Not All Wool Is Created Equal
Learn more about this fascinating fiber.
Picking up a new yarn is always an experience. You examine the weight, the ply, the thickness, the fuzziness, the shine and the color; however, reading the fiber listing does not always add insight into the possibilities of its best use without some background knowledge of the terms. Sure, rubbing the hank under your chin can give you an idea of whether you want to make anything out of it that will be worn next to your skin, but does it give you any idea about how the yarn might wear or how warm it might be?
Seeing wool in a yarn’s fiber content can throw up mental blocks, as many thoughts of this fiber come flooding into the mind. Shrinking, felting, hand- washing, scratchy— these are all words that jump to the front of our minds when we think of wool. Nevertheless, not all wool is created the same, and there are several very positive qualities to this fiber.
Shorn from sheep, wool is considered neither fur nor hair; it is simply wool. This means it is protein- based and solid. Without a hollow core, the fiber grows in staples (clusters) on the animal. The fiber has scales and crimp. Best seen under a microscope,the term “scales” refers to the fact that the fibers are not smooth and slick, but have what looks like fish scales around the shaft. These give wool its felting property. “Crimp” means that these fibers have a crimped appearance, much like the results achieved with hair crimpers in the 1990s. Crimp has a rippled effect, and it gives wool its resilience.
Wool also has a property of elasticity. Each fiber has a little spring to it (the crimp lends to this as well). Even garments that are created with wool are able to retain their shape after being stretched, as all the little fibers have a memory of their original shape and will find their way back to this shape. This trait also makes the fiber resistant to tearing and wrinkling.
Wool is a natural material which is completely renewable and has been used to create yarns for thousands of years. It absorbs water, resists fire and odor, and takes well to dyes. It can absorb moisture as much as 30 percent of its weight and not feel damp. This allows it to wick moisture from the body leaving a layer of dry air next to the body that holds body heat, yet aids in moisture evaporation to cool the body in warm climates. It is also fire resistant— not fireproof—and does not readily burn. It will char under flame, but this ceases when the flame is removed, as wool is self- extinguishing. This is why firefighters wear wool, and why places that are possible areas of concern for safety reasons, such as airplanes, are carpeted with wool.
The breed of the sheep affects the outcome of the wool, which vary by micron measurements and the length of the staple. The micron is the widthwise measurement of the fiber; the lower the micron measurement, the finer the fiber and, therefore, the softer the y arn.
When you read a yarn label, you will not usually find this information, but there are some terms that are being used today that will give you an idea of what the yarn is actually made of and what you can expect from it.
Lambswool— The highest quality wool on the market, this wool is from an animal’s first shearing. This yields wool that is soft, smooth, silky and the most hypoallergenic of any sheep’s wool.
Merino— There are about 10 breeds in this family of sheep. It has a low micron count, so it is a fine fiber. It is known for its shine and its softness against the skin.
Shetland— This sheep breed originated on the Shetland Islands, located off the northeastern coast of Scotland. It is a very fine fiber that comes in a very wide variety of natural colors— various shades of white, cream, gray, brown and black.
The following are terms used to describe wool that has been treated to remove the outer fuzzy layer from each fiber within the yarn. This prevents the scales of the wool fiber from felting together but after it’s treated, it can be machine washed without felting or shrinking.
“Super” Wools— This is usually followed by a number—such as Super 100s or Super 150s—and refers to the micron count of the fibers. A Super 100 has fibers with a micron count of 18