All About Wool

For centuries, sheep have provided mankind with food and clothing. Like flax (see Round Bobbin, May1999), wool was a very popular and widely used fiber until the Industrial Revolution. Sheep breeding and production in the United States is traced to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1609 and in Massachusetts as early as 1630. The sheep industry grew quickly and spread throughout the Northeast.

The New England textile industry can be traced to 1643 when English wool combers and carders settled in the region and began producing finished wool fabric. After the United States Civil War, the sheep industry moved west, reaching a peak of 50 million sheep in 1884. The sheep population has slowly declined since.

Types of Wool

The type of wool that a sheep produces varies by breed. For example, Merino sheep produce wool that is very fine. Merino wool is thus considered the most valuable of wools. Australia produces about 43 percent of the world's Merino wool.

United States sheep producers raise four breeds of sheep that produce fine wool and fifteen breeds that produce medium-grade and coarse wools. The medium-grade wool comes from breeds raised primarily for food. Though sheep produces exist in all states (except Hawaii), most sheep operations are in the West.

The Production Process

1. Shearing - Sheep are sheared once per year, usually in the spring, The wool is trimmed in one piece, called a fleece.

2. Scouring - The fleece is washed to remove impurities, such as dirt, grease and dried sweat. Impurities account for between 30 and 70 percent of the fleece weight.  At this point, the wool is considered cleaned wool or scoured wool.  The grease that is removed is considered a valuable byproduct.  Lanolin, in its purified state, is used in creams, soaps, lotions, cosmetics and ointments.

3. Carding - The wool is combed to straighten the fibers.

4. Spinning - Once straightened, the fibers can be spun into yarn.

Characteristics of Wool

Durability: Wool fabrics are very durable and flexible.  It can withstand being bent 20,000 times without breaking. In comparison, cotton breaks after 3,000 bends and rayon can only be bent 75 times without breaking.

Comfort: Wool is an excellent insulator.  It keeps heat close to the body by trapping still or dead air within the fibers.  To a certain degree, wool is considered water repellent.  Small amounts of liquid, such as spills, light rain or snow, will stay on the surface or run off the fabric.  Wool fabrics also wick moisture away from the skin, keeping the wearer dryer when sweating and cooler when hot.

Care: Wool garments do not soil easily and are not easily spotted by grease and oils. These characteristics decrease the need to clean wool garments after every use.  Recommended care for most wool garments is dry cleaning; however advances in technology have produced washable wools for more than 20 years. Washable wool garments with improved hand and shrinkage resistance are being developed. Wool blended with synthetic fibers and/or treated with special finishes help achieve the easy care characteristics.

Flammability: Wool is popular with interior designers because it is considered naturally flame retardant. While it will burn if exposed to flame, it burns slowly. When the flame is removed, the fabric usually quits burning.

Cost: Wool garments are not cheap. Consequently, wool is considered a luxury fiber. The initial cost of wool garments combined with the cost of dry cleaning makes wool clothing a continual investment. The high cost of wool clothing has lead to a number of synthetic substitutions. Acrylic, for example, imitates the characteristics of wool better than any other manufactured fiber.

Wool News Around the World

China: The national railway staff, consisting of 10 million employees, will be replacing their synthetic and cotton blend uniforms with wool blend uniforms.  Some Chinese schools are also considering wool or wool blends for their school uniforms.  The increase in  demand for  wool in China should help China's declining worsted wool textile industry.

Australia: Australia accounts for 28-30 percent of the world's wool production.  Australia's number one wool customer is China. A wool product manufacturer in Australia has developed The Original Health Pillow. The pillow is filled with new pure wool that has been treated for protection against bacteria, mold, odors, mildew and dust mites. It is a natural product that is completely biodegradable and recyclable.

Japan: The Wool Ecocyle Club, created by The Woolmark Company, collects and recycles wool garments in Japan. Consumers in Japan are encouraged to recycle their wool garments by trading them in to retailers for discounts on new wool garments. The garments collected are recycled into industrial materials, clothing, bedding products and home furnishings fabrics. The club collected 500,000 suits in 1998.

Korea: There is now a demand for the scratch to be put back in wool. A scratch and sniff wool fabric has been developed in Korea. The fragrant wool fabric releases its fragrance when the fabric is rubbed. The fragrant smell lasts through approximately twenty dry cleanings.


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