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.
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%?
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*