Updated: Mar 7, 2022
I can't believe I have to start this post by typing this but here it goes:
Sheep don't die for wool
They get a haircut, we get wool from giving animals a frigging haircut!
Stop lying PETA!
If you have no idea why I typed that rant, let me show you:
"Why am I bringing this up now? this happened in 2018!" You may ask, well...
Peta is doubling down on the stupid campaigns.
No seriously, one of their campaigns claim cow milk causes autism
NO, IT 🤬 DOESN'T
I don't like PETA, like any other person that has done some reading about them. If you don't know I recommend you start with Illuminaughtii's video.
So it annoys me when they are right about something, partly because it gives some validation to the rest of the 💩 they spew out, and partly 'cause something bad is happening to animals.
But back to the wool 🧶
Peta called out animal abuse on Australian sheep farms and a 2015 report from NSW Wool Industry shows that the NSW Department of Primary Industries is aware of the abuse happening during castration, mulesing, tail docking, and shearing, and recommends setting national standards.
('Cause asking laws to be made is just too much work.)
Australia may be the biggest producer of wool globally (25+%) but this 💩 is not common in the remaining wool industry. This abuse is done by people that should not be anywhere near animals. You know, like sadists. There is a big difference.
I just realized I sound like the fur champions. I'm just going over there 👉 and have an existential crisis. Please continue reading.
What is wool made of
I will keep this short, otherwise, we will end up with a full-blown scientific paper.
Wool is hair from animals. It is made of keratin scales, just like human hair.
The hair is produced by follicles in the skin.
There are three wool fibers
kemp, (coarse and unwanted in the wool industry)
medullated fibers (hair strands contain air-filled cells)
true wool fibers (solid hair strands)
Sheep's wool fibers (combo of medullated fibers and true wool fibers) have a thickness of 10-70 microns. To compare human hair is 50-90 microns thick. 1 micron is 0.001 millimeters. The thinner the fibers are, the softer the wool feels.
Where does it come from
As stated above most of the wool produced comes from giving animals a haircut, or shearing as it is professionally called. Some wool comes from brushing animals. That depends on how the hair fibers grow back. For example, shearing is the only way to get wool from sheep (more on that later) whereas you must brush Angora rabbits, or the hair fibers will grow out too coarse to use.
Some of the most common animals used for wool production are:
This post focus on sheep wool, every wool-producing animal will get their blog post (Kashmir and Mohair get separated posts).
I found that there is also a difference in thickness and subsequently different usages of wool from different animals (and sheep breeds), but I could not find a list that compared them to each other. So I made one myself:
You can download this list for free here
A few things to note:
There are a lot of sheep breeds on this list for one reason; there are over 1000 sheep breeds that produce good usable wool. All have different thicknesses and usages
Spelsau is also known as Spælsau and Old Norwegian Short Tail Landrace
Unspecified wool is wool you can't trace back to specific sheep breeds.
Twill wool is unspecified wool with a specific coarseness/fiber thickness
Accessories are defined in the table as hats, gloves, scarfs, cowls, etc.
Wearables are both clothing items (ie sweaters) and accessories (ie mittens)
Numbers with a slash (/) in them show the differences between inner layer wool and outer layer wool, respectively.
Most sheep breeds have an inner and outer layer of wool. These two layers have two different jobs. The inner layer is insulating and temperature-controlling, and the outer layer is protecting the animal from wind, rain, and snow. The outer layer is not always used in yarn and other fabric production, because the outer layer is coarser and can feel itchy against the skin, and not all spindle machines can handle the stiff fiber 🤨. You have yarn like Lopi, spun from Icelandic sheep wool, that uses both layers making it perfect for pull-over sweaters or jackets.
Properties of wool
Wool is the best fiber to protect us from the winter cold. That is just one of the properties wool has. Skein Yarn has a beautiful top ten wool properties. My list will contain as many as I can find.
Flame resistant, wool has an ignition temperature of 570-600C(1058-1112F)
Antibacterial and antimicrobial properties,
Does to stain easily
Protect from UV rays, the wool fibers absorb the rays before they reach your skin
Easy care, the fatty acids cancel the odor-producing bacteria on your skin
Does not need to be washed as often as cotton
Insulates until 80% saturated with moisture
Durable, you have to do a lot to break wool
Nitrogen-rich, yes you read that right. Wool contains 25% nitrogen.
Water repellent, the keratin scales give wool the hydrophobic property
Mildew and mold resistant, moisture is passing through wool easily.
You can use it as fertilizer in your garden, it is biodegradable,
Wool is from a renewable source
Resist statics, dirt, and dust, but only if you treat it with a detergent containing lanolin
It is non-allergenic, there have been studies proving this, you can be sensitive to coarser wool but not allergic. You can however be allergic to lanolin, this should be confirmed by your doctor.
Please remember to wash wool at a low temperature (30-40C/86-104F) or on a wool program if your washing machine has one.
Problem with wool
Mulesing is the biggest ethical issue with the merino wool industry. Mulesing is done by cutting away a piece of lambs' butt and letting the wound heal. This is done when the lamb is less than a month old and most of the time without pain relief. In some countries, tail docking is done at the same time. Both are done to prevent flystrike, an infection of parasitic botflies. There are other ways of fighting the flies that don't cause as much stress and pain as mulesing, like chemicals, insecticides, and tea tree oil.
If you want to read more about either, I recommend starting with Wikipedia. Reading about it makes me sad. It's nasty, sadistic, and sheep should not make those noises.
Countries with mulesing ban:
Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprys, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Irland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherland, New Zealand, Norway, Polan, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Sweden, UK (except Northern Irland, see below).
Countries allowing but not practicing:
Countries allowing and practicing:
Australia, Northern Irland (must be done by veterinarians), Slovakia, USA ().
*I found one article claiming China bans the practice of mulesing but have not been able to find it again.
**All info on the European countries comes from the Wageningen UR Livestock Research report in March 2016.
Allies of PETA discovered additional abuse during shearing in Australia, the USA, and the UK, such as beatings, starvation, and stabbing. (Sadist, I tell ya)
This is a popular treatment of wool, specifically merino wool, to become machine washable and tumble dry safe. Superwash wool is made by either an acid bath or a plastic coating.
The issue with the acid baht is the choline waste that enters the water system and creates cancer-causing molecules, both for humans and aquatic life.
The polymer coating creates more microplastics during production and with each wash. But this can be reduced by putting superwash wool in a washing bag before washing the garments.
As a consumer, you may find it difficult to find out which method has been used on the wool.
Some good news about superwash: As of 2020 you can find OEKO-TEX certified and GOTS approved superwash wool that has been through one of two new processes that has a much less impact on nature. These new methods are used by the globe's two largest spinning mills.
What to look out for and what to buy
I will be completely honest with you, it is much easier for crafters and makers to find information about what kind of sheep breeds and what country the wool comes from than people buying from big brands. Within fashion brands, it is a brag right to not use mulesed merino wool.
Some fast fashion stores have pledged to not use mulesed merino wool, like Marks and Spencer, Adidas, and H&M.
Four Paws has a list of all fashion brands that have pledged to go mulesing-free within 2022 if they haven't already.
You could go to handmade stores and ask them to make/sell you items made of wool you are comfortable with. That can get pricey real quick because it's handmade.
Merino wool from South America or South Africa is mulesing-free, so merino wool yarn from Kremke Soul Wool and Mayflower (Easy Care) are note-worthy if you need merino wool.
Wool alternative to merino
From the table poster above you can see that there are quite a few wool types that have the same or similar fineness as Merino wool, some will be pricier than others.
The cheapest option is other sheep wool, this will be labeled as "Wool" on the products info page on the shop's webpage.
There as some yarn companies and small businesses that will inform you of which sheep breeds produced the wool.
For the crafters, I recommend looking at Highland wool, Shetland wool, and Alpaca. Alpaca wool is the easiest to find in any yarn store. Highland and Shetland wool will take a little more looking for but Hobbii is a good place to start (and they always have some discount or sale going on 😉).
Alternatives for wool
If you want to avoid wool all together this is the list for you:
Silk has some of the same properties as wool and it doesn't cause skin irritations. And some silks even have anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties.
But you need to prepare yourself for the price tags of good thick silk garments. 💸
If you want to go vegan there are several fibers to try out, both natural and synthetic.
I prefer the natural ones as they don't generate microplastics.
A sub-category of rayon that has a lot of the same properties as silk is Lyocell (Tencel™), Lenzing lyocell, or Newcell is supposed to be a good substitute for wool. Personally, I use Lyocell only in summer, it feels too thin to help me keep warm during winter but it is so comfy in the summer heat. Wool is claimed to be cooling during summer, but as someone how lives in the city with a lot of asphalt everywhere, bringing more heat to the hot days, wool is not something I wear all year round. Wool feels too heavy and itchy in the heat.
If you are looking for something that helps you regulate your body temperature in both summer and winter Modal is something you should look into. Modal is another rayon that gets stronger when wet.
I wear modal spring to autumn. If there is one thing you must know about Nordic spring and fall is that they are temperamental Bs you do not mess with. I do not wear it in wintertime for the same reason as Lyocell.
Bamboo (you know the big grass plant that pandas love to munch on, that one!) has some the same feel as both wool and silk but cost less. Bamboo has some insulating properties. It is naturally antimicrobial, so if you struggle with foot or skin fungi or skin outbreaks this is something you should try as well.
Cotton flannel (Canton flannel) is a cotton fabric that is napped on one or both sides. The napping, a fussy texture, gives the fabric insulating properties. The fussiness is the important part to make cotton flannel an alternative to wool. And please don't confuse flannel shirts with plain shirts, they are not the same. Cotton flannel is found easily in shirts, pajamas, and bed linens. It is a must-try if you have cold nights.
Sweatshirts and sweatpants are also insulating in the same way as flannel, with the fussy side.
If you are allergic to natural fibers there are synthetic fibers to think of. Synthetic fibers are also much easier to color and dye than natural fibers. Just keep that in mind when you want bright colors.
A good synthetic alternative is high bulk acrylic fibers if you want products that are vegan and allergy-friendly. High bulk acrylic has some of the same properties as wool, if not a little easier to get wet. HB acrylic is also much kinder to your wallet.
Another alternative is premium acrylic. This is a fiber that you put closer to your skin, like the first layer of sweaters you put on during winter. It is in the same price range as wool so it doesn't do much to your wallet.
For those that don't work with yarn, there is also polar fleece. It is one of the cheapest alternatives on this list, and you should be able to find it in most clothing stores and sporting goods stores. It is spun and weaved to replicate almost all of the properties of wool. Polar fleece is not anywhere near wool when it comes to sustainability or biodegradability. It is not static- or flame-resistant but polar fleece is warming, hydrophobic, easy-care, and is lighter than wool.
Wearing a combo of flannel, sweats, and polar fleece is like wearing a cloud.