I’ve been thinking of doing a series on yarn for a while now, and what better one to start with then wool yarn? I’m a sucker for history, so I put some interesting historical facts towards the end of the article. I found out some awesome facts about wool as a material, so let’s start with the yarnology of wool yarn.
What is Wool?
When you think of wool, you might imagine sheep or goats, but wool is actually any fiber made of animal hair. We get wool from muskoxen, bison, rabbits (angora), possum, yak, chinchilla, and even camels (and those in the camel family, like Llamas, and alpacas). I’ve even seen books on how to use your dog and cat hair! (There are even yarns made of ostrich or turkey feather!)
Most wool does come from sheep though, in fact most of the worlds wool comes from Australia.
Wool is gotten through a process called shearing. Where they cut the wool off of the sheep and then separate the wool into different classes by a wool classer.
What in the wool?
You could say the making of wool fabric from fibers had a bit of a rough start… Early domesticated sheep had a bristly overcoat called the kemp and a fine undercoat of wool called the fleece. As time went on, the sheep were domesticated even further to have more fleece, with finer fibers, and less kemp. The more than 200 domesticated sheep breeds today are pretty much kemp-free.
Wool fibers are mostly made of alpha-keratin. The alpha-keratin is found in all mammalian hair stick together very easily. The outer layer of the hair, or cuticle, has evolved to overlap like tiny shingles, creating spots for one fiber to catch on another as they are twisted.
The outer surface of wool fiber is actually made up of fatty acid proteins. Since water and oil don’t like to mix, this means that wool doesn’t absorb liquid. However, structures inside the fiber, called salt linkages, can sop up tons of moisture in the form of vapor. They also use wool to help clean up oil spills, it soaks the oil up like a sponge.
The proteins in wool and all types of animal hair make it so that you can use food coloring, the sugarless frosting dyes, and even packages of Kool Aid (the generic type probably work too) to color wools.
Does it hurt?
The shearing process does not hurt the animal in anyway and it actually makes the sheep healthier. If left unsheared it can get insect infestations, skin rashes and lesions, and urinary tract infections. Because the sheep don’t naturally shed their wool they can have a hard time regulating their body temperature, become stuck on vegetation, and become unable to move around because of the weight or size of the overly fluffy sheep.
Once the wool is sheared, wool fresh off a sheep is known as “raw wool” or “greasy wool”. This wool is filled with lanolin, as the sheep’s dead skin, sweat residue, vegetable matter, and some times even pesticides. The wool is basically a mess and has to go through a process called scouring.
Scouring can be as simple as a bath in warm water or is can go through an industrial process using detergent and alkali in specialized equipment to clean the wool.
Once clean the wool has to be combed until it is in long strains of fiber that are parallel to each other. This also helps get rid of any excess debris in the wool.
Roving it over
Next the wool is turned into a roving, which is a cord of wool that has all the fiber going in the same direction. It looks like a thick cord of yarn, but if you pull it, it will separate into fiber strands. Some people buy rovings at this stage because they enjoy spinning the wool into yarn themselves. Many say that wool is easier to learn how to spin because the fibers are longer then in cellulose fibers like cotton.
After the roving is done, it goes through the spinning process, whether it be by hand or machine. The fiber is stretched out in an even thickness and twisted in one direction There is an S twist (the thread looks like it’s going upward and to the left) and a Z ( it twists to the right). The twist is important, because it adds strength and stability to the wool.
Once the threads are done being twisted, they take a few strands, these threads together are called a pile. Then they twist them all together in the opposite direction. That way they twist into a strong single strand.
You are now left with wool yarn that can be dyed and used in a yarn craft project.
When pastures aren’t as abundant, like in a drought, that can cause the animals to produce finer fibers, with smaller diameters.
Wool is great for making pot holders, trivets, or hot pads but do you know why? Wool has high natural ignition point of about 1,382 degrees Fahrenheit. So it’s basically fire-resistant. To put that in perspective aluminum melts at 1,221°F!
To itch or not to itch?
I think everyone has heard of the dread woolen sweater that is amazingly warm, but super itchy. The only way you’ll wear it is if you have 5 layers of clothing between you and it. I’ve also heard some people say that they are allergic to wool…
According to a scientific study I found: the itchy or prickly sensation most people get with wool, is actually caused by properties in the fiber. They found that we find fabric itchy or irritating when the fiber is course and has a larger diameter. As it turns out, any course thicker fiber will cause that reaction not just wool. Unfortunately wool still gets the bad reputation. As far as they could tell, no one is allergic to wool itself. So if you have sensitive skin, try to stick to the softer wools like superwash merino wool or angora.
Speaking of superwash wool, or washable wool, did you know that it first appeared in the early 1970s? The point was to make a wool that could be machine washed and tumble-dried. (with out felting into a mess that is..)
Superwash wool is produced using an acid bath that removes the “scales” from the fiber, or coats it with a polymer that stops the scales from clinging to each other and causing shrinkage. Remember the shrinking sweaters from the old movies? Yeah that actually happened! This process makes it so that the fiber retains its shape and durability. Which ultimately makes it so that the garment made from it lasts longer.
Wool through history
Wool is usually on the higher end spectrum of yarns and fabrics, but did you know that wool has both been and stood in for precious fabrics in the past?
Clothing and other woolen items have been found back as far back as the ancient world’s! There has been 3,400-year-old Egyptian yarn found, as well as pieces of textiles unearthed in Siberian graves dating from the first century B.C. The yarn was probably used in weaving since that’s the oldest known form of fabric making.
Back in 1192, King Richard I (the Lionhearted) was captured! Cistercian monks used wool to pay their part of the ransom to the Holy Roman emperor. 50,000 sacks of wool, a year’s clip, to be exact.
In 18th-century Norway, the king at the time forbade commoners to wear silk. Farmers decided to import British worsted wool fabric, which had a similar shine. That was what commoners who could afford it used as their Sunday best clothes. The king couldn’t do anything about it since they weren’t wearing silk.. If you want to know more then try this article here.
Well, I think that’s it for this article. What did you find most interesting about wool? Did I leave something out? Let me know in the comments below.
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