How is wool made?

Wool is first developed as a yarn in around 4000BC, many anthropologists believe that this came from a need to survive and keep warm in the harsh weather conditions. Wool fibres are protein called keratin, and are generally range from anything up to 40cm depending on the breed of sheep. Wool is manufactured all over the world with The United States, Australia and New Zealand being the major suppliers of the raw materials. Many years ago Britain produced a lot of its own wool and wool fabrics, and however now this is still done in the UK, the wool market has become global and many woollen garments are manufactured entirely abroad.

Wool fibres have harder outer layer called the cuticle. It’s primary purpose is to protect the fibre and is made up of ‘scales’ almost, which allow the fibres to be flexible, whilst still being tough. When spun together these scales cling to each other making wool fibres very easy to spin together.

The process of making wool begins first with harvesting the wool. Unlike many other animal fibres, the sheep (or other animal) is not harmed in this process. The wool is simple sheared from the sheep. This process usually happens once a year and is still done mainly by hand. The wool fibres are then sorted, depending on their process and then the high-quality and highly durable fibres are used in yarn and garment production. This wool is then cleaned as ‘raw’ wool contains dirt, sweat and grease. Alkaline baths filled with soap and water are used repeatedly to clean the wool. This wool is then spun using a spinning machine and then wrapped around large bobbins. Wool is usually treated with oil here to increase the manageability.

Next the wool fibres are carded which means that they are combed and straightened using a machine with large metal teeth. This procedure removes short fibres and places the long fibres parallel to each other. Thread is then formed by spinning 2, 3 or 4 strands together. These threads can then be made into wool fabrics.

Different Types of Wool-Producing Animals

Although wool is generally thought to come from sheep, many other animals. Various camels, goats and rabbits produce fine protein hair which can be classified as wool. Lamb’s wool is wool that has been taken from a sheep younger than 8 months old. This wool has a softer handle and drape as it has never been cut before. Pulled wool is wool that is a by-product from sheep originally slaughtered for their meat. This wool is generally a lower quality and less durable as it has to be taken from the sheep using lots of chemicals rather than the usual shearing method. Virgin wool is wool that doesn’t go through any processes before the manufacture stage. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it is of a better quality however. Merino Wool is wool that comes from the Merino breed of sheep. These sheep have lots of rolls of skin and generally produce large quantities of wool that is of a soft handle.

Main physical properties of Wool Fabric

  • Wool is hydrophilic which means that it absorbs dyes easily without the need for added chemicals.
  • Wool is a sustainable fabric, it naturally replenishes itself.
  • Wool is naturally elastic because of the ‘crimp’ that it’s fibres have, each wool strand can be stretched and still retain its shape
  • It is very resilient, the cuticle on the fibres mean that it is difficult to break
  • The structure of wool allows it to absorb moisture whilst at the same time repelling liquid.
  • Wool can be both warm and cool, depending on its use. The fluffy fibres are a good insulator but the ability to absorb moisture helps the body’s cooling system work better.
  • Resists pilling, sagging and breaking meaning that woollen garments typically outlast synthetic equivalents.
  • Naturally flame-resistant. Wool usually self-extinguishes as soon as the fire source is removed. Wool and wool blend fabrics are favoured for airline upholstery and by the military.
  • Wool can be made shrink proof as it shrinks very badly.

Different Types of Wool Fabric

Felt – Felt is a dense fabric made from tightly matted fibres, usually wool but sometimes blended with other animal fibres or manufactured fibres. Felt is neither knitted nor woven so it doesn’t have a straight of grain. Felt is made by subjecting the fibres to heat, moisture and pressure so that the fibres become tangled together. The end result is a fabric that doesn’t fray or stretch. It is commonly used for hats, coats and slippers.

Herringbone – Herringbone is the name commonly used for fabrics made using a Herringbone Weave. Herringbone weave is a twill leave which is reversed every few rows, producing a zig-zag pattern. This fabric is usually made of wool and is used for suits and outerwear mainly.

Flannel – Flannel fabric is a plain or twill weave fabric, it was originally made entirely of wool but is not more commonly blended with cotton or manufactured fibres. Flannel comes in various weights, softness, quality and tightness of weave. Flannel is used for shirts, suits and trousers.

Tartan – Tartan fabric is a fabric of Scottish Origin. The name refers to the pattern which is colour woven and made up of rectangular blocks of colour, and horizontal and vertical lines. Specific tartan fabrics are synonymous of particular Scottish Clans, some named after them. Tartan fabric was originally made from wool however nowadays and ‘tartan patterned’ fabric can be called Tartan.

Tweed – Tweed is a very durable fabric, usually constructed of a twill weave but can also be plain woven. Tweed is available in a variety of different weights and can be made either entirely out of Wool or blended with other fabrics to enhance the properties of the wool. Tweed fabrics are usually colour woven with two different coloured yarns, giving them a flecked appearance and were originally worn for country pursuits such as shooting etc. Types of tweed include Harris Tweed, Cheviot and Donegal.

Viyella – Viyella is a soft, durable twill fabric made from Merino Wool and Cotton. It was developed in the 1890’s by English Textiles Company Williams Hollins and Co. It became very popular in the 20th Century and was used for dresses, skirts and Childrens wear.

Cool Wool – Cool Wool is a trade name used to describe lightweight ‘tropical’ wools. It is generally made from Merino wool as it has thermal-management properties and is naturally breathable. Cool Wool was manufactured so that wool could be used for garments all year round and still be elegant and functional. Modern spinning methods mean that wool can be manufactured so that it is even lighter, smoother and softer that traditional garments. Cool Wool fabrics are normally 100% new wool, but they are sometimes blended with other animal fibres, or cellulosic fibres or silk. It can also be blended with elastane to enhance its stretch properties.  Many designers such as Armani use Cool Wool for their suits.

Worsted – Worsted yarns are long, smooth and lustrous. This is because they are produced entirely from long, staple wool fibres that have been combed and carded in order to remove the shorter fibres. Fabrics woven from these yarns are typically smooth with no Nap. They are known as Worsted fabrics and used in Suiting. This fabric is known as Worsted after the town of Worsted in Norfolk, England which was very popular for weaving in the 13th Century.

Double Face Wools – Double faced fabrics are fabrics that are finished the same on either side, meaning that either side can be used as the outer or right side. Double faced wools are made using two wefts and one warp. These fabrics can be used for blankets, couture self- lined coats and other furnishing fabrics. Double faced wools can be two separate colours and basically looks like two separate fabrics that are attached to each other, which they are with thread. Because of its construction and the fact it is reversible, all the seams and sewing has to be as concealed and as unnoticeable as possible, meaning it is quite difficult to work with.

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Written by Kelly Mitchell

Kelly Mitchell, extremely competent and reliable, she is currently in her third year at the University of Lincoln UK, studying Fashion. Kelly is responsible for the Fabrics, Fibers and Leathers sections of our Dictionary

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