all you need to know about wool
Is your knowledge of our favourite fabric a little woolly? Don’t feel baahd, instead, read our definitive guide to wool. Everything you need to know about our favourite natural material is here, all in one place, so impressing your friends at the next pub quiz will be a breeze!
The definition of wool
The soft, wavy or curly and usually thick undercoat of various hairy mammals (sheep in particular), is made up of a matrix of keratin fibres and covered with tiny scales.
Types of wool
Most wool products will be made from the wool of sheep, but it can also come from a number of other animals.
Different types of sheep produce different types of wool. Merino sheep produce wool that’s fine, soft and resistant to bobbles and pilling, making it ideal for clothing. Our Herdwick sheep produce a coarse wool that can’t easily be dyed but instead offers excellent natural insulation, making it perfect for mattresses and even loft insulation.
Cashmere and mohair are two other famous types of wool. They are quite different; where cashmere is soft and luxurious, mohair can be itchy. All these types of wool are regularly used in winter clothing and luxurious home furnishings.
How is wool made?
To become the yarn that you see on bobbins or in woollen cloth, there is a specific process that the wool has to go through step by step. It can be done by hand or by machine.
First, the raw wool, or fleece, is clipped from the animal.
Each animal will produce wool of a varying quality, depending on where on its body it’s grown. The best wool from a sheep comes from its shoulders and sides and that wool is typically made into clothing. Leg wool is usually made into rugs.
Once graded, it is cleaned to remove twigs, grass and other things that you don’t really want in your wool. By-products of this process, such as Lanolin, are saved and used in household products.
Next, the wool is carded. This is basically brushing the wool to straighten the fibres. The carded wool is gathered into strands in a process called roving, before being spun into yarn. Traditionally this was done by unmarried women, which is where the term “spinster” comes from.
The wool is then woven into fabric using either plain weave or twill. Alternatively, it may be wrapped around bobbins to be sold as yarn.
The History of Britain’s Wool Industry
The wool industry in Britain has a long past, so much so that it forms a very important part of our history and heritage.
Compared to the rest of the world, we were latecomers to the idea. Elsewhere, primitive man had domesticated sheep by 10,000 BC, but in Britain we were still chilly until the Bronze Age (around 2,500 BC).
Ancient Britons used tools to help improve their wool-making, including a crude spindle and loom. When the Romans invaded, the industry was doing well – the Romans were impressed!
When the 1700s rolled around, we Brits upped our game. Both the spindle and the loom saw improvements, making them capable of producing an industrial amount of wool. The spinning jenny, for example, meant that one factory worker could oversee 120 spindles at the same time. These improvements helped the Industrial Revolution take off, making Britain the world’s leading textile manufacturer in the 19th Century.
In the 1960s and 70s, new artificial fabrics and materials were invented, so the demand for wool died down considerably, and production slowed. However, it remains to this day an important material for its unique natural properties.
Wool has special characteristics that give it advantages over other natural materials. The surface of wool has overlapping scales of protein that point towards the tip. This means that as a yarn, the fibres are able to interlock, giving it the ability to absorb moisture as vapour, but repel water and naturally resist wrinkling.
Wool is also flame resistant. It will smoulder or char, but when the flame source is removed, it normally extinguishes by itself. Unlike artificial fabrics used in clothing, when wool is on fire it won’t melt onto the skin.
It is comfortable to wear in both warm and cool climates. When the air is warm, wool absorbs perspiration and keeps it away from the body, making sure there is a layer of dry air next to the skin. This quality is known as ‘wicking’ and works when the air is cold or wet too. This is one of the reasons why wool is so great for use in a mattress because it makes sure that you’re cool in summer and warm in winter.
Wool is naturally hypoallergenic because it creates a very dry environment and inhibits bacteria, mould and dust mites from living in it. This, again, makes it perfect for mattresses.
What is wool used for?
Wool is used in a variety of ways; its properties make it very useful in different situations. Here are some of our favourites.
Wool can be woven, felted, knitted and crocheted to turn it into a fabric or cloth, so it can be used for hats, coats, trousers, cardigans and more. It can also be used for thread work or embroidery when adding decorative detail. Curtains, cushions and upholstery also often contain wool.
Carpets and rugs made of wool are durable, rich in colour and provide insulation. This also makes the material a good choice of lining for other types of floors, such as wooden flooring.
Felted wool is used in pianos to dampen the sound of the hammers, differentiating pianos from harpsichords.
Sheep’s wool can be used as natural house insulation and soundproofing in the building industry too. It has excellent insulating properties and, just like in our mattresses, it helps keep the heat in the home during winter and out during summer.
Of course, here at herdysleep, our favourite way to use wool is in our mattresses! Our locally-sourced Herdwick wool has lots of advantages when it comes to sleep. It provides a soft, even surface, that helps regulate temperature. Thanks to its hypoallergenic and anti-bacterial nature, it also helps keep allergies at bay, promoting a more restful sleep.