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Fabric Friday: The origin and characteristics of wool

Discussion in 'PUBLIC Workshops - specialty vintage topics' started by denisebrain, Aug 20, 2021.

  1. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    Wool is a natural fiber from sheep coats. It can be spun into a yarn with qualities that have never been entirely reproduced with manufactured fibers. It is strong and flexible, an excellent insulator, flame resistant, naturally water repellent and also able to absorb up to 50% of its weight in water. The fibers are naturally crimped and springy. The crimping makes the spinning of wool much easier with the fibers naturally binding together. In addition, the microscopic sections or scales along wool fibers allow them to stretch and bend as well as to lock together—giving wool its felting property.

    Here are examples of two sheep wool fibers, along with alpaca and cashmere goat fibers, seen under a microscope.


    Not all sheep hair is the same—with variations on one animal, from animal to animal, and between breeds. Kemp is the more hair-like portion of a sheep coat, with little or no crimp and of larger diameter and coarser feel. The highest grade of wool is one with the narrowest diameter and with the highest number of crimps in its fiber. Ultra-fine merino wool can have up to 100 crimps per inch.

    Here is a photo of a champion merino sheep's coat:


    The domestication of wild sheep took place sometime before 6,000 B.C.E., and the earliest wool fleece and fibers positively identified date from about 4,000 B.C.E. We get the name wool from Old English wull, and many other languages base their name for the fiber on the Latin lana.

    This tunic was discovered in Norway. In remarkable condition from being preserved by glacial ice, it dates from between AD 230 and 390.


    It is made of twill weave wool, and it's not even a simple twill!
    Screen Shot 2021-08-20 at 2.33.07 PM.png
    If you're interested, you can read more about this tunic here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/S0003598X00049462

    Wool is obtained from sheep, but the name hair fiber is used to indicate fiber obtained from animals other than sheep.

    The animals from which hair fiber is gathered include angora goats (from which we get mohair), cashmere goats (cashmere), angora rabbit (angora), alpaca, camel, and vicuña. More recently the ancient Tibetan craft of spinning yarn from yak fiber (khullu) has become globally known.

    Here are some of the things that can be done with wool and hair fiber fabrics:

    Felting is a process by which fibers are subjected to heat, moisture and pressure, entangling the fibers into a matted nonwoven fabric. Wool, fur and hair fibers have microscopic scales that give them the ability to interlock and tangle, hence their felting property.

    Here's a close-up shot of some dense wool felt used for a hat:

    Fulling is a finishing treatment given to wool fabric in which the fabric is subjected to varying degrees of moisture, friction, heat and pressure. This yields a thicker fabric, often with the weave obscured by its felted surface. Almost all wool fabrics are fulled, with winter coat fabrics (such as fleece and melton) fulled most heavily.

    A nap is a finish produced on certain woolens, cottons, spun silks and spun rayons involving raising fibers on the fabric. A napper machine has rapidly revolving cylinders covered with fine wire brushes which lift loosely twisted yarns from the fabric to form the nap.

    Sheared or cropped fabrics have been trimmed of some or most of their surface fibers in a finishing process. Shearing is almost always done to woolens and worsteds, as well as to many other fabrics. The length of a fabric’s nap is determined by the shearing height.

    These processes are really important to know because you may find wool fabrics that don't seem to be woven or knit at all. Felting creates a fabric that is indeed not woven or knit. Fulling and napping can obscure the weave of a fabric.

    Here is wool duvetyn. The name duvetyn comes from the French word duvet, meaning down. Wool or wool-blend commonly, the finish is napped, sheared and fulled. This creates a downy nap which covers its weave which is usually right-hand twill.


    Sorry to bring up wool when most of us are in the hottest month of the year! I just felt the itch...

    Questions? Comments?
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2021
  2. So interesting, Maggie. Not to worry about what may seem to be the "untimely" topic of wool in August. I love wool garments, especially sweaters. I'm always looking for them even when it's hot! I can hardly wait for the first crisp Autumn day when I can pull out my sweaters! That tunic found in Norway is amazing. Thank you for your Fabric Friday posts. I have enjoyed them very much and have learned a great deal, too, from your knowledge.
    Last edited: Aug 21, 2021
  3. Midge

    Midge Super Moderator Staff Member

    Yay for wool! I had to go to New Zealand, really, to buy my first merino wool sweater - all NZ-made, of course (not like Ice Breaker these days :no:).

    I have a couple of very thin long-sleeved merino t-shirts that are very light and small to pack, one of which always goes into my hand luggage on longhaul flights. That extra "woolie" takes up no space but is a sure way to add an extra layer of warmth if needed. They are my "secret weapons" in general whilst traveling. They have been literally everywhere from hot to cold climates and have been worn for all sorts of things, wether it to keep warm on a cold night or for kayaking (and getting soaked in the process)...
  4. Vintagiality

    Vintagiality VFG Treasurer

    Very interesting. Thank you Maggie.
    So what makes many wool sweaters “itchy”?
    As much as I enjoy cashmere or one of the other hair fibers, I can’t say that I like wool garments because I find most unbearable to wear unless they don’t touch my skin. I also find all clothing made with wool or any of the rest difficult to care for. They shrink, they get misshapen, you need woolite etc and I think to myself each time, wasn’t this thing on an animal before? I don’t see any sheep with shrunk coats waiting for woolite at the store. :USING:
  5. Retro Ruth

    Retro Ruth Administrator Staff Member

    I love wool! One of my favourite fibres.

    One of its properties is that it retains its insulating properties when wet. So it's great choice for outdoor wear, hiking socks and the like.

    Wool naturally contains lanolin, which is part of it's water repellent properties. These days this is mostly removed during the processing, but traditional fisherman's sweaters were, and sometimes still are, made with untreated wool, not scoured of its lanolin, making them naturally very water repellent. This wool has a slightly waxy / greasy texture, as it does on the sheep. These days some wool has lanolin added back after processing, like this one, but untreated wool is probably only produced on a small scale by artisan spinners.

    I'm also a big fan of the thin wool layer for travelling, and for life in general. I have thin pure merino polo neck, that I've used so much it's falling apart, even beyond my darning skills.

    It depends on the type of wool, including the breed of sheep, the age of the sheep, and even which part of the sheep's body it came from - I believe the underside is softer than the back. In general lambs wool is much softer than sheeps wool. Similarly mohair can be incredibly itchy, or really soft 'kid' mohair. Merino wool (merino is a breed of sheep) is known for being non-itchy, so much so it's used for thermal underwear - icebreakers as Karin mentions.

    I researched shetland wool recently for knitting purposes. Shetland is a breed of sheep, traditionally from the Shetland isles in Scotland, but the breed is also raised elsewhere for wool. In Shetland, they have a long old knitting tradition, including 'fair isle' knitting, patterned multi coloured stranded knitting - The Fair Isle is one of Shetland Isles.

    Perhaps less well known are Shetland shawls, very fine white lace shawls, traditionally made from Shetland sheep's wool, that has been taken by 'rooing' rather than sheering. This is involves pulling off the fine wool from the shetland sheep by hand, so it breaks at a natural break point, rather than cutting it by sheering. The means the break isn't sharp, and therefore the resulting wool is very soft and non itchy. The way the coat grows on a Shetland sheep makes this possible, and not all sheep can be 'rooed'. And not all Shetland wool is produced this way, shetland wool can be very itchy, obviously rooing is a very labour intensive process! https://www.shetland.gov.uk/downloads/file/1445/rooing-your-shetland-sheep-p5-7

    It's the nature of the way of the fibre is spun, and then woven or knitted that makes it vulnerable to shrinkage. Heat will shrink it, but even more so, agitation, even if at a low temperature. That's why it can't usually be machine washed, the machine simply throws it about too much. I'm used to caring for hand knitted wool, by gently handwashing, rolling in a towel, and laying flat to dry. Woolite is good, but as long as you don't use a biological/enzymatic detergent, the method is more important than the product. And wool sweaters shouldn't be washed very often. Unless they get particularly dirty, I only wash mine once a year. Socks or long johns that touch the skin are different obviously, but most of those can be machine washed on a gentle program.
    Last edited: Aug 22, 2021
  6. claireshaeffer

    claireshaeffer VFG Member

    Nicely done, Maggie.
  7. Vinclothes

    Vinclothes Alumni +

    So much information here from both Ruth and MaggieD. My brother had a band (2,000 more or less) of sheep that wintered on our old family farm and summered in the Sawtooth's above Sun Valley. I love wool, but have to be selective about what I wear. I remember him talking about various breeds and the wool they produced through sheering (a hair cut) but I haven't retained much of that knowledge.

    If you find a vintage Utah Woolen Mills coat or suit you will have a fine garment.
  8. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    Thank you for your comments, and Ruth, thank you for all that first-hand knowledge!!

    To add to Ruth's comments about the types of wool that can be itchy: Short, coarse hair fibers have lots to do with the prickly, itchy feeling. I remember some of the cheaper all-wool garments in the 70s being awfully itchy, so when I found a merino wool knit dress in the 80s and realized it too was all wool and didn't itch, it was a revelation.

    There are a lot of different sheep breeds, with different characteristics. https://www.britannica.com/animal/sheep Merinos are the rockstars.

    That's because they know better! For me, Eucalan is the best wash for washable wool (mostly sweaters).
    The ingredients include lanolin, so it adds a bit of that back into the wool. I find that wool comes out sparkling clean and springier than before it was washed. You don't use much of it, and you don't rinse it out.
    • Essential Oil (where applicable) (Pure and natural eucalyptus, lavender, grapefruit or jasmine oils)
    • Ammonium Lauryl Sulphate (Vegetable-based soap)
    • Ammonium Chloride (Is a salt of ammonia; used as a thickener)
    • Cocamide MEA (Mild foaming agent and thickener derived from plant source)
    • Purified Water
    • Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose (Thickener derived from plant source)
    • PEG 75 Lanolin (Naturally derived lanolin)
    • Methylchloroisothiazolinone (Preservative and antibacterial)
    Here's the Lavender-scented one (beautiful natural scents are used), in our Amazon shop which earns us affiliate income: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B001DEJMQU?ref=exp_vintagefashionguild_dp_vv_d

    For woven wool, such as a coat, I use this as a spot cleaner, but mostly just brush the coat with a clothes brush, and only dry clean once per year or so.

    And no one has said anything about insect damage! I hope that means you've never had to deal with your favorite cashmere sweater being eaten for lunch as I have. :raincloud:
  9. Vintagiality

    Vintagiality VFG Treasurer

    My first and most favorite cashmere sweater. It was red and soft and amazing. I shrunk it to a doll size washing it but just had to keep it and keep trying to unshrink it with every wife’s tale as well as commercial remedy available until one day I opened the closet and lunch had definitely been served… and it wasn’t gradual either. It looked like that $2000 sweater you found except the holes were large and authentic.
  10. Vintagiality

    Vintagiality VFG Treasurer

    Ohh good to know! Will try it for sure. Just got a new cashmere sweater but it says dry clean only. Can it be used on cashmere? How do you know which wool is washable?
  11. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    On sweater knits, I believe they should be hand washable unless they have some sort of decoration or lining, and in those cases I'd proceed with caution or dry clean. If a sweater is cashmere without embellishment, I can guarantee it is washable (and yes Eucalan is great for cashmere). Maybe the manufacturers think that people don't know how to gently hand wash items in cool water—

    As Ruth said, always treat wool gently (so don't wring or twist) when it is wet because it loses some strength in that state. After washing in cool water, roll the knit in a clean towel to remove excess moisture and dry flat away from any direct heat after carefully shaping the piece. By carefully shaping I mean just lay it out in its proper form, don't stretch or wad any part of it. Some actually take measurements of their knits and block them out to exactly the same size. I once had a dry cleaner that did that but I'm not that careful.

    I don't wash woven wool. It is so often made into tailored garments with shoulder pads, interfacing, lining, etc. that doesn't respond well to washing and that does benefit from professional pressing. Use a brush and a sponge as needed between cleanings.
  12. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    Oh ouuuuuuuuuchhhhh. Do you know what ate it, and did you get rid of the critter?
  13. Vintagiality

    Vintagiality VFG Treasurer

    You know… no I never did figure it out. I had no moths flying around and nothing else was damaged but I assumed at the time (many years ago) that they had their annual gala in my sweater and moved on. Now I know that’s highly unlikely so hmmm…:puzzled:
  14. I have noticed that when moths decide to dine, they have an uncanny knack of nibbling and leaving holes in the most noticeable places......like right on the front where everyone can see it!!! They seemed to take great pride in their work and want it to be admired by all! I have some sweaters that I can't bear to part with even though they have those darn moth bites. They are so pretty, I didn't want to get rid to them. I used to work with a lady who evidently had very fond memories of some plaid wool skirts that she owned and felt the same about them as I do my sweaters. She wore them despite several very large moth holes!!! Catherine wore them very proudly!
  15. Vinclothes

    Vinclothes Alumni +

    Moths like where food has been. Like the very smallest dribble, quickly wiped off and not noticeable, they will find. Also, body oils. A reason for washing sweaters gently as Ruth and Maggie have described. Maybe that explains the moth trails we sometimes find on woolen garments. If not too large and deep, you can sometimes use a needle to bring up some fibers and make them less noticeable.
    It works (sometimes) on felt hats, too.
  16. Retro Ruth

    Retro Ruth Administrator Staff Member

    This. Manufacturers put dry clean only because they don't want people to complain that their sweater shrunk when they washed it. But this will only happen if you don't know how to wash it correctly.
  17. Retro Ruth

    Retro Ruth Administrator Staff Member

    Blocking to size is an important part of hand knitting. When constructing the garment, usually all pieces get blocked to size before seaming, using pins and a blocking mat. It sets the knit and improves appearance. It's particularly important with lace knits, so the pattern gets opened out and flattened. If I wash hand knitted lace, it might need reblocking, but I don't bother with anything else.

    Here's a couple of my pieces 'on the blocking mat', a lace scarf and a bolero - the bolero body knitted all in one piece.

  18. Midge

    Midge Super Moderator Staff Member

    I hand wash my vintage cashmeres with Eucalan. As for my modern, commercially made cashmere and wool sweaters, I admit I wash them in the machine, with a gentle detergent. The machines we have in our laundry room here are really good, they have extra settings for things like wool, silk, sportswear etc. I find that the wool setting works for washing modern woolen and cashmere sweaters - most of which I bought second hand.

    I understand about scratchy wool, my mom hates it too. She bought a merino wool & possum fur cardigan in New Zealand and found it was just too itchy for her because of the possum fur. For me it depends, it has to be really scratchy to bother me. And "simple" knit merino & possum fur gloves are actually my favourite winter gloves they are soooo warm!
  19. Midge

    Midge Super Moderator Staff Member

    Oh, and Shetland Lace Shawls are amazing! I watched a short documentary about them during one of the online courses I did last year. They are works of art!
    Retro Ruth and denisebrain like this.
  20. Vinclothes

    Vinclothes Alumni +

    What are summer woolens?
    What is palm beach cloth suits made from?
    denisebrain likes this.

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