Wool 101: Understanding the basics


In 2008 my love affair with wool began. I entered into the Make It With Wool (MIWW) contest, where I had to make a garment out of fabric/yarn that was at least 60% wool. I made burnt orange pants with a coordinating black and burnt orange boucle blazer. I competed at the national contest, where I was introduced to the world of wool and sheep (I was a staunch goat person at the time).

My 2009 national winning outfit (minus the coat). Everyone here is wearing wool!

My 2009 national winning outfit (minus the coat). Everyone here is wearing wool!

Because of my experience with MIWW, my family now has a whole flock of wool sheep, and I have gained a deep appreciation for the fiber that wool is. It is my hope that after reading about wool, you will come to appreciate it like I do.

Wool History & Production

Wool has been an important fiber for humans since the beginning of time.Between the 15th and 18th centuries, sheep and wool was such an important economic factor that laws were passed to prevent the export of sheep and wool on penalty of death (whoa!). Sheep were first brought to America on the second voyage of Columbus in 1493. By the 1940s, America was the fifth biggest wool producing country in the world.

Today, the USA is not even among the top 10 wool producing countries according to the American Sheep Industry. Australia, China, and New Zealand produce the most wool. The top wool producing states include: Texas, California, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah (NASS, 2017). The weight of a fleece is often dependent on the state it is from. For example, fleeces from sheep raised in NC or Iowa weighs about 5 pounds. In contrast, fleeces from Nevada weigh on average 9.8 pounds (ASI, 2017).

As time has gone on, humans have refined wool through selective breeding. Today, there are many types of wool with various purposes. What has not changed is the properties of wool and what makes it so special.

Wool Properties

Although wool production has decreased due to the rise in synthetic fibers, no man-made fiber has been able to encompass all of wool’s unique properties. Here are just a few that make me love wool!

  • Wool is flame retardant. A cool science experiment is to take some 100% wool fabric and set it on fire. It will quickly extinguish itself. It does this because wool contains a naturally high nitrogen and water content. It is one reason why wool is popular to use in military and fireman uniforms as well as carpets and upholstery.

  • Wool can be worn during any time of the year. I know, you think of it as that warm wool coat for winter time, but if there is anything I’ve learned from working with wool, it’s that it has some serious variety. Wool can be thin or thick. I’ve seen it made into a ballgown, swimsuit, dress, and structured suit. Not only can the fabric be made into various weights, but the properties of wool can keep you both warm and cool. Because it is an absorbent fiber, it keeps you dry and warm when the air is cool and damp. It also keeps you cool by collecting perspiration, allowing your natural cooling system to work its best.

  • Wool is a natural deodorant. Because wool is a natural antimicrobial, it is much more resistant to retaining odor. I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to sweat easily. If that’s going to happen, my deodorant needs all the help it can get!

  • Wool is comparatively stronger than steel. This fiber will last you for years. It won’t tear as easily as other fibers. If you are concerned with the expense of wool, know that it is well worth the investment.

  • Wool is stain resistant—wool fiber has a protective layer that helps it not to absorb stains. Not only that, but it is also anti-static. Living somewhere that has cold winters (hello Nebraska), static has a whole new meaning. The static is real, and I can totally appreciate a fiber that is anti-static.

Are you a fan yet? I know I’m a life-long fan to the point where I’m forever checking labels to see what it is made of. Often, my purchasing decision is based on if it is indeed wool.

Wool Terms

There are some basic wool terms you should know, especially if you are dealing with wool right off the sheep.

  • Staple Length—this is the length of the lock of wool. You can learn more about when staple length matters down below.

  • Crimp—these are the waves in the wool. Sometimes they look like you’ve taken a crimping iron to them and others look more like curls. The tighter the crimp (more waves) the finer and softer the wool will be. The looser the crimp is coarser but has a lot of strength to it.

  • Fleece vs Pelt— to be completely clear, shearing wool off a sheep does not harm the sheep. It is a haircut. That being said, when you shear a sheep, you get the fleece. A pelt, however, is when the sheep is harvested, skinned, and tanned. There’s no real way to sugar coat that one, but it is important to distinguish between fleece and pelt.

  • Raw/grease Wool—this is wool straight off the sheep. It hasn’t been washed and is still filled with the grease, called lanolin, from the sheep.

  • Skirted—After the wool is sheared off of the sheep, it is skirted. This is is the process of sorting out the bad pieces of wool that are of lower quality or covered in manure.


Types of Wool

There are many different types and colors of sheep. Various breeds are known for certain types of wool. However, you can narrow wool down into 3 main types—longwool, medium/fine, and down wool. Each has their special purpose.

  • Longwool—known by its long staple length, it is often used for upholstery, carpet, and outerwear because it is coarse and strong. Longwool breeds include Border Leicesters, Coopworth, and Cotswold.

  • Medium/fine—this is the wool you want to wear next to your skin. It is soft and fine. A few breed examples are Merino, Cormo, and Corriedale.

  • Down—breeds like the Southdown offer a down wool that has more elasticity than other types of wool. It creates a great stretch. Think hosiery or socks.

You can often mix different types of wool together when spinning to bring the best of different worlds together. Wool can also come in a variety of colors. Naturally, wool can be silver, black, white, red, brown and shades in between. Wool can also be dyed to any shade you can imagine. It takes dye really well.

Here are a few of our girls. You can really see the color variety that wool naturally comes in. If you dye the natural color, darker wools, you’ll get some really earthy colors. White fleeces will take on many more brighter tones.

Here are a few of our girls. You can really see the color variety that wool naturally comes in. If you dye the natural color, darker wools, you’ll get some really earthy colors. White fleeces will take on many more brighter tones.

Caring for Wool

So, you are on board. You want some wool pieces for your closet, but isn’t wool hard to care for? Because of its special properties, wool is really resilient and doesn’t need to be washed as often as other fibers. There are some tips to taking care of wool you should note:

  • Keep the moths away. Because wool is made of proteins, moths think its pretty tasty. When storing, keep wool garments in containers that ward off moths. We’ve always used cedar chests.

  • Read labels. When in doubt, just read the labels. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve missed this step (not with wool) and ended up with a very different garment than I put in.

  • Spot clean. If you spill something like alcohol or food on your wool garment, gently rub carbonated water toward the center of the spot. If it is darker like coffee or tea, use glycerin or cold water. Cold water should also be used for ink or red wine.

  • Avoid hot water and friction. Wool will felt if you use super hot water and rub the fibers together.

Further Reading

Changes in the Sheep Industry in the United States: Making the Transition from Tradition

Wonder of Wool: Ancient Fiber to Modern Marvel

Why Sheep Don’t Shrink When it Rains and Answers to Other Questions About Wool

International Wool Textile Organisation: History of Wool

International Wool Textile Organisation: Flame Resistance

Background and History

Fast Facts About American Wool