What is wool?

Wool’s unique properties make it an enduring favourite

Wool’s unique properties make it an enduring favourite
Image source: Fribus Mara

It might seem like a stupid question, but how much do you actually know about your 100% pure new wool garments? Chances are, not much, but here in the UK, we’ve fought wars over wool, and the economies of some of the former British dominions were founded on it.

Wool is a renewable textile with unique properties, and when expertly tailored, looks rather natty on a dapper dresser. Here’s everything you need to know about this traditional fabric.

What is wool?

Wool in its virgin state before it is cleaned, carded and spun into yarn

Wool in its virgin state before it is cleaned, carded and spun into yarn
Image source: Sergio Foto

Wool is a natural fibre made from the fleece of a sheep. What makes wool special is its krimp and its scale. Krimp refers to the natural kinks in each strand of fibre – the more kinks, the finer and warmer the wool. Scale refers to the microscopic roughness of the fibres – its ability to grip onto itself is what makes it possible to spin yarn. Wool fibres are also springy, a characteristic which helps wool cloth keep its shape.

Processing wool is a lengthy process which begins with cleaning the fleece of dirt and its natural grease – lanolin. After thorough washing, the wool is “carded” – combed – to separate out the long fibres from the short. Short fibres are mainly reserved for knitted products while long fibres are reserved for weaving to produce worsted wool cloth.

Wool has special qualities – like the fact that it can absorb around 30% of its weight in moisture before it becomes damp to the touch, making it an excellent, breathable winter fabric. Wool is fire retardant too, and as an insulator, keeps you warm in winter and cool in summer.

Wool wars

This Samuel Windsor tweed jacket and waistcoat are made from 100% pure wool

This tweed jacket and waistcoat are made from 100% pure wool
Image source: Samuel Windsor tweed jackets

Wool was the fabric of the middle ages and as such, was of colossal economic importance to its biggest exporter – England. So when, in 1337, Edward III kicked off the Hundred Years’ War by invading France, he was motivated, in part, by the need to protect England’s trade routes to Flanders, where the best weavers lived.

Edward’s ultimate ambition was to wrest the crown of France from the head of his cousin Philip VI, but the Battle of Crecy in 1346 – the first of three shattering defeats inflicted on our near neighbours, courtesy of our magnificent longbowmen – also went a long way to stopping the French interfering in our rich trade in wool.

British history

The Woolsack in the House of Lords is stuffed with wool from around the Commonwealth

The Woolsack in the House of Lords is stuffed with wool from around the Commonwealth
Image source: UK Parliament [CC BY 3.0]

The fact that the Speaker of the House of Lords sits on the woolsack should tell you how important the commodity was to Britain’s trade and standing in the world. It was Edward III who told his Lord Chancellor to “sit on his sack” all the way back in the 14th century, and wool was central to our success as a nation, right up until cheap synthetic yarns decimated the Northern mills in the 1960s.But not all our mills went bust – for a start there’s Harris Tweed, that rugged twill from the Outer Hebrides, and there’s also a fair flock of textile producers which continue to produce some of the best wool cloth in the world from their mills in Yorkshire. Think Burberry of Keighley; Abraham Moon of Leeds; and Alfred Brown of Empire Mills, Bramley, to name but three.

Colonial history

like this classic crew neck jumper from Samuel Windsor in berry

Wool can be dyed any number of colours
Image source: Classic crew neck jumper from Samuel Windsor

Who has the most sheep? It’s an interesting question to fall asleep to, but the answer probably isn’t what you were thinking – if you were thinking New Zealand, that is. In fact, the Kiwis hit “peak sheep” in 1982 when the country was home to 70 million bleaters – 22 for every human occupant. Now, however, the Land of the Long White Cloud hosts just 26 million sheep – a small number compared with China which has over 128,000,000.

Regardless of the comparative decline of sheep farming in the Antipodes, wool was the industry upon which their economies were built. In fact Australia (74,000,000+ sheep) still produces about 80% of the world’s best Merino wool.

Worsted wool

This quality Samuel Windsor suit made from 100% worsted wool is a good investment

A quality suit made from 100% worsted wool is a good investment
Image source: Navy pinstripe suit from Samuel Windsor

Your suit is made from worsted wool – its yarn spun from the longer fibres separated from the fleece and the natural crimp removed. It’s the kind of thread used to manufacture plain woven and twill fabrics – like your suit.

The name itself comes from the Norfolk village of Worstead which, along with North Walsham and Aylsham, formed a hub of 12th century textile making. Worsted wool will take quite a bit of punishment but can, with use, develop a slight sheen – hence the Royal Naval slang term for a clerk or writer, “shiny arse”. The moral of the story: it’s always best to buy two pairs of trousers with your new wool suit.

Merino wool

Australian merino sheep produce some of the finest and softest wool

Australian merino sheep produce some of the finest and softest wool
Image source: mastersky

The warmest woollens come from the wool of the merino, a Spanish sheep so prized for the fineness of its wool that, until the 18th century, smuggling beasts from the country was punishable by death. The Napoleonic wars mostly killed off the Spanish merino industry, and the world capital of merino eventually moved to Australia.

From small beginnings in the early 19th century, the Aussies soon became overwhelmingly the biggest growers and exporters of this famous wool, and having gained domination of the market, did as the Spanish before them: they banned the export of merino ewes and embryos until as recently as 2010, although not admittedly under pain of death.

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