“Wool” is a generic term attributed to the hair of certain animals, such as sheep, Cashmere and Angora goats, camels, llamas, Alpacas, vicuna, horsehair, musk ox, rabbits and cows. The earliest woolen textile was discovered in a Danish bog and dates back to 1500 BC. Wool was also used 10,000 years ago during the Stone Age in Asia Minor. Australia and New Zealand contribute 25% and 18% respectively to today’s wool market.
“Woolen” fabrics, such as tweeds and flannels, are randomly arranged fibers that produce a softer, fuzzier surface while “Worsted” fabrics, such as gabardines and crepes, are manufactured with longer, finer fibers. Merino sheep produce the finest quality wool. The term “virgin” or ”raw” wool refers to fibers that have not been reused or recycled.
Wool is flame-retardant due to the fiber’s high moisture content and extinguishes quickly if ignited resulting in a fine ash. A wool blanket can smother a small fire. Microscopic cells hold soil near the surface of the fabric making it easy to clean. Wool contains lanolin that, if not removed, renders it water-resistant. It can absorb up to 30% of its weight in moisture that is wicked away from the body. This also diminishes bacteria growth. When dyed, colors are long-lasting and stable.
There are three general weights of wool: three seasons—10-12 ounces, winter or heavy—18 ounces and tropical or naked wool—much lower in ounces and considerably more comfortable in warmer climates. Tropical weights are excellent for beginning sewists as they are more stable and easier to handle. Lycra and other fibers are often blended with this weight for comfort and wear ability. Most woolens are a very “forgiving” fabric to sew due to their draping quality and slight “give” on the cross grain.
Wool shrinks when wet, so it’s imperative to pre-shrink your yardage. Some newer wools can be either hand or machine laundered, so follow the instructions on the bolt or have a dry cleaner steam your yardage. You can also wet a white sheet, wring it out well, fold the yardage in half lengthwise and lay it along one long edge of the damp sheet. Fold the other side of the sheet over the yardage. Beginning at one end, keep flipping the “sandwich” over on itself to the opposite end and lay it undisturbed overnight. Unfold and remove the sheet then let the wool completely dry at room temperature.
Cut wool with pinking or sharp shears. If pinked, most seams won’t ravel. Use seam bindings, Hong Kong finish, zig zag or serged edges if necessary. Sew with cotton, polyester, cotton/polyester or silk thread. Stitch using a sharp needle and let the weight of the wool dictate the size, generally a #16 on substantial weights. Ball point needles work best on wool knits. Line with satin, silk or a silky blend, especially skirts and pants, to eliminate stretching and bagging. Since wool repels soil, cleaning after each wearing may not be necessary. Air garments after wearing and place on padded or other supportive hangers or store garments flat that are prone to stretching.
A little history:
In 1665, Massachusetts passed a law that required youngsters to spin and weave for the burgeoning wool industry. Spinning was relegated to the eldest unmarried daughter in the family which gave rise to the term, “spinster."