Continuing our exploration of natural fibers, we’ll look at another classic: wool, or the hair collected from animals — mainly sheep, but also from a surprising number of other mammals. Wool has been a staple fiber for several thousand years, providing warm, flame-resistant and hypoallergenic textiles for all types of clothing, carpeting, tapestries and more.
Sheep were among the first domesticated animals, raised mainly for their meat, milk and skins as early as 11,000 BC in Mesopotamia. And although it is difficult to find preserved specimens of this biodegradable material, there is evidence of humans processing wool around the same time.
By the end of the stone age, during the Neolithic period, lifestyles around the world had shifted from hunter-gatherer to farming and keeping livestock on settlements. Sheep were raised in the south of France as early as 6,000 BC. As civilization developed, sheep were bred for more abundant coats with distinctive qualities.
Scotland’s Shetland sheep, for example, produce a thick and sturdy wool used in the classic aran sweater — traditionally worn by farmers and fishermen of Scotland and Ireland, and a modest fashion statement to this day.
Romney is a popular breed around the world for both meat and fiber. Their long, coarse wool can be white, gray, silver, brown or black. It has a natural, earthy look and is best suited for uses like outerwear, rugs and tapestries.
Most sheep raised for fine wool are merino-based breeds. Merino sheep originated in Spain, with the royal family owning a prized flock. This breed was so highly valued for their soft fleece — comparable to lamb’s wool — that exporting the sheep was punishable by death. After 1765, however, the monarchy saw fit to gift small flocks to allied countries and select breeders, enabling others to produce fine merino wool.
As sheep farming spread, wool became one of the most commonly used fibers around the world. Today, China and Australia are the leading producers of sheep’s wool. Their diminutive neighbor, New Zealand, ranks an impressive third — with its production exceeding half that of Australia, a country almost thirty times its size.
While sheep are by far the world’s greatest source of wool, many animals produce wool, each with their own unique qualities.
Goats produce both mohair and cashmere. Angora goats are generally sheared twice a year, for their thick and glossy undercoat, called mohair. After their fall-shearing, they may need protection from the cold until their hair grows back.
Kashmir goats have extremely fine, warm undercoats, to protect them from the freezing temperatures in their Himalayan habitat. The goats are either brushed or shorn in late winter, before they begin to shed. A “dehairer” is required to separate the guard hairs from the down fibers, for luxuriant and long-lasting cashmere.
Angora Rabbits, with their long and hollow hair, provide perhaps the finest, warmest, and lightest natural fiber, called angora wool. Angora breeders comb their rabbits daily to prevent matting. The fleece is harvested by gentle plucking when the rabbit molts — three or four times each year — or by careful shearing with scissors.
This delicate wool is often mixed with other fibers to improve its durability, or to add softness to other fabrics.
Camelids like alpacas, llamas and camels also have hollow hair that is especially light and warm. Alpacas, native to South America, are hand-shorn (with scissors) each spring for their very soft, yet durable, wool.
Llamas are sheared only every second year, and the coarser guard hairs, suitable for rugs and tapestries, are separated from the more-valuable, wooly undercoat.
As you might imagine, shearing a large and uncooperative dromedary could be dangerous, so camel fleece is often collected by combing, or gathering it in the spring when the animals molt.
Bison, another beast you wouldn’t want to test with a sharp tool, also has amazingly soft fleece — similar to mohair in texture, and cashmere in warmth. Bison like to rub off their molting wool in the spring. If bison are provided with a large, coarse, standing brush, the hair can be collected from their own grooming.
Other than angora wool — since rabbits are fastidiously clean animals — most wool needs extensive processing before the fibers are ready to use.
Sheep’s fleece, for example, goes through a number of steps before it is spun into yarn. Their wool not only collects a lot of debris and manure, it also contains lanolin — a waxy substance that can make the fibers tacky.
Step 1: Shearing
The process begins with the yearly shearing, most commonly done with electric shearers. The fibers are generally matted together enough that the fleece remains intact as one piece, looking much like a pelt.
This procedure not only gives us warm and wooly fibers, it is beneficial to the sheep. Shearing helps keep sheep from overheating during the summer, deters parasites, and significantly lightens their load.
Step 2: Skirting
Skirting is the trimming of unusable areas off the fleece. While the entire fleece is sheared from sheep, the belly and leg fleece — which have the shortest and dirtiest fibers — are generally discarded. Any areas with excessive debris, matting, or lanolin are also trimmed at this stage.
Step 3: Grading
After skirting, commercial wool is graded by thickness and cleanliness so buyers understand the quality of their purchase. Sheep breed, the length of yarn that can be spun from one pound, and the average fiber diameter (measured in micrometers) are also considerations in grading.
Step 4: Baling
While the wool of one animal is called a fleece, many fleeces are called a clip. Commercially, these are packed — after skirting — into bales. A bale can weigh between 500 and 700 pounds and hold around 100 individual fleeces.
Step 5: Blending
Skirted and graded fleeces are then blended. Pulling the fleeces apart and combining wool from various fleeces and bales ensures a uniform product. Blending can be done at other stages as well.
Step 6: Washing
Washing begins with a long, cold, pre-soak, to remove debris and salts (from sweat). In order to prevent matting, or felting, the wash is not agitated.
The next wash is called scouring — where the fleece is placed in a hot bath with detergent to remove remaining contaminants and the waxy lanolin. The lanolin, an effective emollient for soothing dry, chapped skin, can be skimmed off the top after it has melted. Commercially it is extracted through centrifugation, and used in many health and beauty products.
In cases where plant material — such as seeds and burrs — are present in significant amounts, large-scale production facilities will also use a process called carbonizing, where sulfuric acid is used to dissolve the foreign materials that would traditionally be removed in the next steps.
The clean wool is rinsed thoroughly and dried on racks, or lines.
Step 7: Teasing
Clean, dry wool is pulled loose to separate the fibers, loosen any stuck debris, and prepare for carding. Teasing can be done by hand or with combs; and in the process, the wool can be further blended, sorted, and cleaned. Teasing can be done well in advance, and makes the next step — carding — much easier.
Step 8: Carding
Carding is the process of disentangling the fibers—traditionally with two large, stiff brushes, called carders. Just like brushing long hair, you start at the end and work your way up the teased wool placed on the first carder. After a few strokes, the wool is transferred to the second carder and the process is repeated on the reverse side of the wool. When the wool is loose, fluffy and free of tangles, the carders are used to roll the soft web into a neat cylinder, called a rolag.
Carding by hand is time consuming and demanding work, so commercial facilities generally use carding machines; but the quality of hand-carded wool is always appreciated by a keen eye. Finished rolags, like ripe fruit, should be used before their quality diminishes. Now the wool is ready to spin.
Step 9: Spinning
Ancient remnants of string and cording suggest that primitive spinning began tens of thousands of years ago, with the wooden spinning wheel only making its appearance in the latter half of the first millennium. The wheel was small enough and inexpensive enough for general use, and before the Industrial Revolution, it was common to have a spinning wheel in the home.
Hand spinning wool is a long process of gradually teasing out the rolags, bit by bit, as the fibers are pulled and twisted into a fine strand and wound onto a bobbin — which may take 14 hours to fill. This strand can either be combined with other strands — twisted in the opposite direction — to form a thicker yarn with greater tensile strength; or it can be used directly for weaving textiles.
With the advent of synthetic fibers and textile factories, spinning became almost a lost art; but more and more homesteaders have revived the practice in recent decades.
While wool is 100 percent natural, biodegradable, and renewable; this durable, comfortable, and beautiful material is quickly being replaced by synthetic fibers. Woolmark managing director John Roberst estimates that, “in just ten years’ time, 73% of the entire clothing market will be made from synthetic fibres, which are derived directly from fossil fuels,” and warns of the long-term impact of this trend.
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Darren Maung contributed to this report.