Wool Fabric - Fleecing the sheep
Most people have quite firm opinions about wool fabric. For some it brings up memories of stinky mothballs and itchy fibers, holes in long scarves, and lost mittens. Others think of the luxury of a cashmere sweater or an authentic Irish Fisherman’s sweater.
This natural fiber is versatile – it is warm in winter, and highly sought after for its ability to absorb water and not feel wet. That's why sheep wear those full coats during the cold months! For us humans, it is also cool in the summer, and makes a great, professional looking tailored suit.
As a spinner, weaver, and knitter, I have learned to love wool (and all hair fibers) because of their wonderful properties. It originates with the sheep – and there are many different breeds of sheep. Each breed is valued for its different properties of fleece – quality, fineness, color, crimp and length of the fiber.
The “fleece” is sheared from the animal (usually in the late spring) without harming the sheep. The fleece is usually very dirty (unless the sheep had a cloth coat over it - yes, sometimes the ranchers do that!) It also has a distinct odor, but is full of a waxy substance (which is turned into lanolin - that stuff they put in hand lotion!) It is then sorted by length and quality of fiber and cleaned to remove debris.
Woolen or Worsted?
Very short fibers are spun into “woolen” yarns. The longer fibers are combed and spun into “worsted” yarns. These two types of yarns are woven into different textures, weights, and weaves.
Wool fabric made from woolen fibers is usually very soft, and often has a bulky, heavy, fuzzy texture, (i.e., tweeds for coats, washable wools, wool flannel). They are usually less expensive than worsteds, but they also pill, felt, and get dirty faster.
Worsted fabric is usually smooth and lustrous, and has a tight weave. Most quality suits are made from gabardine or serge. Worsted fabric won’t wrinkle or sag, and can be easily steamed back to newness.
The fiber can be left as a natural color (it comes in blacks, tans, greys, white, cream) or can be easily dyed using protein fiber dyes.
Cleaning and Storing
Cleaning wool fabric is not as difficult as it seems. Most of us have created unintentional felt out of what used to be a nice sweater. This has a simple explanation – the fibers have “scales” which will grab each other if exposed to agitation or temperature change. It is okay to hand wash the wool fabric or fibers in cool or warm water – just do it gently (little agitation), and make sure and rinse with the same temperature of water. Of course, you can always have your garment dry cleaned, or purchase the washable wool(the fibers have been coated with a chemical, so the scales are smoothed out).
There’s a reason your grandmother’s coat smelled of moth balls – moths love to eat soiled protein fibers, and moth balls are made to repel the moths.
(here's an interesting series of articles about the use of moth balls, which are toxic and can be quite harmful. This will open a new window).
However, it’s not necessary to use stinky moth balls to prevent moths from attacking your nice wool fabrics.
Cleanliness is the most important aspect of protecting your garments– if there is any dirt, body oil or stain on the fabric, moths will be attracted to it. Before storing, clean all items, and store with any fresh or dried fragrant herb or bark (i.e. cedar, eucalyptus, pennyroyal, lavender). This only works, though, if the herbs are replaced or renewed frequently.
Don't put this fabric in plastic bags or containers! Since this is a protein fiber, it can't breathe if placed in plastic. Much better to store it in cotton pillowcases.
Airing the fabric or garment, especially in the sun, will help repel cloth moths. Shaking and brushing while the garment is outdoors, then refolding and placing in a newly cleaned pillowcase and tying shut will work to rid fabric of any larvae.
Hair of the Goat
There are also some hair fibers being used in fabrics today – most often in blends with other natural fibers. Some of the most common are mohair (from angora goats), cashmere (from Kashmir goats), camel hair (the two-humped kind), and several camel-like animals (alpacas, llamas, guanaco, huarizo, and misti). Angora (from angora rabbits) and even some dog or cat fur (if it’s long enough), is not common in commercial fabrics, but is sometimes gathered by home spinners to make hand knitted or woven garments.
If you would like to learn more about other natural fibers,
return from Wool Fabric to Fabric 101.