Everyone is familiar with wool. We’ve all got at least one woolly jumper somewhere and perhaps a granny or aunt that knits but there are lots of things about wool that you might not be so accustomed to.
Wool comes from sheep, right? Well yes, most of it does but that’s not the whole story - there’s a whole range of cuddly animals which produce wool, each example of which has its own qualities. This includes the goats that grow cashmere and mohair, muskoxen that make qiviut, rabbits which produce angora, and other types of wool from alpacas and llamas. There’s even a type of wool that you can get from certain dogs, which has been made in Scandinavia since prehistoric times and is nowadays called Chiengora (geddit? French: “chien” + gora).
Many fabrics, both natural and synthetic, will melt and drip when heated, potentially causing serious injury. You wool fans will be pleased to know that your favourite fibre doesn’t do this. Instead, it ignites at a higher temperature than cotton and some synthetic materials and tends to char rather than melt. But that’s not all - the resulting charred material is both self-extinguishing and insulating, meaning that - incredibly - it can still continue to protect you, even when it’s been burnt! And there’s more: wool has a lower heat of combustion, a lower rate of heat release and a lower rate of flame spread when burnt. This is why wool carpets are designated for high safety areas, such as aircraft and trains. Not surprisingly then, wool is the fabric of choice for clothes worn by soldiers and firefighters.
The outer part of the wool fibre naturally repels water (in technical terms it’s “hydrophobic”), whereas the inner part does the opposite - it attracts water (it’s “hydroscopic”). This means that wool is much more suitable for use as a cover for nappies (diapers) than many other natural fabrics, because it will keep wetness away from outer garments. As you probably know, wool can be made into felt. Once in this form, it can be infused with lanolin (also produced by the sheep!), so that it becomes slightly antibacterial, air permeable and even more water resistant, thus preventing the buildup of odour. Apart from the felted versions, knitted nappy covers are also ideal and you can even get knitting patterns for them online or at wool shops.
Recycling is all the rage now but it’s nothing new! West Yorkshire is famous for its wool trade but did you know there was a thriving industry in recycled wool there, even in Victorian times? Used wool (known as “shoddy”) is torn apart and rewoven, sometimes mixed with other fibres, and made into new yarn or garments.
Unlike cotton, which is made of cellulose, wool is largely made up of protein and lipids. This means that it contains useful nutrients and, if ploughed into the soil, becomes a fertiliser where it slowly releases nitrogen into the earth around it.
So, wool can be useful throughout its entire life cycle. Providing warmth and protection for little lambs, safe snuggly and sanitary clothing for humans, being recycled for even greater utility, then finally being returned to the soil - perhaps to grow grass for more gambolling lambs!