A bit of forewarning, this post is quite long, like chapter-in-a-book-long, but I guarantee that everyone who reads this will walk away having learned something new. And I do mean walk away, because you'll probably need to stretch your legs too.
Last week I talked about different terms/definitions of wool that you might come across when you go to purchase your felting supplies. Well, today I want to share all the AWESOME things about wool to begin with (not just because it's an amazing art/craft medium), why it's my absolute favorite material ever, and why I'm always on the hunt for it. I know, some people are a little... I don't know the right word for it. I get funny looks. Like the kind you may have gotten whenever you say anything that's a bit off the beaten path or that you're totally in love with something that nobody else finds all that exciting. Like Nickelback. Or Bieber. Or a TV show or movie that you and the people who made it are the only fans. You get the idea. Typically they're only thinking about clothing, and the response I get is "really? Isn't it scratchy?" My answer to that is always "you're getting the wrong wool."
Which is true. If your only experience with wool is a scratchy wool sweater, you haven't been buying the right kind. Pay attention to the type of wool used in your garment. If it just says 100% wool, it's likely going to be scratchy since it's probably a blend of coarser (cheaper) wools. If it says 100% merino (or cashmere, which is from a goat by the way), it's going to be SOFT. They'll always tell you if it's a fine wool because that's a selling point. Merino/cashmere and other fine wools are microscopically thinner than wool from gotland, corriedale or norwegian c1- this is measured in microns. The thinner it is (lower micron count) the softer it's going to be. In fact, human hair is five times thicker than merino wool. Anything measuring 30 microns and up is not going to be something you want to wear directly against your skin. And then there's virgin wool, which is from the first time a lamb is sheared - the wool will also be softer. P.S., the finest wool in the world apparently comes from Hillcreston, which sells superfine and ultrafine wool measuring at 13-17 microns and holds the world record for having sold the finest wool at 11.6 microns. To give you an idea, merino comes in at 19-24 microns, and human hair is 40-50 microns. Moving on...
It's a renewable resource. Granted, if we're ever allowed to grow hemp again, that would be awesome, but have you ever read about the damage that growing cotton does to the land? Or the practices that go into it? Did you know that cotton is one of the most heavily pesticide ridden products on the market? And don't get me started on the pollution involved in creating synthetic fibers, not to mention the fact that it's (at least when it comes to polyester or nylon) a byproduct of our oil industry, which is not a renewable resource. And being made from an oil byproduct it's not biodegradable, but at least you can do your part and donate your rags to places that recycle the fiber (such as H&M, which then gives you a 15% off coupon for your entire purchase AND sells organic - aka pesticide-free - cotton clothing). Bamboo is a newcomer, but it's also heavily processed in order to turn it into a fiber, so not really as eco-friendly as one might think. Same thing goes for Rayon. Point is, wool comes off the sheep, gets washed, dyed and can get spun right into fiber, no heavy processing required. You can use it as filling for your pillows and quilts, or just get wool blankets themselves. I'll get into the awesomeness of that in a minute. Best of all, you don't have to kill a flock of geese, or an entire population of fish or increase the holes in the ozone layer to do so. I think of all the different fiber available, I'd say hemp, linen (flax) and wool are your best bets for being eco-friendly and renewable (I'd also add corn and soy to that list but those are hard to find). A single sheep can produce anywhere from 2 to 30 lbs of wool annually, and they live 10-12 years (though the world record holder was a Merino sheep that lived for 23 years). Unlike leather, you don't need to kill a sheep to get the wool, and they'll thank you for helping them cool off during the summer. They need it. No pesticides, minimal irrigation required, they don't even need a barn, and they'll weedwack your lawn for you. And maybe your garden too, but hey, they're cute!
It's breathable and helps regulate temperature. This has to do with the ability to absorb moisture, wool being the most absorbent at 35% of its weight as compared to cotton (24%), nylon (7%) and polyester (a measly 1%). If you're trying to figure out what that has to do with regulating temperature, think of all the moisture-wicking sports clothing out there. It will wick away the perspiration, keeping you cool, meaning that yes, you could wear a 100% wool sweater in the middle of summer and possibly still be comfortable. In fact, there was a study done on men wearing wool suits. And while I'm at it, here's a link about the benefits of using it in bedding. This is something I learned once I had kids, and my son has a set of merino wool jammies and a sleep sack, both which can be worn year round. I also know, because of how well wool absorbs moisture, it is often used as what is known a soaker cover for those of us moms who use cloth diapers. It's breathable, so you don't have to worry about diaper rashes like you would from non-breathable waterproof covers, but despite the fact that there's nothing directly preventing liquid from escaping, it soaks it all up. Which means it keeps the jammies and bedding dry. But won't it get gross? NO! And here's why!
Wool is antimicrobial. That's right, germs, bacteria, viruses - wool couldn't care less. Which reminds me, as winter's approaching, I may have to fashion myself and the kids a few wool face masks, not just to keep the cold out but also to keep those airborne germs away. And the less processed the wool, the better the protection. Why? It's thanks to this wonderful stuff sheep produce called lanolin. Thanks to thousands of years of evolution, the sheep's natural oils developed antimicrobial/antibacterial properties to keep the wool from becoming a breeding ground for bacteria while it's still on the sheep. So yes, technically the more you clean your wool, the less beneficial it would be against the nasties, but you can get lanolin in liquid form to lanolize your wool. So if you decide to go my route and make wool face masks, you can wash them (in cold water of course, unless you want to felt it down) and lanolize them. You can obtain that from cloth diaper suppliers. However, it's not something you'd have to do every time... it would take quite a bit of cleaning to completely get rid of it. Here's why it doesn't get gross when it comes to perspiration or urine (as in the case of soaker covers): as it the liquid combines with the lanolin, it is saponified. Aka turns into soap. So it stays clean! I'm not kidding - don't you just love science? So the parents who use wool soakers don't have to wash the covers every day, they can just hang them to dry and reuse them. Eventually the lanolin will get used up through this process, which you know when the soakers start to smell like pee and are less absorbent, so they're washed and lanolized. And while you're at it, why not pick up some lanolin too (yes, it's primarily marketed to breastfeeding moms) - it's an excellent moisturizer so you can use it for those chapped hands and lips that show up with the colder months, and again, does not contain petroleum or petrolatum.
It's also water repellent. Wait... what? Didn't you just get done telling me that it's absorbent? How is it possibly repellent as well? Yes I did, and here's why. Because of the microscopic structure of wool, light rain will just bead and roll off. But, if it gets soaked, the moisture goes into the core of the fiber so the outside still remains dry. So not totally water repellent but enough that a dusting of snow or a spritz of rain is not an issue. In fact, if you get soaked while wearing wool in the cooler months, you'll be warm - which is why it's used in fishermen's sweaters, and why it's an excellent material for both outerwear and underwear. I know, I still can't wrap my head around how something can be two seemingly opposite things at once, but that's what makes it awesome.
Wool is naturally flame retardant. I know, just when you thought it couldn't possibly get any better, it does. Did you ever wonder why hearth rugs are made of wool? (Also, if you have babies, this is another great reason to have wool jammies... no chemical fire retardants.) Did you ever accidentally singe your hair and watch it shrivel up but somehow manage to avoid catching yourself on fire? Same thing happens with wool. It shrinks, if it does somehow catch fire it burns slowly and then it goes out. This is yet another great reason to use it as your bedding material! I still don't understand why this stuff isn't used as insulation for houses... Oh wait, it is!
Wool is durable. OK, granted, you wouldn't want to use it for rock climbing (it's about the least durable when it comes to tensile strength), it is durable when it comes to bend and Martindale (abrasion) tests. When it comes to bend tests, wool can be bent over 20,000 times before breaking! Cotton doesn't even come close at 3,000 times, and rayon (which is why your favorite rayon shirt barely lasts a season if that) comes in at a sad 75 times. That's known as stiffness testing, although silk which is quite drapeable can be bent 2000 times before breaking. With the Martindale tests which is used on textiles, the fabric is rubbed in a figure-8 pattern with a piece of worsted wool, and one figure-8 pass is one martindale cycle. This makes me think of those product durability testing machines at Ikea, lol. Anyway, highest number I've seen for cotton textiles is exceeding 35,000 martindale cycles, while at the same time I've seen wool textiles that can exceed 100,000 martindale cycles. I wonder if, once reaching 100k they just gave up? The fact that it even uses worsted wool to do the test should tell you something about the durability of this fiber.
Yes, I understand that wool can be expensive, and I know that's likely the biggest reason other materials, especially synthetic, took off in the consumer market. That and vegans, though I don't think there's that many of them to make such a significant impact (don't hate me, I was a vegetarian for many years until I could no longer sustain myself while nursing my dairy/soy/egg/corn-allergic son). In any case, if you consider all these wonderful properties of wool, especially when it comes to durability, you get what you pay for, and it will last you a very long time.
I've only mentioned a few of the things wool is used for, thanks to its amazing and seemingly magical properties. Stay tuned for next week's Felting Friday post for a massive list of the versatility of wool (including all the different ways you can use it in felt). I guarantee that one will be updated on a constant basis as we're constantly finding new uses for this wonderful material (despite it being one of the oldest known materials available to man)! Yes, that would be yet another seemingly opposing thing about it... how can something be so old and so new at the same time? I guess we'll find out next week! Don't you now wish you could use wool all throughout your home?