On wool and Wovember

I grew up in Southern California, where average winter temperatures rarely drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, so I didn’t really have much need for warm winter woolens.  I’d heard tales, though. Tales of itchy, scratchy, terrible winter garments that were warm, yes, but that made you wince when you wore them, embarrassing things that your mother knit for you with love and no sense of your personal style. Wool was a bogeyman.

I know now that the wool of my nightmares was damaged wool, apparently common in the sixties and seventies in the U.S. when the price of wool dropped steeply due to demand for synthetic, washable fabrics and made wool production less desirable to sheep growers. The first superwash yarns were developed in a hope that washable wool would be more desirable to the public. Unfortunately, the early treatments burned the scales off the wool though carbonizing, leaving something washable, yes, but uncomfortable and ugly. Poorly treated wool behaves as any hair will when mistreated. It splits and burns and frizzes and if you then decide to wear it on your body, you are braving all those pokey little ends sticking into you. Of course it was itchy. It was abused wool.

Picture from Medical Sheepskins. You can see the natural scales on the wool at the left.

My first challenge to the notion that wool was a terrible itchy material used to punish children came rather late in the game, when I had started knitting and was getting ready to branch out into more sophisticated yarns than the synthetic blends I’d been using as starter materials. The very first knitting books I purchased for myself were from Rowan, and without knowing anything about brands or materials, I started looking for Rowan yarns online. My first pure wools were glorious Rowan tweeds, specifically Yorkshire Tweed. It felt quite unlike the terrible itchy menace I’d been imagining all those years, soft enough that I knit a next to the skin sweater for my toddler daughter. Knitted up and blocked, the wool was soft and strong and lovely. The more she wore it, the softer it got.

Today, it’s easy for knitters to get quality wool yarns (though most are now merino, which is a rather limiting palette in a world of unique wools) but wool labeling has gotten shamefully lax for the average consumer. I can find many items labeled as wool on J. Crew’s website, for instance, but no details on what percentage of wool these items actually contain. Nordstrom has a similarly opaque system; they list the materials used in the manufacture of their items, but not the percentages. Is the wool item you’re paying for 60% wool or 12%?

This wool blanket from Nordstrom contains wool, but how much?

There’s no way of knowing without a clear labeling system that includes standards for using the term wool. The Wool Product Labeling Act of 1939 does introduce some rules, so you can’t call something wool in the U.S. unless it contains wool. But what percentage of wool is up for grabs. Anything over 5% is fair game, and frankly, I don’t consider a 6% wool product to be accurately labeled as wool. (There’s a more comprehensive explanation of wool labeling here.) The product is labeled in percentages by law, but apparently it’s OK to leave the percentages out when you’re creating an online listing.

What are the advantages of a true wool? Wool is hygroscopic.  To quote from The Knitter’s Book of Yarn, by Clara Parkes, “Hygroscopic means that the fiber is able to absorb up to 30 percent of its weight in moisture while still feeling warm and dry against your skin. This helps the fabric breathe, readily absorbing and releasing moisture to maintain a steady ecosystem of comfort against your skin, no matter how cold or damp the external weather may be.” The advantages to a hygroscopic fabric in winter weather are obvious and manifold, but wool is more than this. It’s fire-resistant, it doesn’t conduct static electricity, which means it stays clean more easily than most fabrics, it’s long wearing and tough, and it can stretch a third of its length and still return to its original shape. Clara Parkes again, “Despite over a century of effort, not a single manmade fiber yet possesses all these amazing qualities.”

Wool is completely, totally marvelous, which is why I want to support the efforts of Wovember, a joint project from Kate Davies and Felicity Ford. This November is all about wool, glorious wool, and the humble sheep that provide it.

Over the following days and weeks, I’ll be posting about wool and photographing some of the wools in my stash. I hope to see lots of exciting woolly posts from a lot of my knitting friends, too! Wool for life! *chest bumping/secret knitter gang sign here*

Posted in Wool, Wovember
10 comments on “On wool and Wovember
  1. riaknits says:

    Yay! I love to see wool becoming more popular – especially amongst knitters. Not too many years ago, the knitty set was obsessed with alpaca, deeming wool the fiber of yesteryear. Good wool is wonderful. Hard wearing, lightweight, warm, comfortingly soft & familiar. I grew up in NYC & the winters were cold. I was always glad to have it!

    Great post – I’ll be following with interest!

  2. Rosemary says:

    That picture is fascinating!

  3. Sarah says:

    Kate Davies is magic, isn’t she?

    Love the post. Wool is pretty amazing, and I really enjoyed looking at the photo of fibers under a microscope.

    One thing: wool is fire-resistant rather than -proof. That is, it burns when a flame is held to it, but stops once the flame is removed. (Which was a very cool demo in a theater crafts class. Professor pull out a 100% wool fabric, lit a match, and went to town.)

    • Kristen says:

      Oh, goodness, thanks, Sarah! I will change that. It’s my silly error in wording. I actually identify mystery yarn by lighting an end on fire, so I should have been more aware of my mistake!

  4. Kamigaeru says:

    I’m so glad there are other wool-obsessed people out there besides me. Yay, wool! I’m looking forward to the upcoming posts. :-)

  5. Audry says:

    I’m so excited for Wovember. I plan on joining in fully.

    I’ve been doing my best to reeducate friends who believe all wool is itchy. And the best way to do that is wear a soft wooly garment and have them touch it!

    I’m looking forward to seeing your wooly posts.

  6. Kate says:

    Thanks for this great post – am looking forward to reading more of your thoughts! I am intrigued by the fuzzy legislation covering wool labelling in the US. It seems, if possible, even worse than ours in the UK . . .

    • Kristen says:

      Thanks so much, Kate! Labeling laws seem really mysterious to me. It’s kind of horrifying that you can lobby to intentionally misidentify a product, throwing the responsibility back on the consumer to figure out what all the materials are in our foods and clothing. I shouldn’t have to spend 20 minutes trying to figure out which chemical elements in my cereal are corn waste or whether the wool sweater is made of more than 50% wool. Responsible labeling should be the job of the person trying to convince me to buy their product.

  7. Natalie says:

    Hooray for wool! I remember buying something about 20 years ago that was 25% wool, excited that I could afford something with wool content. Things are much better now & my stash contains plenty of wool & wool blends.

  8. Emily says:

    Wool is amazing; my favorite fiber by far. I just sewed three skirts from fine Italian wools and the whole time I was thinking “Is there ANYTHING so beautiful as fine wool yardage?”

    Interestingly, since I almost never buy anything in the stores these days, I had not seen this vague, unspecified wool content labeling. When I read Kate’s original post I reflected on the fact that US knitters don’t normally use the word “wool” as a synonym for “yarn” the way they do in the UK, but apparently our labeling practices are at least as bad if not worse!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>