A return to wool

lamb I should dispense with formality and call this Textile Tuesday. It seems to have worked out that way. Wish I’d thought to post a picture of cotton for today’s first entry. This lamb is cute, no? Photo courtesy: Basslevite

In the same vein as Latest is greatest comes an article from the Wall Street Journal entitled Forget Fleece? Wool Makes a Comeback. Says Ray Smith:

Nearly three decades after converting a generation of outdoor enthusiasts to synthetic fabrics, a growing number of sporting-goods makers are bringing wool back.

This time around, the companies are touting items made from merino wool, which is finer and more lightweight than standard wool and can approach cotton in feel. Companies like Icebreaker Ltd., a New Zealand-based outdoor apparel manufacturer, and SmartWool, a company specializing in wool ski socks and “base layer” (like long underwear), claim increasing sales. Citing consumer demand, sportswear maker Patagonia has also been gradually changing its product mix to include more wool in its base layers; now 57% of its “base layer” product is made from merino wool, with the balance made from polyester and recycled materials.

Manufacturers and retailers cite consumers who say they prefer the styling choices of wool, pairing these items as separates. Other factors mentioned are lower odor than synthetics and the greater sustainability of natural wool fiber (whether the carbon footprint of wool vs synthetics is superior is still being roundly debated). While the debate over performance has finally come full circle, the one downside of wool remains cost; it’s 30% to 50% more expensive than synthetics. Then again, increasing use of wool could be seen as another move towards what some describe as “slow fashion”. Not that we’ve definitively decided what that really means but I do think we agree it refers to products with a longer life span once value is computed.

I can’t speak for you but I’ve always preferred the real deal. Wool. Even if it’s scratchy and have to wear a shirt under it. Luckily, I’m not allergic to it.

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18 comments

  1. kay says:

    I don’t think it’s just the greater availability of merino wool that’s driving this — Smartwool made a big advertising push when it was new, that it was machine washable. Coupled with the fine diameter and greatly decreased “itch factor”, this was a big selling point to me. I grew up with wool — my school uniforms were wool serge in grade school, wool flannel in high school — so I knew that good wool didn’t have to be itchy, but it did require a lot more maintenance at home if you weren’t going to haul it to the dry cleaners every time you turned around. Smartwool and similar shrink proofing really changed wool from a fiber that I had to spot clean, brush, press (but be careful not to leave a shiny spot!) to dump it in the washer, get it clean, hang it up, put it on.

    As to “greenness” — sheep can really kill a native plant community by overgrazing, fairly quickly. Good herd management is paramount to keeping wool greener. And much as I love wool, I’ll point out that I have one of the early PolarTec jackets from 1985, I think… it’s been worn and worn and worn and washed and worn and it’s still in wearable condition — though I’ve had to replace the zipper and ribbing a couple of times as they’ve worn out. It’s also much lighter in weight than wool, often a consideration in performance clothing, and dries much more quickly.

  2. Kerryn says:

    Wow, after years of reading your website Kathleen I’m excited to see Icebreaker mentioned! I’m the Fit Engineer for Icebreaker. We’re very proud of our “greenness” here at Icebreaker and our transparency to our supply chain and sustainable practices. Kay, if you visit http://www.icebreaker.com we have some great videos that show our manufacturing processes and the farms the wool comes from in New Zealand. You can even trace your individual garment to the sheep stations the wool originated from and learn about the farm and the sheep. Unlike almost any other apparel brand we manage the garment from the fibre source to the consumer, unparalled by apparel companies that buy yardage and have little to no control over where and how that fabric is made.

  3. Worth expanding on from a sustainability perspective from the WSJ article, is Capilene by Patagonia. It’s been part of Patagonia’s recycling program for some time now: http://www.patagonia.com/web/us/popup/common_threads/faqs.jsp Fleece (whether Patagonia’s or not) is also part of the program.

    I have to admit, I’ve fallen off the wagon somewhat when it comes to mulesing and Australian merino, so not sure what the current state of affairs is, but in recent years it has been one of the bigger challenges for wool produced in this country. Kay also has a good point about the impact of overgrazing. Whilst not the only factor, conversion of land for pasture has played a significant role in the virtual disappearance of the Night Parrot here, not to mention many marsupials. Nevertheless, some kangaroo species in fact benefit from agriculture; millions get culled each year, presumably to prevent competition with sheep and cattle and to prevent damage to crops. Still, I’d prefer to see more active cooperation between sheep farmers, conservationists and the fashion industry, instead of the wholesale boycotting of Australian wool that has occurred in Europe and America in the last few years.

  4. Brina says:

    I have some Icebreaker long sleeve tops–base layer, long underwear, whatever. I love them–the fit is great–the armholes are cut high-yet there’s a gusset that allows one to lift their arm over head or where ever easily. I’m busty but they fit over my chest, but don’t bag over the rest of my torso. And they are easy to layer over or under. I am short but have long arms and the sleeves are way too long–which great for me and those the taller, longer limbed gals. They are expensive though.

    Anyway they go great in the wash–I line dry them and although they shrank a little, not much to speak of. And, yeah, they don’t get stinky like poly stuff.

    I have a hard time staying warm in synthetics, so I pretty much buy only wool or silk long underwear.

  5. Donna S says:

    Wool sure beats synthetics for durability. I have coats from the 80’s and 90’s and they are still going strong. There is another drawback to wool. When wet it takes forever to dry out and is heavy. This is also a plus because wool can obsorb an extremely high percentage of moisture before “feeling” wet. Great feature when hiking in wool sock for long distances.

  6. Barb Taylorr says:

    Though I have been a natural fiber snob most of my life, (& still stubbornly prefer it) I have come to accept that with nano technology it is now possible to make synthetics that perform the same or better than traditional cottons, silk, & wool. Some mills are also manipulating the molecules of organic fibers to enhance their natural properties. That is one of the reasons wool can now be found machine washable, quick-drying, as well as softer & finer than what we remember from our childhood. Even recylced coffee grounds are being made into a wonderful soft, silky, breathable fabric with nano technology. It makes for some very interesting new options in the material we have to produce garments from. It is not green though. This is clearly more involved than just harvesting & weaving fibers. Still, I find it fascinating & suspect the future of our industry will be built on fabric made from recycled materials, manipulted to have the properties we love in our wool, silk & cotton.

    In regards to Icebreaker, can you tell me if they use Zique certified (non mulesed) wool? I never see anything to specify that on their website, though I have often looked because I love their products. Their comments about their healthy sheep seem pretty vague.

  7. Kathleen says:

    Oh that’s so cool Kerryn, I had no idea you worked for them.

    Brina: thanks for the review! I have many of the same issues and frustrations you mention. I guess I’ll be shopping for icebreaker base layers now.

  8. Barb Taylorr says:

    Thanks for the info Kerryn, that is exactly what I was looking for. You may want to mention to your marketing dept. that they consider making this info more prominent. Even after you sent that link I did not find any way to get to that same post from the Icebreaker homepage. Somemthing more vague comes up under “animal welfare,” & mulesing is not mentioned until the 2nd page of it.

    If I get that tech top I want now I will think of you when I (hopefully) love the fit. Do you go to the OR show?

  9. Judy says:

    Smartwool is fantastic stuff, I live in it – It’s great for hiking and backpacking, keeps you warm even when you fall in a creek when it’s 38* outside (ask me how I know….) You can wear it for days on end and it won’t stink like synthetics. Smartwool goes in the washer and dryer and hasn’t shrunk (fulled) a bit. Yes, it’s expensive but well worth it.

  10. I love wool. I tried to put organic wool into my line, but it’s far too expensive and some retailers wouldn’t touch wool. I’m still convinced it’s wonderful and I haven’t given up. I’m excited to go to my local outdoor store and look for Icebreaker products (they’re on your list of retailers). Thanks, Kathleen, for this article.

  11. Marie-Christine says:

    Wool is great for the outdoors. Not really heavier than synthetics when you compare the temperatures it’s suitable for, and if you’re going to get wet wool is really, really good. My personal preferences run to wool socks, wool long johns, wool gabardine outerwear… I find them a lot more pleasant and functional for town wear too, especially if bike riding is involved. I’ve been really fascinated by the research on natural vs synthetic fabrics that’s been stirred up by the discovery of Mallory’s body and gear on Everest in 1999 http://www.innovation-for-extremes.org/malloryMyths.html where the old-fashioned stuff actually performed better in use (well, apart from zippers being really convenient to pee..).

    There are quite a few myths displayed here about wool and merino. Let’s see, merino is finer than average wool but it’s not lighter. Because it’s finer it’s softer, MUCH softer, like cashmere is softer than mohair, your neurons can’t distinguish something that small and so interpret it as soft. Spain made a fortune from merino at a time when you needed wool underwear to survive – merino is perfect underwear wool. True allergy to wool is extremely rare. Most reactions interpreted as allergy are simply mechanical chafing from scratchy wool.

    Beside the fiber issues themselves, most people don’t realize that commercially-available wool is mechanically processed – first dipped in acid to dissolve the bushes and other things the sheep’s picked up during the year the fleece was growing, dyed roughly, mechanically carded or combed. All this tends to make wool harsher to the touch. I’ve had 100% success making wearable wool items for very ‘allergic’ people simply by handspinning – buying soft fleece, selecting the best parts, hand-picking out the crud, hand-carding it gently, spinning it to maximize loft and softness… Those people can wear handspun scarves around their neck with impunity, and honestly if they stopped avoiding all wool because of imaginary allergies they could wear most merino just fine.

    On the other hand, I’m finding that -every- remotely ‘organic’ wool item I find in Europe these days is scratchy. Apparently scratchiness has developed into a consumer code for ‘organic’ in wool, just like lumpy mashed potatoes say ‘handmade’ in chic California restaurants.. Sheesh!

    And felting isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Merino and fine wools felt more than others, to begin with. So you need more of the chemical processing (‘Superwash’) that prevents felting if you start off with Merino, like SmartWool does. Superwash does ruin the softness some, and some of the good wool qualities. But felting does give more structural integrity to wool items. I’ve been taught to give a good fulling to fine wool yarns before knitting or weaving with it for instance, and the resulting items are much more long-lasting. Outerwear is a lot more functional when it’s felted (ore more exactly fulled, that is felted after it’s already woven or knitted) – that’s when it becomes very wind and abrasion resistant. Think loden cloth, melton wool, these are better entirely because of the felting process applied to them.

    Is wool more ecological than synthetic fleece? It depends whether you think that plastic garbage will be produced no matter what, and that products that recycle it are the most useful thing on earth. Personally, my philosophy would run more toward using more natural materials for everything..

    As to the horrors of Australian wool and mulesing, some of this indignation is perhaps a bit unbalanced. Australia sheep are by and large merino – these poor beasts are afflicted with malformations that make it very easy for them to get nasty parasites around the tail. If they’re intact, chances are they’ll end up eaten alive. That’s really not pleasant, even compared to mulesing.. And yes it’s a stupid way to evolve, but for instance did you insist on keeping your wisdom teeth because it’s not fair that most human jaws are now too small for them??

  12. Dorothy Klein says:

    I totally agree with your preference for “the real thing”. Here in New Orleans we are both blessed and cursed with a subtropical climate. Actually, the only “curse” I can think of besides the occasional hurricane and man-made subsequent disaster (levee failure; Thanks so much, United States Army Corps of Engineers), is our relative humidity. There’s a frequently heard fractured quote, “It’s not the heat; it’s the stupidity.” The original quote is much more accurate: “It’s not the heat; it’s the humidity.” Our relative humidity rarely falls below 50% and quite frequently sits at 98%-99% in the summertime. While our complexions do not wrinkle as quickly as those in dry climates, there are some uncomfortable results. First of all, you usually don’t just breathe the air, you rather “sip” it. But more critical to fashion and clothing, perspiration does not evaporate. Not only does this dis-avail you of natures greatest natural cooling mechanism, it really makes your clothes stick to the skin.

    There is no comparing the comfort level of natural fibers to synthetics. Natural fibers “breathe”; synthetics don’t (excluding sports-specific fabrics of which I know next to nothing). So much so, that in the middle of summer, I’m more comfortable in a cute knitted top I found thrift-store shopping made of cashmere, angora and rabbit than I am in a polyester sleeveless top. If I do use a synthetic fashion fabric, I always at least partially line it with a natural fiber such as cotton or silk. This way the biggest comfort challenge I face is remembering to bring a blazer to wear inside air-conditioned buildings. Dewey skin and air-conditioned temperatures are not a comfortable combination.

    I also find that clothing made of natural fibers stay more true to their original color and don’t fade as quickly with repeated washing. Plus, once you’ve felt cotton, silk, or cashmere against your skin, it’s hard to settle for anything else. Aahhh….life’s little luxuries!

  13. Dorothy Klein says:

    By the way, I want to thank you all for helping expand the mind of this home-sewer. I’m sorry, I have to rephrase that to one who sews at home for personal use. Visually, the word sewer, in print, conjures picture of excrement draining into waste water systems. (Similarly, when working in health care, I always had to document wounds as “with a puss-like discharge” instead of a “pussy” discharge.).
    Anyway, I want to say that I have leared so much just by reading this site, both articles and posts. In fact, I was even able to provide constructive biomechanical sewing input to a participant in a “Threads” contest by using my biomechanical skills from my Occupational Therapy background with an article on sleeve-fitting I read right here. This contestant had designed and made an exquisite Victorian-inspired jacket and mentioned incidentally that it was harder to play the violin than she anticipated while wearing the jacket. I referred her to your site and suggested that she add up to 1 1/2″ to the back of the armhole scythe (subtracting a similar amount from the front) on her right sleeve (her bowing arm). This would allow a more internally rotated shoulder angle and more ease of scapular movement. I also suggested that a small elbow dart on that sleeve would allow easier flexion and extension at the elbow. Since the left arm (in violin playing) requires more external rotation and scapular retraction (shoulder blade gliding more towards the spine), she might consider an opposite armhole scythe adjustment for that arm. Since I knew what was required biomechanically but lacked the detailed construction skills to give precise advice, I referred her to your site and article for the production advice. It was really a thrill to be able to combine my specific skills regarding posture, body mechanics and movement with your technical advice. I haven’t heard back from her, but how could inspiration not be sparked with the knowledge and advice found on this site?!

    I also want to thank you for making someone of my skill level feel comfortable talking with such skilled designers, fabricators, and textile experts. You’ve really opened my world.

  14. As a kiwi I fully embrace the resurgence of wool. As a knitter and handspinner I would like to see more variety in wool products than just merino like say BFL or Cormo. There is something very fundamentally comforting about getting your hands on a bump of fiber.

  15. Seth Meyerink-Griffin says:

    I took a winter camping class about 15 years ago at a college in eastern Idaho. Our instructor permitted us to wear polypropylene base layers (to move moisture away from the skin; technical fabrics like Coolmax, Dri-tek, Capilene, Power Dry have come a long way since then: http://defense-update.com/products/m/moisture_management_fabric.htm), but he very, very strongly pushed wool for everything that wasn’t a base layer or a shell. (Aside: he preferred, as I now do, true shell garments.)

    When you are talking about cold weather performance, it is very, very hard to beat wool. Unlike all of the synthetics I am aware of, wool will keep you warm even if it gets wet due to its hydrophobic properties. If you are talking about back-country hiking/backpacking/cross-country skiiing/snowshoeing/camping, this is literally a lifesaver.

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