Humans have enjoyed wool for over 10,000 years and it continues to be a coveted textile in both high end fashion and interior design due to its many qualities. Here we deep-dive into the wonderful world of wool, sharing the tale of this ancient fibre’s origin, production and inherent attributes.
A woolly tale
Britain is said to have lead wool manufacturing through spinning and weaving pre 1900 BC, a skill highly prized beyond their shores. Sheep were first exported beyond Europe to South Africa, New Zealand and Australia toward the very end of the 1700s. We have had a long time to accustom ourselves to the incredible natural qualities of wool and it is quite literally woven in to our trading, cultural and farming histories.
How does wool come to be? Fleece is shorn from sheep annually with a new fleece produced every year (unless you are Shrek the Sheep, who avoided shearing for 6 years – once finally caught in 2004 he produced enough wool for 20 large men’s suits, or 27 kg… blimey!). Once shorn, fleeces are thrown clean side down onto a wool table, skirted (a process to remove undesirable parts of the fleece), folded and rolled to determine class by a qualified wool classer. Bales of wool are then sent to be scoured, a bathing/cleaning process to remove dirt and impurities such as sweat and vegetable matter. Quality is determined by diameter, crimp, yield, colour and staple strength. Finer wools are used for apparel manufacture and heavier for soft furnishing textiles and carpets/rugs.
There are a wide variety of ways to process wool in to differing yarns, including worsted – a very fine yarn spun from carded wool producing a lustrous and smooth product especially suited to apparel. You may also be familiar with felted wools which are produced with heat, pressure and moisture compressing the fibres, entangling them together into a matted textile with a dense, ‘foamy’ or almost spongy appearance and feel. The woollen system of preparing carded wool for spinning ensures short fibres are retained, sometimes requiring combing. Wool can be spun to yarn on its own, or in conjunction with other fibres which can add desirable qualities and attributes to the finished fabric.
Despite a reputation as a land of sheep, New Zealand is actually the 4th largest producer of wool, with the top spot being taken out by Australia, responsible for 25% of global wool-clip. International wool production is about 2 million tonnes, 60% of which is apparel. Approximately 3% of the international textile trade is comprised of wool. We would like that number to be a little higher!
A natural fibre similar to human hair, wool is made of keratin and therefore readily biodegradable. As long as there is grass to graze on, sheep will continue to produce fleece, making it an ideal renewable fibre. Safeguarding the environment is part of the important work undertaken by woolgrowers to guarantee future production and industry longevity. Due to the high quality and durability of wool, woollen products have wonderful longevity and it is also excellent for re-use and recycling. In some instances, wool products can be returned from the interior and fashion sectors to be carded and re-spun in to yarn for re-weaving – an excellent way to reduce waste and extend the life of the material. Because of its hardy nature, when properly looked after, wool has a longer lifespan than many other fibres - if you have ever visited an antique/vintage/mid-century furniture trader, you will often find original wool and wool blend upholsteries still going strong even after a few lifetimes, albeit in need of a good clean!
Wool is renewable, recyclable and biodegradable – three very big ticks in our eyes. But why else would you consider choosing wool? There are many natural attributes that make wool highly desirable for use at home or in the workspace, below are our most favoured.
Wool is a natural insulator – it is temperature regulating due to hollow spaces in the fibre which trap moisture and air, providing thermal conductivity. It responds to the temperature it is exposed to; feeling warm in the cool of winter, and cool in the heat of summer. The crimped nature of wool fibres creates tiny pockets of air, allowing it to absorb and release moisture – up to 30% of its own weight can be captured - breathability that is just as appealing a trait for interiors as it is for apparel.
Wool is an elastic fibre, making it highly desirable for upholstery. That crimped structure allows the fibre to mould and spring back, often referred to as having a ‘memory’. It moulds neatly around curves and tailored forms, bouncing back to its original shape when moved. As such, it is excellent at highlighting strong, contemporary shapes and angles, and it resistant to ‘seating’, wrinkling or bagging on upholstery items. For someone desiring a strong, clean line even in highly used items, wool makes the ideal choice.
Wool contributes to better quality air in the home or work place. That moisture wicking quality acts like a vacuum, sucking VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) out of the air and holding them in the fibre acting as an electricity free air purifier. These can be held in the fibre for decades, so occasional professional cleaning allows them to keep working forever.
Wool retains its natural waxy coating as a textile, making it somewhat more resistant to staining than porous/ drier fibres, and creates a natural anti-static quality, making it excellent at naturally repelling lint and dust. It is even resistant to dust mites, mould and mildew, great for home health and allergy sufferers.
Commercially, it covers a swathe of desirable attributes including high durability – wool fabrics routinely score very high results in both Martindale and Wyzenbeek abrasion tests. Paired with the ability to bounce back and retain shape well, it will last a long time even in high use areas.
Wool has a high nitrogen and water content which ensures natural flame retardancy. It is one of the very best inherently fire resistant products you can find, with a very high ignition temperature. It is self-extinguishing, and unlike man made alternatives it does not melt or stick.
Wool also yields wonderful acoustic properties, with its inherent ability to absorb sounds. Wool will act as a natural insulator in reducing sound spill in a work place or home environment, improving overall acoustics of a space.
The soft and sumptuous tactility of wool combined with the ability to insulate, regulate temperature, and improve air quality means it is also appropriate for use as drapery. It gives a structured, modern look and has a rich, dense volume when lined. As with all natural fibres, wool is particularly sensitive to direct UV light, and can be prone to UV degradation. As always, we recommend curtain tracks that provide physical space between the fabric and the glass whilst ensuring the fabric is lined with a quality sun protective lining. In drapery application, especially in spaces with high levels of direct sunlight, we recommend opting for blended compositions, where high quality wool is combined with other, more resistant, fibres.
All fabrics used for furnishings require regular light vacuuming. It is really important to remove dust and dirt which can become embedded in the weave and can act as a damaging abradant. This also refreshes the fabric, keeping it looking and feeling its best. Regular maintenance is important to ensure your woollen textiles will have a long lifespan.
Pilling is a natural stage for most wools where some loose fibres detach themselves from the weave and cluster together on the surface. This is a completely normal process and, similar to that with fibre shedding on new wool carpets necessitating more frequent vacuuming, the pills can be carefully removed with a de-piller and will not affect the performance of the cloth. If you have ever owned a new wool jumper, you will have experienced this!