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March 05, 2021 5 min read

Hold onto your swim trunks, everyone, cause we’re doing a deep dive.

Today we’re taking look at one of the most popular yarn fibres: wool.

Where does wool come from?

Sounds like a straightforward question, I know, but no eye-rolling please! Wool is actually produced by a range of animals, from angora rabbits to cashmere goats to camels, alpacas, and llamas. However, when you see “wool” on a label, you’re almost certainly dealing with the fleece of sheep.

A merino sheep in need of a haircut

Any sheep’s wool is useful in textile production, but not all wool is created equal. Wool is generally designated as coarse, medium, or fine:

Coarse wool is suitable mostly for carpeting and upholstery—unless you like the feeling of wearing a sofa. Medium wool is versatile and typically used for anything from blankets to knitwear. However, the most sought-after wool for fibre artists is fine wool—soft enough to wear next to the skin and easy to work with.

A number of sheep breeds are raised specifically for their fine wool. Their fleece is dense, soft, and lustrous, perfect for high-end clothing and artisanal yarns. Fine fleece-producing breeds include American Cormo, Merino, Rambouillet, and Bluefaced Leicester. These breeds vary in terms of the size of the sheep, how fast their wool grows, and the length of the wool fibres, but their wool is all of a similar thickness (between 17 and 28 microns thick, to be specific).

Natural wool

The most widely known fine wool is merino, which you will often find listed by name on yarn labels. Merino sheep have been bred in Spain since the Middle Ages and are known for densely growing, fine fleece. Merinos have been considered the gold standard for fine wool since the 1500s and many breeds that exist today are the result of crossing them with regional breeds. For example, Rambouillets were bred from Spanish merino sheep and local French sheep at the Royal Farm in Rambouillet in the late 1700s.

How is wool harvested?

A sheep’s wool is harvested by shearing, or clipping, the fleece close to the skin. It’s generally done in the spring, once the weather is improving and the sheep no longer need their coats to keep them warm. Shearing is good for sheep as well as for wool producers—sheep that aren’t sheared can suffer from overheating, excessive wool growth, and infections. When shearing is done right, it causes no harm to the animal.

How is wool yarn made?

After shearing, the wool is washed to remove dirt and natural oils. Sheep produce a waxy oil called lanolin to protect their wool, and it is usually removed before the fibres are spun into yarn. Lanolin is useful on its own, as it’s an ingredient in a variety of beauty products

Once the wool is clean, the fibres are carded. Carding machines comb the curly wool out straight so that all the fibres line up and become soft and fluffy.

An industrial carding machine

Carded wool is then drawn into long, narrow bundles called rovings. Strands of wool are then spun together in different ways to create varying kinds and weights of yarn.

Why wool is awesome: the pros of working with wool

Wool is one of the most common and popular kinds of yarn for a reason!

Strong: Wool is durable—and the most delicate wool is easily blendable with a tougher fibre like nylon or silk for extra durability, which makes it suitable for everything from scarves to socks.

Both warm and cool: Wool is excellent for temperature regulation. When you get hot, it absorbs sweat vapour from your skin, keeping you cooler. However, because its fibres trap air around the body, wool also makes an excellent insulator and keeps you warm on cold days.

Water-resistant: Although it may not seem like it makes sense in a material that’s absorbent enough to wick sweat away from the body, wool has a well-earned reputation for being naturally water resistant. It absorbs water so effectively that it can hold 20% of its weight in water before you start feeling wet. Untreated wool, which still has its lanolin, can be nearly waterproof.

Fire-resistant: Wool is also naturally fire resistant—it smoulders instead of bursting into flames and doesn’t generally burn for long.

Beginner-friendly: Wool is easy to work with. It’s stretchy and elastic, which means that it knits up well and it’s also easy to unravel when you (inevitably, let’s be honest) make a mistake (it happens to all of us). Because it’s durable as well as elastic, it holds up to strain and tension, which is helpful if you’re a beginner knitter. It also responds well to blocking.

Colourful:Because wool absorbs water so well, it also absorbs dye. Wool yarn is available in a rainbow of stunning colours. Check out our wool yarn collection to see some beautiful examples!

Brightly coloured skeins of yarn

Eco-friendly:Wool is a renewable resource. Sheep produce new fleece every year and can be sheared annually. Wool garments and yarns can also be recycled, so it’s an excellent fibre to choose for the environmentally conscious.

Some cons to keep in mind when considering wool:

Sensitivities/allergies: wool is famous for being itchy and many people swear they can’t wear it. It’s true that wool allergies do exist (usually it’s an allergy to whatever remnants of lanolin are left on the fibres). But that being said, people more commonly have a wool sensitivity (as opposed to an allergy) and their skin is irritated by the texture of the fibres themselves.

A good rule of thumb is that the finer the wool fibres, the less irritating the wool. This means that someone whose skin would be irritated by a medium fibre wool (think old wool blankets) may not have any problem at all with fine-wool yarns like the ones we sell here. Of course, in the end, everybody’s different and you should do what’s right for you!

Launder with care: Even superwash wool should be laundered in cold water on the gentlest possible cycle. Washing wool in hot water or throwing it into the dryer on regular heat can cause felting and shrinking, both disastrous for knitted or crocheted projects…unless you happen to have a small child to give your favourite sweater to.

This is felted wool. Great if that’s what you’re going for. Not great if you create it by accident!

Hand washing wool and laying flat to dry is ideal unless otherwise specified (hanging wool knits can stretch them out).

Generally not antimicrobial: This is less of a con than a general heads-up. Untreated wool is naturally antimicrobial because of its lanolin coating. However, fine wool yarn (which has been washed and dyed) is not. Sweaty clothes will stay stink-free for a while, but they should be washed regularly or it’ll catch up with you. That’s a pro tip from us to you—you’re welcome in advance.

Wool is soft, versatile and beautiful, and it’s available in a spectrum of colours. Obviously, we’re biased, but we absolutely love it. Knowing the pros and cons can help you come to an informed decision about whether to give wool a try! If you have any questions about our selection, or anything else yarn-related, get in touch! We love to help our customers!