If you’re looking to start a knitwear line or incorporate wool into your designs, you need to make sure you understand what to look for when searching for a wool manufacturer. Wool is an exceptionally versatile natural fiber and is making a strong comeback thanks to being rediscovered by larger global brands. To manufacture in wool there are a few things to learn and relearn, particularly around how new technologies have opened it up to many more uses than what it’s traditionally known for.
What is wool?
Wool is thought to be the first textile fiber and its origins can be traced back over 10,000 years, when man first began to domesticate sheep and use their wool. 99% of the world’s wool is now white, making it easier to process and dye. Previously, wool was overlooked because it was incorrectly thought to have a texture that encouraged itchiness on the wearer’s skin. Most sheep grow relatively thick hair; that’s the bristly stuff your grandmother gave you as a sweater when you were a tiny lad or lassie that you hated to wear, and the same horrible stuff the military used up until the last few years, affectionately known as the ‘wooly-pully.’ Both are equally spurned.
What makes ‘good’ wool?
In past years it’s become softer and softer. The ‘secret’ is the thickness of the hair. For really soft wool clothing, you’ll need to use the finest wool. Wool hairs are measured in microns, and the the soft wools start at 20 microns. Preferred soft wools are 18 microns, and the highest-quality soft wools are 16 microns. The lower the micron, the rarer it is and the more expensive it gets. For comparison, a human hair ranges between 50-200 microns.
For proper micron selection, you’ll need to think about where you want to use it. For carpets, use as coarse and large a micron as you can find, as you’ll need a lot to cover a room. Coarse wools are also more economical. If, however, you want a luxury dress or amazing t-shirt, pick 18 microns or finer. Need to be more commercial and hit a medium price point? Pick 23 to 19 microns.
How does wool behave?
Some people have a notion that wool only works in the cold. That’s only partially true. Think of wool this way: it’s the one widely available fiber that’s most like your own hair, and that’s why it works so well on your body – every other fiber is foreign. Wool breathes, it sheds moisture, and strangely enough absorbs moisture too when in wet conditions. It can bend thousands of times and will spring back to shape, so where ever you use it it will be tough to wrinkle. Wool sheds dirt, and is naturally locks out odors, so you clothes will look and stay fresher longer after repeated wearings before you need to clean them.
This brings us to cleaning. Wool fibers have a scale-like covering on them. These scales grow in one direction, and when they are in the presence of heat and moisture the scales swell and easily lock onto one another. Because the scales grow in one direction this locking action is ratchet-like, making them grab tighter and tighter. That’s great if you want a felt, but not so great if only can dry clean it to keep that from happening. In the last 50 years new methods have been used to remove these scales and disrupt their ability to grab onto one another making for some really amazing new uses. As a result, these products are now washable without the shrinkage issues.
What can wool be used for?
Wool is also being rediscovered by activewear, including yoga, ski, bike and other physically strenuous uses. Why? Because it can keep you warm when you’re cold as well as wick away moisture, plus doesn’t get wet in the same way. Other natural fibers soak up water like a sponge and take on a similar texture and weight. With man-made synthetics, like polyester and nylon, water has to go around them so while they don’t get wet, droplets can cling next to the fibers and your skin making you cold and wet. Conversely, wool fibers will pull water away from you and slowly allow it to evaporate.
We’ve had a long time to learn about wool and figure out how to use it well. Take advantage of the wool we have today.