Wool–let me count the ways we love you
Posted on April 10 2020
- Wool is warm. Nothing insulates you in cozy-cocoon manner like a wool sweater. Think about it. All the fibers in a sheep’s ungainly coat are designed to trap air and create a warming layer to keep her toasty all winter. Wool fibers, even when spun into yarn and knitted up in a sweater, retain their insulating structure, they push away from each other, creating little pockets of insulating air and trapping your body’s warmth inside.
- Wool is easy to care for because it breathes. I know a wilderness guide who almost never washes his (wool) socks. Instead he slips them over his camp clothesline to feel the breeze. Perhaps he gives them an annual wash, but it’s the flow of fresh air in and out of all those microscopic pockets mentioned above that keep those socks smelling like wool, not feet. This constant air exchange also makes wool anti-microbial. Wool absorbs moisture (we’ll get to that below) but it doesn’t hold onto it. The constant movement of air and moisture prevents wool from breeding bacteria.
- Wool both repels and absorbs water, a valuable dual trait. Wool’s external layer is water resistant; its natural coating of lanolin seals it from rain. But the inside of wool fiber can absorb up to 30 times its weight in water before it starts to feel damp. That’s why wool socks keep your feet dry, even in summer. And if you’re trudging a trail in a hefty pullover or wearing a wool cardigan in an over-heated office, you won’t feel sweat, wool is wicking away the moisture. And the great news is that moisture doesn’t hang around in wool. Instead, it evaporates (see #2 above).
- Wool is comfortable to wear, in part, because it has elasticity. Sure, you can build in dimension by adding darts to your sweater. But you don’t have to. Knitted wool fabric will stretch over your curves without effort and when you take off your sweater at the end of the day, it’ll return to its morning shape.
- Wool is sustainable. We hear ‘sustainable’ so frequently these days in marketing ploys that we’ve become numb to its importance. Wool is a renewable resource, unlike the petrochemicals used to produce synthetic fiber which. The supply of sheep is reliable, renewed each spring. Furthermore, harvesting fiber doesn’t require killing the animal it comes from. Wooly lambs leaping and bounding can grow and live to a grand old age, providing an annual basket of wool for our pleasure. And making yarn from wool doesn’t begin to use the toxic chemicals needed to convert oil into fiber.
- Elasticity and an endless capacity to forgive makes wool is a pleasure to knit with and assures the best of all possible results. Anyone who has tried ever-so-gently to steam a knitted piece worked in polyester yarn only to see it turn lifeless and flat will rejoice at what happens when steam hits wool fabric. Uneven or buckling stitches lie down in alignment, cables can be prodded into sculpted columns, colorwork shifts to smooth and even patterns. And, if you’re lucky, a less-processed yarn will leave a caress of lanoline on your hands--and added benefit in these days of ceaseless handwashing.
- And sheep, endearing providers of the wool we love so much, are reasonably friendly to our environment. Relative to the downside of livestock such as cattle, their ecological impact is small. They range on open ground, providing a rationale for meadow and open space—parts of the natural environment that are becoming more and more scarce. And wool is biodegradable. It won’t be around for long. Next time you weave in an end and cut the remaining strand, keep snipping it into smaller bits and throw the handful in your compost. In no time at all, it’ll be fodder for all those vital earthy organisms we need in order to grow everything from grasses to carrots to trees.
Photo from University of Wyoming, American Heritage Center, Charles J. Belden Photographs, Accession Number 598, Box 8, Item 637