A Summary of the Best Online Guides to Buying Wool
Pantherella Ltd Cashmere and Merino Wool Collections. Photos from www.pantherella.us.
Do you know what goats, alpacas, rabbits, sheep, and even camels and muskox have in common? If you guessed they all contribute something to the contents of your closet, bedding, or carpets and upholstery – you’re right! With the cold weather descending upon us, Epic Mens decided to shore up our knowledge of where wool comes from and how it finds its way into the products we use every day. Our search took us to two comprehensive and enlightening online wool guides published by Sierra Trading Post and GQ Magazine, as well as to the ever-informative Wikipedia. Here’s what we learned in a nutshell.
According to the latter site, evidence of the earliest woven woolen garments dates back to about 3000 BC, with the wool trade really taking off in the 13th century. Today, more than a million tons of wool is produced annually (mostly in Australia), with about 60 percent of it ending up in apparel. One of nature’s best insulators, wool is spun from the fleece of mammals. Unlike human hair or animal fur though, wool fibers are crimped. It’s this curly aspect that gives wool its heft and heat-retaining characteristics. Additionally, wool fibers resist water by absorbing moisture into hollow cores and by relying on an overlapping shingle-like exterior to further repel both rain and snow. So, what does this mean for you and me? Well, it means we can count on wool to be warmer and more water-resistant than cotton. It’s also less likely to wrinkle or hold onto odors.
Okay, so far, so good. Wool appears to be the obvious shoo-in for winter garb. But unfortunately, the choice is not quite that simple. Wool, it seems, is used in a wide range of fabrics that vary in quality based on which animal provided the fleece or hair, when in its life it did so, the fineness of the fibers, and even how the fibers were processed. Most wool comes from sheep, such as Shetland sheep, Austrian Mountain sheep or the better-known Merino sheep, with the grade being determined by the fibers’ length and thickness. Wool that has a follicle diameter finer than 25 microns is used in garments while coarser grades are used in heavy blankets, outerwear and upholstery. Ultrafine Merino wool – one of the most luxurious and expensive wools available – boasts fibers with diameters of 15.5 microns.
The highest quality of sheep wool is lambswool, which comes from a sheep’s first shearing – usually at about seven months old. Incredibly soft, smooth and elastic, lambswool doesn’t just look luxurious, it feels luxurious. It’s also thought to be the most hypoallergenic wool, and therefore, a good choice for bedding and linens. On the other end of the spectrum are shearling or sheepskin fabrics used in slippers or boots, which are tanned skins with the fleece still attached to the hide.
Think you know all there is to know? Not so fast. Different processing methods also produce different types of wool. Felt is boiled wool that has been washed using a special process, creating a thick, durable material. Worsted Wool (so named because it’s manufactured in Worsted, England) involves spinning fibers into twisted yarn and then combing it multiple times to remove unwanted short fibers. The result is a smooth finish perfect for suit and dress pants. Flannel, gabardine and tweed are fabrics typically made from a blend containing wool.
Sheep, however, are not the only animals whose fleece or hair we humans covet. Cashmere, one of the most expensive natural fibers, comes from the soft, downy undercoat of Kashmir goats. Mohair wool from Angora goats is known for its silkiness, sheen, and beautiful color variations. It’s also durable, lightweight and resistant to matting and pilling, all qualities that make it a popular textile for use in quality suits, sweaters, dresses, scarves and blankets. Other luxury wools include Angora wool from Angora rabbits and camel hair from two-humped Bactrian camels. Both Angora wool and camel hair are inordinately expensive to harvest and highly prized for their elegant draping and soft feel. And lastly, we can’t forget qiviut, a super-warm, dense, shrink-proof wool produced from the thick undercoat of the muskox.
Although this abridged summary on the origins of wool contains only a fraction of the available knowledge on the subject, we (like the fibers we’ve been writing about) have absorbed just about all we can for one sitting. If you’ve made it this far along with us, we hope you’ve acquired some nugget of information that will help you select your next coat, suit, or scarf. And we also hope that while you’re admiring the sheen of your new woolen jacket or the elegant draping of your woolen suit trousers or even the cozy, comfy warmth of your woolen winter socks, you’ll join us in giving an appreciative nod to the fleece-covered animals that made it all possible.