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Q: Do you ever use any wool in your clothing designs?
A: I have not, as of yet, designed an article of clothing that incorporates wool, but I am planning on incorporating wool into my designs at some time in the future.

Q: Wool is mostly just used for jackets, sweaters, hats, and long underwear right?
A: Well, yes this is true. Wool is still primarily used for hats and very insulative articles of clothing. However, there are light tropical wool fabrics that work very well for making shirts. A lot of nice medium weight suits are also made of wool.

Q: Wool is very itchy right?
A: Not necessarily. Let me explain a little more about wool.

The History of Wool

Wool Wool is a word used to describe textiles made out of animal hair. Some wool comes from sheep, some from goats, some from rabbits, and some from camels and other animals in the camel family, like llamas and vicunas.

The use of wool for all types of garments has declined over the last few centuries. For most of European history wool and linen were the only fabrics available to the general public. In the days of Colonial America, wool clothing was typically worn during all seasons. The rise of a large worldwide cotton industry and the prevalence of synthetic fabrics in more recent times has decreased the popularity of wool in all types of clothing and greatly reduced production volumes worldwide. Today, the international wool industry is working hard to restore its product’s position as a major fabric for all types of clothing. The international wool industry currently employs many sophisticated sorting and treatment processes for the animal hair that forms the base of their fabrics. The international wool industry is selectively breeding animals that produce lighter, straighter, and less oily hair that is more suitable for production of lightweight fabrics. The international wool industry has made wool a more versatile and economically competitive fabric than it was in decades past.

Some academics would say that flax is in fact the oldest know textile. Flax may very well be the oldest know type of textile, but I personally think that wool has been in use for as long as flax or possibly even longer. Some would say that wool use for textiles is linked to animal domestication; however, the pelts of dead animals can also be a wool source. Wool is very simple and basic to make. Making animal hair into threads suitable for weaving requires no elaborate multiple step processing, unlike making linen. The making of animal hair into threads also requires no real specialized knowledge, nor elaborate and fancy tools. Wool can be woven without a loom, or any tools besides a set of wood or animal bone knitting needles. It is possible to twist sheared wool into coarse threads just by using your hands; however, combing or “carding” the animal hair helps to produce a thinner, smoother, and better quality thread. The lanolin content in the animal hair can also be reduced by soaking the hair in hot water, lye, or other solutions. Lanolin is the name given to the naturally occurring oils found on animal hair. Some wool clothing items deliberately have high lanolin content to aid in waterproofing, such as the rain coats, and the traditional fisherman’s gloves worn in the Aran Islands. The Aran Islands are located off of the west coast of Ireland. In summary, the whole process of turning animal hair into useful fabric has been done using hands and simple tools for a very long time.

The qualities of wool can vary considerably based on the type of animal hair used to make threads. Animal hairs that are long, strait, thin, and relatively free of lanolin, make threads that are thin, soft, and not very greasy. Thin and soft threads make soft and light weight fabrics. Animal hair that is thick, short, full of kinks, and covered in lanolin, makes for heavy, oily, and itchy fabric. Some animal hair is not suitable for making threads at all. Some animal hair is only used to make building insulation. Some animal hair is only made into felt for hats.

The thinner and finer wool fabrics on the market today are fine to wear in warmer weather and have many different types of print designs available. Today’s light weight wools, unlike wools of the past, are not notably itchy.

Ecological and Social Impact of Wool

The process of acquiring wool is not known to be harmful to the animals being raised for their hair. Turning animal hair into fabric is friendly to the environment. A lot of places around the world have a climate, soil, or a terrain that is not suitable for anything other than the grazing and herding of sheep, goats, or other domesticated herbivores. Scotland and the Falkland Islands are good examples of this type of place. Parts of the Western United States and Australia also have large sections of land unsuitable for growing row crops. Grazing and ranching permit what would otherwise be land of no use to humans to provide meat, leather, and wool. The animals used for making wool can be grass fed, thus being relatively easy on the environment.

A lot of evidence seems to indicate that the health of grazed lands can improve due to the herbivores aerating the soil by walking on the ground. There has also been supporting evidence to suggest that the droppings of herbivores can help to nourish the grasses and soils where the animals are grazing. The real issue of environmental impact from animal grazing depends on the land being grazed and the intensity of the grazing. Although wool is generally pretty environmentally friendly as a fabric, the environmental impacts of animal grazing are not always totally benevolent.

The grazing of wool producing animals on some types of marginal land can have negative environmental consequences. The grazing of any animals on desert fringe lands can have the effect of increased desertification. In many parts of Africa, the crazing of goats, and cattle, is a major contributing factor to desertification. The grazing of domesticated herbivores has also been linked to increased soil erosion and desertification in parts of Australia and the Western United States. In Australia and other places, the grazing of sheep and other animals has contributed to the depletion of ground water supplies due to irrigation of grazing patches and the need to give the animals water. In a lot of places over grazing is a big concern.

New Zealand is not a case study of marginal lands becoming less useful to humans from grazing. New Zealand is a case study of the effects of intense pasture based animal farming. The parts of New Zealand associated with intensive pasture based sheep and dairy farming are generally in no danger of desertification, however, the intense grazing of dairy cattle and sheep has been associated with the erosion of hillsides and the pollution of streams. Streams sampled in grazing areas all over the world have bacteria and nitrate contents much higher than in non-grazed areas. Nitrates are a by-product of animal wastes and contribute to algae growth in streams, ponds and lakes where the streams empty. The oxygen content of streams, lakes, and ponds in grazed areas are also notably lower than in non-grazed areas. Sediments from eroded soil are much higher in bodies of water in grazed areas. Often, the high levels of sediments, nitrates, and bacteria in streams polluted by grazing animals work their way into larger bodies of water like rivers and the ocean. Intense pasture based agriculture is linked with declining numbers of fish and other aquatic animals. Over time, the pollutants of grazed land can work their way into the ground water. Many parts of New Zealand have ground water contaminated with bacteria and nitrates from pasture based sheep and dairy farming.

The overall environmental impact of wool production seems to be sort of a mixed bag. It is hard to say if wool production linked to animal grazing is really an environmentally friendly undertaking or not. The actual production of the wool cloth itself is not bad for the environment. It is doubtful that the hair of grazed domesticated herbivores living on marginal land could meet more than a small percentage of all the world’s textile needs in the future. The environmental impacts of trying to replace cottons or other plant based textiles with wool on a large scale would definitely not be good. Trying to increase wool production substantially would definitely lead to severe overgrazing and terrible environmental problems. Wool is a nice fabric to incorporate into clothing designs and is not really too bad for the environment on a smaller scale, but it is clearly no large scale substitute for plant based fabrics. Cotton long ago surpassed wool as the textile of choice for many economic reasons as well as for the qualities of the cotton fabric itself.

Q: Ok, so what are the advantages of incorporating wool into a clothing design?
A: Firstly, a garment made out of light-weight wool will last longer than a similar garment made out of cotton. Lighter weight wools are also nice looking and have a nice breathability in warmer weather. Wool is also a friendly fabric for those with allergies to synthetic fabrics. Many diaper manufacturers now incorporate some wool fibers into their commercially produced diapers to decrease the chances of skin irritation from wearing the diapers. Sheep skin is also the preferred liner for people in neck braces and wheel chairs due to the sheep skin’s compatibility with human skin contact over long periods of time. Wool has natural anti-bacterial qualities, and resists absorbing body odors better than cotton or most synthetic fabrics. Garments made out of light -weight wool are now popular for use as undergarments, exercise clothing, and clothing intended for hiking and backpacking. Wool also keeps insulating even when wet, unlike a lot of plant based fabrics. Wool also tends to hold its shape well over time, has a bit of stretch to it, and resists wrinkles. Wool is also biodegradable.

Q: So what are the drawbacks to incorporating wool into an article of clothing?
A: At this time the varieties and availability of light weigh wools are a bit limited. Light weight wools still have a higher price tag, and less variety, than most other fabrics of a similar weight and texture. Light weigh wools are now suitable for wearing in direct contact with the skin; however, these new wools still do not have quite the softness, breathability, comfort that typifies cotton.

Q: Where does steel wool come from?
A: I do believe steel wool comes from steel sheep.

Q: Do you plan on incorporating any textiles made from steel wool into your clothing designs?
A: I do not plan to design any garments employing textiles made from steel wool. I imagine any garment employing steel wool components would be very itchy, especially in warmer weather.