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What is Wool Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where

by Boris Hodakel  • August 24, 2019 • 11 min read

Fabric name Wool
Fabric also known as Cashmere, fleece, fur, hair, tweed
Fabric composition Hair fibers from various animals
Fabric possible thread count variations Up to 200 with more fragility at higher thread counts
Fabric breathability Moderately breathable
Moisture-wicking abilities High
Moisture-wicking abilities High
Heat retention abilities High
Stretch ability (give) Medium
Prone to pilling/bubbling High
Country where fabric was first produced Ancient Iran
Biggest exporting/producing country today Australia
Recommended washing temperatures Cool or warm
Commonly used in Sweaters, socks, suits, pants, underwear, hats, gloves, other forms of cold-weather gear, carpets, firefighting gear, insulation

Armani Marine Blue Textural Wool WovenArmani Marine Blue Textural Wool Woven

What Is Wool Fabric?

Wool is a type of fabric derived from the hairs of various animals. While most people associate the word “wool” with sheep, there are, in fact, a variety of distinct types of wool that producers derive from animals other than sheep.

To make wool, producers harvest the hairs of animals and spin them into yarn. They then weave this yarn into garments or other forms of textiles. Wool is known for its durability and thermally insulating properties; depending on the type of hair that producers use to make wool, this fabric may benefit from the natural insulative effects that keep the animal that produced the hair warm throughout the winter.

Throughout the centuries, wool and cotton have vied for supremacy as the most-used textile in the world. Today, each of these fabrics fills a particular niche, and wool remains prized for its unique attributes. While cotton consists almost entirely of plant cellulose, wool consists of approximately 97 percent protein and 3 percent fat, which makes it uniquely suited for certain applications that cotton isn’t suited for.

When it is woven into textiles, wool has a natural waviness called “crimp.” This crimp contributes to wool’s insulative properties, which exist because the bulkiness of wool naturally traps air. Some types of wool have more crimp than others, and the more crimp there is in a woolen garment, the more insulative it is.

Compared to cotton and other plant-based or synthetic textile materials, wool is highly flame-resistant. It doesn’t spread flame, and instead, it chars and self-extinguishes. Therefore, this type of textile is highly useful in applications in which the reduction of flammability is desired.

Felting Wool SweatersFelting Wool Sweaters

Prior to domestication, sheep were more hairy than wooly. Their hair, therefore, was not highly useful as a textile material. Once sheep were domesticated around 11,000 years ago, sheep breeders started selecting certain traits in their flocks, and sheep gradually became woolier.

The earliest evidence of garments made from sheep wool is from around 4000 BC, but it’s possible that human beings started making woolen garments as long as 8,000 years ago. While there’s evidence that wooly sheep were introduced into Europe around 4,000 BC, the first piece of hard evidence of wooly sheep domestication in Europe is a wool textile from around 1500 BC that was preserved in a Danish bog.

Along with linen and leather, wool was an important textile in the Roman empire, and this textile became even more central to European life during the Middle Ages. By around 1200 AD, in fact, wool production had become a major component of the Italian economy.

Modest Vintage Stylish Plaid Wool DressModest Vintage Stylish Plaid Wool Dress

Famous Italian families, such as the Medici, built their entire fortunes from wool production. By the dawning of the Renaissance, wool production had spread through the rest of Europe, but it wasn’t until the Colonial Era that Europeans exported wooly sheep to other continents.

As soon as the British Empire introduced sheep to the Australian continent, the trajectory of the global wool industry changed drastically. With such an immense expanse of ideal grazing land at its disposal, the Australian sheep population exploded within a few decades. Australia remains the wool capital of the world, and New Zealand is another significant wool-producing country.

With the advent of synthetic fibers, the global demand for wool sharply decreased. Even so, wool innovations have continued unabated. Superwool is a kind of wool that you can wash in a washing machine and tumble dry, and a Japanese company even invented a type of wool suit in 2007 that you can wash in the shower and dry within a matter of hours.

How Is Wool Fabric Made?

How Is Wool Fabric Made

The production of wool begins with the shearing of wool-bearing animals. Some animals bear wool once per year, and others bear wool multiple times throughout the year.

Next, the shorn wool is cleaned and sorted into bales. There are a variety of ways to remove the greasy lanolin in raw wool, but most large wool producers use chemical catalysts for this process.

Once the wool fibers are clean and sorted, they are carded, which is the process of making the fibers into long strands. These carded strands are then spun into yarn, and after a final washing, this yarn can be woven into garments and other types of woolen textiles.

Vintage Colors Hand Dyed WoolVintage Colors Hand Dyed Wool

Lastly, the finished textiles may be exposed to a variety of post-production processes to develop certain attributes. Fulling, for instance, is the immersion of a wool textile in water to make the fibers interlock, and crabbing is the process of permanently setting this interlock. Lastly, wool producers may decate their products for shrink-proofing purposes, and rarely, they may also dye their finished wool products.

How Is Wool Fabric Used?

How Is Wool Fabric Used

Over the years, human beings have found hundreds of ways to use wool. While wool is primarily used in consumer applications, this substance is also popular in industrial applications for its durability and flame-retardant qualities.

While finer types of wool might be used to make garments that directly contact the skin, it’s much more common to find wool used for outerwear or other types of garments that don’t make direct bodily contact. For instance, most of the world’s formal suits consist of wool fibers, and this textile is also commonly used to make sweaters, hats, gloves, and other types of accessories and apparel.

Where Is Wool Fabric Produced?

wool fabric in the world

According to World Atlas, Australia produces 25 percent of the world’s wool, which makes it the most prominent wool-producing country. China, which has one of the world’s largest textile markets and textile industries, produces 18 percent of the world’s wool. At 17 percent, the United States is the third-largest wool producer, and New Zealand comes in fourth since it produces 11 percent of the world’s wool supply.

How Much Does Wool Fabric Cost?

Australian Wool Innovation Limited provides weekly price reports for wool per kilogram. You can use this organization’s price reports to gauge the current prices of Australian wool. At present, clean Australian wool is going for about $19.60 per kilogram.

Wool is, therefore, significantly more expensive than cotton, which is its main competitor on the world stage. It is quite a bit more expensive than most synthetic alternatives, but it also offers unique benefits that synthetic fabrics do not.

What Different Types of Wool Fabric Are There?

different types of wool fabric

There are quite a few different types of wool, and not every variety is derived from sheep:

1. Merino Wool

Merino wool is one of the world’s most common types of wool. The vast majority of merino sheep are bred in Australia, and wool from merino sheep is used to make all sorts of different kinds of garments and industrial materials.

This type of wool can have a diameter of under 20 microns, which makes it one of the finest types of woolen products in existence. While merino sheep were originally bred in Spain, hardly any merino wool production still occurs in this European country. Since merino wool is relatively greasy before it is processed, it’s necessary to remove lanolin from this type of textile before it can be spun into yarn.

Upcycled Wool Blanket & Vintage Fabric Oven MittsUpcycled Wool Blanket & Vintage Fabric Oven Mitts

2. Cashmere Wool

Cashmere is one of the most expensive and luxurious types of wool. The name “cashmere” comes from the Kashmir region of India, which is the area where the furry goats that supply cashmere wool originated.

With hair diameters as small as 18 microns, cashmere is just as soft and fine as merino wool. The high price of cashmere wool, however, comes from the fact that cashmere goats can only produce around 150 grams of wool per year, which makes this type of wool a highly desired commodity.

3. Mohair Wool

Mohair wool comes from angora goats, which have incredibly thick, wavy wool. While it’s possible to gather mohair wool without hurting angora goats, the mohair industry has been mired in controversy for generations over the widespread mistreatment of these wool-bearing animals.

While other types of wool may not be highly crimped, the wavy hair of angora goats naturally leads to high-crimp woolen textiles. During the 1970s and 1980s, mohair was very much in vogue, and trendy urbanites wore mohair sweaters and put mohair carpeting in their homes until the rampant animal abuses in the mohair industry came to light.

4. Alpaca Wool

People in South America have been breeding alpacas for their wool for thousands of years. Younger alpacas can yield hairs as small as 15 microns, but alpaca wool roughens as it ages, which makes the hair fibers of older alpacas unusable for apparel purposes.

There are a few different breeds of alpacas that breeders use for wool, and Suri alpaca wool is among the most prized varieties of this natural textile. While some manufacturers use pure alpaca wool to make garments, most producers mix this type of wool with less expensive wool varieties to take advantage of the draping qualities of alpaca fibers without incurring unreasonable costs.

Vintage inspired wool dressVintage inspired wool dress

5. Camel Wool

During the early 20th century, camel hair suits were all the rage. Camel wool is incredibly insulative, but it is also less durable than other types of wool. Since camel hair is relatively rough, it isn’t well-suited for any garments that directly touch the skin.

6. Virgin Wool

Also known as lamb’s wool, virgin wool is wool made from a lamb’s first shearing. This term can also refer to wool that hasn’t been recycled.

7. Angora Wool

Angora wool comes from a special breed of rabbit that produces incredibly fine and soft hair. This type of wool is very expensive, and the rabbits that produce it are not commonly kept in humane conditions.

8. Vicuna Wool

The vicuna is a relative of the alpaca that is exclusively native to Peru. Vicuna wool is the most expensive type of wool in existence, which is partially due to the Peruvian government’s attempts to protect this endangered species.

9. Llama Wool

Llama wool is generally too rough to be worn next to the skin, but it is suitable for outerwear garments. It’s relatively rare to find a breeder that produces llama wool.

10. Qiviut Wool

The qiviut is a type of musk ox native to Alaska. While the fibers produced by this animal are very rough, they are eight times more insulative than sheep wool, which makes qiviut wool ideal for gloves, hats, and other types of cold weather gear.

How Does Wool Fabric Impact the Environment?

Since wool is a natural textile, it is inherently non-impactful on the environment. As long as wool-producing animals are allowed to live free, happy lives and they aren’t crowded or subjected to inhumane practices, it’s possible to produce wool sustainably.

Just because wool production can be sustainable, however, doesn’t mean that it always is. In fact, the vast majority of wool production is either inhumane, environmentally degrading, or both. In search of maximum profits, wool producers everywhere disregard the effects that their industry has on the environment and the animals they depend on, and an inherently sustainable practice that human beings have pursued for thousands of years becomes harmful to both wool animals and their natural surroundings.

For instance, the animal rights advocacy organization PETA has dire things to say about the wool industry. Since PETA is a relatively radical organization, you should take everything it says with a grain of salt. For instance, it’s unclear whether “enteric fermentation,” (sheep farts) is actually bad for the environment.

It’s undeniably true, however, that sheep breeding can cause soil degradation and other types of land damage. Fecal matter from sheep can also pollute waterways, and the toxic chemical “sheep dip,” which is used to kill parasites, often overflows into the surrounding environment.

Plus, sheep breeders routinely kill animals like coyotes and kangaroos that they deem to be detrimental to their sheep breeding plans. Wool production can also be harmful to wool animals themselves; the mohair wool industry, for instance, has been locked in a constant state of controversy ever since groups like PETA exposed the horrific conditions that angora goats are subjected to in the production of this textile.

Wool Fabric Certifications Available

wool fabric certifications

A variety of organizations certify wool based on certain criteria. Common certification criteria include the quality of the wool and the sustainability of the breeding and production processes that went into preparing it for consumer use.

The Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) is one of the world’s most prominent wool certification groups, and it certifies wool from various animals.Woolmark, which is a major wool producer, offers third-party testing for other wool companies, and the International Wool Textile Organization (IWTO) also offers reputable wool certification services.

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.