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What is Wool Fabric?

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What is Wool Fabric? This is a guide to where wool fabric comes from, if it’s ecofriendly, and tips for how to sew with it.

Wool is a popular natural-fiber fabric that has been around since ancient times and is still widely loved today. It’s used all over the world for clothing, blankets, insulation, and more. There are several different varieties of wool with unique characteristics that can enhance wool products and create beautiful textiles with purpose.


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What is Wool?

So, what is wool? Wool is a natural fiber made from animal hair spun into yarn and then woven into fabric. The fibers for wool can come from several different animals: rabbits, goats, sheep, alpacas, llamas, camels, and even specific breeds of dogs. Lower quality wool is sometimes made of a blend of different types of these fibers (usually discarded from other projects) while higher quality wool is usually made from one (sometimes two) types of fiber.

Wool has been used for thousands of years, with the earliest known wool garments dated between 4,000-3,000 BCE in Persia. Because it can be made from fibers of different animals that thrive in a variety of climates, wool quickly became one of the most widely used textiles around the world through trading. Wool is also a fabric that can easily be made by hand, making it accessible to communities without mechanical resources.

How is Wool Made?

Wool is fairly renewable and doesn’t require the animal to be killed in order to harvest the fiber. In many cases, fiber can be harvested more than one time per year as the animal regrows its coat through the seasons. 

The wool is first shaved, sheared, or cut from the animal before being thoroughly cleaned. It’s then sorted by quality and length, as different qualities and lengths of fiber are better for making different wool products like blankets and garments.

Skirting is the process where you remove all of the vegetation in the wool before washing it. This means you pick out gross pieces of wool (they get tossed into compost), leaves, and twigs.

After being sorted, the wool fibers go through a process called “carding”, in which the fibers are lined up to make one long strand that’s then spun into wool before finally being woven into the wool fabric that’s widely used and available today.

In much of the world, the process hasn’t changed much at all and is still mostly processed by hand. The process is simple to teach and, though it does require quite a bit of elbow grease, it is still a widely preferred method. In larger commercial operations, wool can be mass produced in a factory using specialized machines.

We have some wool breeds of sheep who live happily on our farm and are sheared once or twice a year. Different sheep breeds produce different qualities of wool. Some types of wool are ideal for clothing and others are better for socks, scarves, or other purposes. Angora goats are highly sought after for their soft wool, while one breed I have, the Cotswold Sheep, is considered “the poor man’s angora.”

Wool can be knit or crocheted from yarn, or it can be woven into fabric.

Different Types of Wool

Lots of different types are commonly used, and each type is popular in different applications.

Here are three examples of popular types of wool and what they are used for:

Merino

Merino wool comes from Merino sheep, which were originally found in Spain but now can be found in several other countries. In the present day, Australia and New Zealand are both massive suppliers of Merino wool. Merino is naturally insulating, moisture-wicking, breathable and odor-resistant, making it ideal for cold-climate thermal applications like base layers (think socks, tights, and sweaters) as well as blankets.

Angora

Angora wool comes from the fine downy coat of Angora rabbits and is mostly produced in China, though there are smaller operations all over the world–ranging from small farms all the way down to backyard Angora hobbyists that raise the rabbits in hutches and hand-harvest the wool. Angora has an incredibly soft, luxurious feel and is a popular choice for fine scarves, sweaters, and gloves.

Cashmere

Cashmere is a type of wool that comes from goats rather than sheep. It’s light, soft, and highly insulating. Compared to other types of wool, it’s fairly expensive, and you’ll find it used commonly in high-end fashions and special garments.

What Can You Make With Wool Fabric?

Wool fabric (and wool yarn) can be used to make a large variety of textile goods. It’s most commonly used to make clothing, housewares, and crafts. As mentioned above, different types of wool are more useful in different projects, so keep that in mind when choosing what type of wool you’ll use for a particular purpose. Here are a few examples of things you can make with wool fabric:

Clothing

  • Sweaters
  • Socks
  • Tights
  • Jackets
  • Coats
  • Dresses
  • Gloves
  • Hats

Housewares

  • Blankets
  • Rugs
  • Furniture covers & stuffing
  • Curtains

Crafts

  • Knitting
  • Needle felting
  • Fiber art
  • Costuming

How Does Wool Production Impact the Environment?

Wool is a natural fiber but it does have a few environmental implications. Raising the livestock for the wool is the largest contributing factor to wool production’s carbon footprint. In large-scale productions, livestock is raised on fiber farms, where animals are raised almost solely for their hair unless they can eventually be harvested for other purposes like meat and milk. Many of the animals (namely sheep) that wool is harvested from regularly release methane gas as they digest their food, which contributes heavily to carbon emissions.

It also takes a considerable amount of water to wash the fiber, which further contributes to the environmental impact of wool. Wool that is processed on machinery uses energy, making hand-processed wool a more environmentally-friendly option. 

Wool does gain some points in the environmental category because it is biodegradable due to being made of natural fiber.

Tips for Sewing With Wool Fabric

Use low heat and press seams as you go.

Wool is extremely sensitive to heat. When ironing to shape it or create clean hems, wool will shrink, so remember to account for that when figuring dimensions for your projects. To get perfect hems every time on wools of any weight, press your seams as you go to really seal them down.

Pick the right type of wool for your project

Wool comes in different weights and weave types that are suited for different purposes–you probably wouldn’t use a heavy felt for a top, and you probably wouldn’t use ultra-light wool for winter socks. Selecting the right type of wool can mean the difference between a usable end product and scrap.

Use heavy needles

Wool is notoriously heavy and skinny needles will not stand up to it when sewing. Use larger needles with a ballpoint end to save yourself a headache (and broken needles).

Preshrink your wool

Just like the heat issue with ironing and pressing, washing wool after creating with it can cause your product to shrink. You can get ahead of this by washing it before you use it in a project. Sometimes pre-shrunk wool is available or you can pre-shrink it yourself to reduce the possibility of extreme shrinkage when you finish.

Remove bulk from thick, bulky seams by grading them

Trimming out excess fabric in the seams can give you more delicate, polished seams and a more attractive (and often more comfortable) end result.

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What is wool fabric? Photo of sheep wool after shearing and a photo of finished wool fabric.

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