Archive for January 18th, 2009

Being a bit of a natural fibre junkie, I was thrilled to learn that 2009 would be a year dedicated to promoting them. This series of articles will cover twelve natural fibres over the year, I hope you enjoy them! Read more about the International Year of Natural Fibres at http://www.naturalfibres2009.org/.

Part One: Wool

Wool is the general term for the hair grown by sheep. For millennia, it has been a prized natural fibre, although nowadays it accounts for only around 5% of the world’s fibre consumption. Fragments of wool fabric up to 6000 years old have been found in Egypt and Europe, and historical records emphasise the value of wool as a trading commodity across Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East. No doubt these ancient spinners and weavers enjoyed wool for much the same reasons that we do now. A soft, light, readily-renewable fibre, it is warm when wet, fire resistant and takes dye colour beautifully. It has huge variety in type allowing for a multitude of uses and is pleasant to work with. What’s not to like!

Sheep

Harvesting
Although some primitive breeds still shed their fleece in clumps, in general the wool is clipped off with shears on a regular basis, usually once per year. The protective lanolin in the fleece is washed out and the fibres are carded or combed to prepare them for spinning. The first fleece a lamb produces (called a hogg, or hoggit fleece) is often particularly fine in quality, but subsequent fleeces do not vary remarkably; the grade of fleece from a particular animal will continue to be of similar quality until old age. Thus, if you happen across an extra good fleece, and you know the animal it came from, it is worth keeping the information ready for next year’s shearing time.

Structure
Wool is a protein fibre and comprises an outer sheath and inner cortex. Covering the sheath, or cuticle is a thin layer of overlapping scales. These scales enable the fibre to matt and felt, creating dense, warm cloth, and they are in most cases what people with wool sensitivities are reacting to. Superwash wools have been treated to either smooth or remove these scales; treated wool can feel less ‘prickly’ and is much harder to felt.

Fibre Characteristics
The main characteristics that set wool apart from other hair fibres are its crimp and elasticity. Wool fibres are very strong, even when wet, and can stretch up to another two thirds in length and still return to the original state. This and the natural crimp in the fibres help to create yarn which is soft, lofty and springy. These characteristics, along with the slightly textured surface of the fibres due to the scale structure, make wool an easy fibre to spin as it readily clings to itself to form yarn.

Varieties
Different breeds of sheep can live in widely varying climates and are farmed all over the world. As a hand-spinner or knitter, you will probably have come across many different types of wool. A huge variety of breeds of sheep produce an enormous choice of wools, from the finest Merino right up to the coarse rug wools. A fine Merino may have a micron* measurement of 18, and Bradford Count of 80; a Wensleydale fleece may have a micron of 32, or a BC of around 50. In general, fine wools are shorter and more suited to next-to-skin garments, but are less durable, coarse wools will generally be longer in staple, and will have the durability needed for upholstery fabrics or outer garments. (Below: Polwarth – a fine wool, and English Leicester – longwool).

Polwarth

Leicester

Wool is by far my favourite of all natural fibres. I love its character, the ease of spinning and the way it feels in a knitted or woven garment. It may also have something to do with the little bit of sheep I have in my blood, but whatever the reason, it will almost always be my first choice when I’m looking for something to spin.

Tulips BFL

Do you have questions? What are your experiences with wool – like it? Love it? Leave a comment or come by the Lingr chatroom on Sunday evenings.

Sources/further reading
Fournier and Fournier, “In Sheep’s Clothing? Interweave Press, 1995.
Wayland Barber, E., “Women’s Work? Norton, 1994.
Wikipedia - Wool

* The fineness of fibre is measured in two ways: with a micron measurement – determining the exact diameter of the individual fibre, or with the Bradford Count – a measurement based on the amount of yarn that can be spun from an ounce of fibre.

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