Loden wool originated in the Tyrolean Alps in the 16th century and is still highly popular among sportsmen. Loden is characterized by a slightly 'greasy' feeling and is frequently used to make heavy coats. Loden's luxurious nap is combed downward, creating a shingle effect that sheds water very effectively.
Melton wool fibers are thick with a smooth exterior surface. Due to the finishing processes that completely conceals the weave, this type of wool makes very solid cloth. Melton wool is durable, water-resistant and wind resistant. The thickest weights of melton wool are often used to make heavy outerwear, including jackets and wool pants. Thinner weights are used to make sweaters and socks.
Sheep’s Wool Grades
Wool grades are selected to suit the needs of the products being made. Different wool grades offer different fiber lengths, fiber thicknesses and other properties.
Virgin Wool has two definitions. First, it is the wool taken from a lamb's first shearing, which is the softest and finest sheep’s wool available. Second, virgin wool can refer to wool that has never been used, processed or woven before. This type of virgin wool can come from an adult sheep.
'Super' Wools are classified by the count or the fineness of the yarn used to make a particular cloth. The finer the count (measured in microns), the more fibers are used per square inch of cloth. The higher the number, the finer and softer the cloth will be. 'Super' wools are put into the following categories: Super 100's, Super 110's, Super 120's and Super 150's. For example, Super 100's wool must contain fibers that are finer than 18 microns. Super 150's wool must contain fibers that are finer than 15 microns. Statistically, Super 150's wool is actually finer than cashmere.
Boiled Wool is created by putting sheep’s wool through a special washing process that creates a dense, durable and water-resistant fabric with a texture similar to thick felt. Boiled wool has the suppleness of a knit with the shape retention of a woven fabric. Boiled wool is frequently used to make slippers, hats, gloves, scarves and a variety of outerwear.
Worsted Wool has been manufactured in Worstead, England since the eighteenth century. Wool fibers are spun into compact, smoothly twisted yarn before weaving or knitting. The wool then goes through a second combing process which removes unwanted short fibers. Because the remaining long-staple fibers lay flat and parallel, worsted wool is a popular choice for suiting and dress trousers. It also resists wrinkles and creases.
Tropical Weight Wool is a two-ply, plain-woven, worsted wool that sturdy, lightweight, airy and breathable. Tropical wool (sometimes called summer weight wool) is used to make warm-weather suits and other garments that can be worn in warmer weather.
Shearling is lambskin or sheepskin that has been tanned with the wool still adhered to the hide. Shearling is luxuriously soft, supple and warm, which makes it a popular choice for crafting slippers and sheepskin boots.
Flannel, wool fleece, gabardine and tweed are other popular fabrics that are frequently made from sheep's wool or a blend containing wool.
Cashmere is an extremely soft fiber cultivated from the Kashmir goat. Native to India, Tibet, Turkistan, Iran, Iraq and China, Kashmir goats produce hair with a soft, lofty feel and a natural crimp. Cashmere wool is actually the downy wool that grows beneath a Kashmir goat's coarser exterior hair. Fibers are cultivated by combing the goat rather than clipping it. Each goat only produces a few ounces of cashmere per year, which makes it one of the most expensive natural fibers. The natural crimp of cashmere fibers allows them to interlock during processing, resulting in very fine, lightweight yarns. Cashmere knits and fabrics retain the loft of the naturally crimped fibers, which makes them warm and very lightweight. However, cashmere is less durable than wools produced by sheep. Key benefits of cashmere include:
- Extremely soft and lofty fibers with a natural crimp
- Fabrics and knits are lightweight and breathable
- Adjusts to humidity in the air for adaptability in all climates
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 a soft drape and texture. Alpaca is frequently used to craft upscale suits, sportswear, sweaters, outerwear linings, draperies, bedspreads and baby clothing and blankets. There are two breeds of alpaca: Huacaya and Suri. Combined, both produce more than 20 different colors of fleece. The more common Huacaya breed produces dense, thick, crimped and fast-growing fleece. The rarer Suri alpaca has long, lustrous fleece that takes more time to grow. Some key benefits of alpaca include:
- A fine, silky and lightweight fiber
- Nice luster
- Creates strong, durable and pill-resistant fabrics
The Angora goat produces mohair wool, which is 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 and baby clothing and blankets. Some key benefits of mohair include:
- A lustrous, silky appearance
- Lightweight and exceptionally durable fibers
- Fabrics drape well
- Non-crushing, non-matting and non-pilling
- Absorbs dye well
- Does not stretch, so fabrics and knits maintain shape well
Angora wool is an extraordinarily soft fiber produced from the fur of the Angora rabbit. The fibers are hollow, which gives them excellent loft and a very lightweight feel. Angora wool is exceptionally soft and possess the highest heat retention of any natural fiber (two-and-a-half times warmer than sheep's wool). It also has the best moisture-wicking properties of any natural fiber. Because angora fibers are so fine and fragile, they are almost always combined with other fibers to create garments. Most often, angora is blended with other wools to increase warmth and enhance softness. Angora-blended apparel 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 quite expensive. Benefits of angora wool include:
- Extremely soft, lofty, lustrous and lightweight fibers
- Best heat retention of all natural wools
- Naturally resistant to odors
Like other luxury “wools,” camel hair is extremely soft, durable, lustrous, lightweight and warm. Clothing manufacturers frequently leave camel hair fabric in its natural state (a lustrous golden brown), but it may also dyed navy, red or dark brown. Since it’s 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. Fine-quality 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. Camel hair suits, coats, blazers, jackets, skirts and hosiery are prized for their drape and soft feel. Because of its warmth, camel hair is also used to make sweaters, gloves, scarves and coats. Key benefits of camel hair include:
- Very soft and fine fibers
- Pleasing, golden-brown color
- Lustrous, durable and lightweight