About Wool

Wool grows on a sheep in a similar way to the hair that grows on our bodies. It is a protein fibre formed in the skin of sheep to protect the animal, making it 100% natural, not man-made.


Why Wool?

In the same way that it protects the sheep, wool is one of the most effective forms of all-weather protection known. Science is yet to produce a fibre that matches its unique properties.

The many attributes of wool can seem like contradictions:

1. Wool is stronger than steel and finer than human hair
2. Wool is both water repellent and water absorbent
3. Wool can keep you warm and keep you cool
4. Wool is a natural fibre but won’t easily burn
5. Wool may seem old hat but is actually very smart
6. Wool is an ancient fibre but is also a fibre of the future.

Here’s a great video to watch:

Let’s take a closer look at these unique attributes.

1. Wool is stronger than steel but finer than human hair

If you could look close-up at a strand of wool, you would see it has a natural crimp, or ripple. That crimped structure gives the wool a natural elasticity that makes it strong. It comes from a helix, similar to a spring, deep inside each fibre. You could bend the wool fibres back and forth more than 20,000 times without them breaking or tearing. You can’t do that with steel!

So wool garments have the ability to stretch comfortably with the wearer, and then return to their natural shape. Wool carpets have a natural bounce when you walk on them. They might flatten if something heavy is on them but, once it is removed, will bounce back. Wool, therefore, maintains its appearance over time, adding value to the product and its lifespan.

Adding to its strength, each wool fibre is protected by a tough exterior of overlapping scales, called cuticle cells.

You can renew wool, turning it into something else when it is no longer useful. For example, you can felt an old jersey into new clothing, or repurpose an old blanket into a bag or a cover for a favourite armchair.

But when it’s no longer needed at all, you can compost wool and it will quickly decompose. It is mainly made up of water and nitrogen, and releases these valuable nutrients into the soil. This breakdown can take as little as a year whereas synthetic fibres such as polyester and nylon can take 30-40 years.

Read more from the International Wool Textile Organisation (IWTO).

Wool can be made into strong or fine finished products

It all depends on the sheep! The main attributes of wool are the same, but some sheep grow stronger wool than others. The Romney sheep’s strong wool is ideal for carpets, while the Merino sheep’s fine wool is better suited to clothing, which is why you see it used in sports gear and on the catwalk at leading fashion shows.

2. Wool is both water repellent and water absorbent

Wool uniquely manages moisture. The fibre has a hydrophobic (water repelling) exterior of overlapping scales with a waxy coating, so will repel water at the surface. If water does get through, wool also has a hydrophilic (water loving) core that is highly absorbent and retains liquids such as water, sweat or colour dyes.

That crimp mentioned earlier also contributes to moisture management, with the tightly-packed, crimped fibres forming millions of tiny pockets that manage air and moisture. This unique structure allows wool to absorb and release moisture into the atmosphere without compromising its thermal efficiency or making the wearer feel wet and before bacteria has a chance to develop and produce unpleasant body odour.

Wool can absorb up to 30 per cent of its own weight in moisture vapour next to the skin, making it extremely breathable and perfect to wear camping, tramping or playing sport.

3. Wool can keep you warm and keep you cool

Wool’s ability to attract and hold water makes it a hygroscopic fibre. As the humidity or moisture in the air rises and falls, the wool fibre absorbs and releases water vapour. Heat is generated and retained during the absorption phase, making wool a natural insulator.

With clothing, it reacts to changes in body temperature, maintaining its wearer’s comfort in both cold and warm weather. In the home, wool insulation helps to prevent the loss of energy to the external environment, reducing the need for other heating sources, increasing efficiency and making it cost-effective.

4. Wool is a natural fibre but won’t easily burn

Wool is 100% natural and yet needs nothing extra to prevent burning. The fibre’s high water and nitrogen content make it naturally flame-resistant. This means wool requires higher levels of oxygen in the surrounding environment in order to burn. Wool can ignite if there is a significantly powerful heat source but goes out when the flame is taken away. When wool does burn, it does not melt, or stick to the skin and burn, and produces way less smoke and toxic fumes than synthetic fibres, making it a far safer choice for interiors such as carpets, bedding, upholstery and home insulation.

Read more from the IWTO

Have a look at the Textile Fibres Burning Test  (wool test starts at 54 seconds).

5. Wool can seem old hat (dull) but is actually very smart

Wool might not be something you’ve thought a lot about in the past, but if you are interested in improving our environment you’d be wise to take a closer look.

We’ve already established that wool has a natural flame-resistance and can manage moisture well, without the need for any added chemicals. Wool is also naturally talented at insulating, absorbing sound and cleaning the air.

Those same tiny pockets within the crimped wool add bulk and this, combined with the large volume of trapped air between the fibres, makes wool very effective at insulation and absorbing sound.

Wool fibre also binds pollutant gases in its structure, locking them in its core so that they can’t be released. The most common indoor pollutants include combustion products, such as formaldehyde, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. They’re called VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and are emitted from products such as wood resins, paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment and craft materials including glues, adhesives and permanent markers.

New Zealand researchers, using a controlled environmental chamber, have demonstrated that wool carpet can reduce high levels of introduced formaldehyde to virtually zero in just four hours. It has been estimated that a wool carpet can continue purifying indoor air for up to 30 years. Even when the wool is heated, say by central heating, it doesn’t release the VOCs. Read about wool helping clean our air.

Non-wool products aren’t able to absorb contaminants and can have VOCs in them as well, making the problem worse.

Wool fibre also absorbs the sun’s ultraviolet rays, naturally and more effectively than other natural or synthetic fabrics. Researchers have found that fabrics made from 100% wool fibre have an Ultraviolet Protection Factor above 30, the level of protection offered by a basic, chemical-based sunscreen.

6. Wool is an ancient fibre but is fit for the future

Sheep first appear in history 600,000 years ago, and wool was worn by cave dwellers more than 10,000 years ago. Science and technology have kept wool at the forefront of developments, adapting to modern needs without impairing its virtues through selective sheep breeding, and building on existing qualities.

Wool also meets the demands of today’s consumer, as a natural, renewable and sustainable product that has minimal impact on the environment and can actually improve it. Sheep produce a new fleece annually, making wool a renewable fibre source. Wool growers actively work to improve efficiency and care for natural resources, endeavouring to make the wool industry sustainable for future generations. Wool itself can manage the elements and improve the air.

No other material, natural or man-made, has all its qualities and its adaptability. It has been used and worn by fire fighters, mountain climbers, sportspeople, polar scientists, sailors and astronauts, for comfort, safety and health. Most recently, scientists have reduced wool to a super fine powder, exploring its attributes to absorb, insulate and protect against fire and UV, and its potential. Others are investigating the extraction of food-safe digestible protein from natural wool as a potential food source.