Think about wool: What comes to mind? Itchy socks? Arduous hand-washing in icy water? Sweaters shrunk to the size of doll clothes? Whatever it is, you probably don’t think of a machine washable fiber that delivers superior performance and great looks, all while being easy to care for. But thanks to research and improved production methods, that’s just what wool has become. Machine washable, soft, and as warm as ever: Forget what you thought you knew about wool.
Once upon a time, it was assumed that some people found wool itchy because they were allergic to it. Research, however, showed that the itchiness of wool was related to tiny barbs on the fiber’s surface. Thicker fibers have larger barbs, and finer fibers have smaller barbs, which are much less itchy. Knowing this, garment manufacturers have moved to much finer wool fibers (such as Merino wool, which has become much more widely produced in recent years, and thus much more affordable than it used to be). Processors of wool have also developed a host of new wool treatments that help smooth out the barbs to make it softer and more versatile.
We all know wool is warm, but did you know it’s also an excellent warm-weather fiber? Unlike some of our other furry friends, sheep do not lose their coats when things heat up. Can you imagine walking around in a wool coat during a sweltering New Zealand summer? That’s exactly what Merino sheep do, and quite comfortably. The truth about wool is that it's a natural temperature regulator, meaning it traps heat when the weather is cold, and releases it when the weather is hot. Think of summer suits made of lightweight wool, or the fact that the uniforms in baseball — that ultimate summer sport — used to be made exclusively of wool.
But wool's performance characteristics don't stop there. It also happens to be naturally stain resistant (thanks to its lanolin), wrinkle resistant, quick-drying, anti-microbial (meaning it resists body odor), and fire-retardant. Some kinds of wool, like Loden, are even naturally water resistant. Strong? In a micron-to-micron comparison, wool fiber is stronger than steel.
And in a world increasingly concerned with pollution and the environment, wool also happens to be as natural as natural can be: endlessly renewable and totally biodegradable. In fact, the New Zealand Merino Company, a trade organization, calculates that it takes much more energy to produce fossil-fuel-based materials than it takes to product wool. Even taking into account every step of the farming and processing of wool, nylon still uses 2.7 times as much energy, acrylic 3.8 times, and nylon a whopping 5 times as much.
Wool is still a bit pricier than comparable synthetic fabrics, but tends to last longer and perform better, too. So the next time you’re clothes shopping, consider — or reconsider — wool. It may not be what you remember.
Think you know wool? Think again!