In the world of clothing today, our options are endless and getting to know the material that makes up what we wear can be an overwhelming task. Where do we even start? This is why we launched #MaterialMonday, a series of informative (and not overwhelming, we promise!) posts that breaks down what’s what in fabrics. Our goal is to equip you with knowledge and tips that will inform your buying choices so that they are made with sustainability and the environment in mind.
Post by Contributing Writer Iris Chau.
It’s cold out (at least where I am) and there’s nothing else I’d rather wear in the morning than a cozy sweater. This week, we are tackling the natural animal fiber that fashion consumers and industry just can’t seem to make up our mind about— wool. We love it for its warmth and luxuriousness, but we’re also torn as an industry about its environmental and even ethical implications. This week, we’re breaking down this fiber and answering some necessary questions:
What is wool?
Are wool fabrics ethically made?
Is it worth the higher price?
Is it more sustainable to buy synthetic wool?
What are the differences between different types of wool?
WHAT EXACTLY IS WOOL?
Wool. It is one of the most common and most sought out fibers, but the word itself is an ambiguous one. ‘Wool,’ refers to the soft coat of hair of sheep and goats, but can also refer to the coats of other animals that produce very fine hairs, like rabbits. In clothing, the general term WOOL on the care and content label inside your garments refers to wool from sheep, or sheep and other animals combined. Usually, companies will specify whether it is MERINO WOOL or general WOOL, especially since the term MERINO carries more prestige. According to the Wool Products Labelling Act (United States), there is a standard in place for what “wool” means in clothing: (b) The term "wool" means the fiber from the fleece of the sheep or lamb or hair of the Angora or Cashmere goat (and may include the so-called specialty fibers from the hair of the camel, alpaca, llama, and vicuna) which has never been reclaimed from any woven or felted wool product. (The Federal Trade Commission, 2019.)
WHY IS IT MORE EXPENSIVE?
Wool requires much more labor and time than other fibers. They cannot be instantly made like synthetic fibers. Wool is reliant on animals and the people that raise these animals. It is dependent on the time it takes for animals to grow their fine hairs, the time it takes to cut (shear) hair, sort through the hairs, and process it into yarns that get knitted into fabric. The sorting process in particular is crucial— to ensure the wool lives up to standard, and to make product worth higher value, individual hairs must be sorted according to their level of fineness and coarseness. Wool comes at a higher cost not only for these reasons, but specific kinds of wool have their own unique value attached. Merino wool, for example, is much smoother than conventional wool, which means that it won’t make the wearer feel itchy. Plus, brands that deliberately choose to produce garments of real wool over synthetic wool believe it is genuinely worth the higher cost because of the many benefits.
Benefits of wool
MASS WEAPONS OF INSULATION
No matter which animal its from, wool is known first and foremost for its high functioning thermal quality. The wool fiber has natural crimps and bumps, and when fibers are side by side, little gaps between the bumps trap air and create insulation. These crimps also make the fabric more durable.
MOISTURE WICKING/KEEPS YOU DRY
Wool is breathable. Like other natural fibers, It regulates your body temperature by transporting away moisture, so you don’t end up feeling clammy or damp. Moisture travels easily through the fibers as vapor, not as liquid (thanks to those crimps.) Synthetics like polyester and viscose, on the other hand, are more likely to trap moisture.
Colour adheres to wool easily because the fibers are naturally absorbent. This means that less chemicals are needed to ensure that the fabric retains the unique colour.
Wool is crease resistant, and even when it wrinkles, wool is good at smoothing out its own wrinkles, especially in a moist atmosphere. This makes it easy to take care of for people who do not have time to iron or steam their clothes every day.
BIODEGRADATION & REPURPOSING
Wool has much better potential to biodegrade because it is a natural fiber. It can break down more readily than synthetic alternatives and release nutrients back into the environment. Wool can also be repurposed easily— shrunken wool sweaters can be kids’ or toy clothing, wool can be cut up to make absorbent cloths, mug warmers, coasters, or scarves.
Drawbacks of wool
When exposed to heat, wool felts. Felting is where the fiber sticks close to each other, interlocking and mashing together without the ability to expand again. This is what happens when you put a wool sweater into the drying machine, and find that it shrinks. However, this is almost a non-issue, many wool fibers now are covered with a special type of resin to create washable fabric.
Wool pills. As a natural fabric, the fibers cannot be manufactured into a pill-proof shape (long, long, long strings of fiber create yarns that are less susceptible to pilling). Pilling is a natural effect of wool over time and can be avoided by washing the garment less. Consider laying your garment out in the sun, hanging it up for a few days to air out, or spot cleaning it.
But we would not be here talking about wool if it were not for the creatures who make this phenomenal fiber. By getting to know the animal source, we’ll come to think more critically of wool and visualize where it comes from every time we come across it in a store or in our closet.
Below, we have prepared a cheatsheet for you!
THE ETHICAL CONCERNS OF WOOL
Acquiring wool means that sheep must be raised and tended, and one of the most pressing ethical concerns is the treatment of these animals in wool production facilities or farms. PETA, in an article on the wool industry claim that these facilities are inhumane: “Sheep are gentle individuals who, like all animals, feel pain, fear, and loneliness. But because there’s a market for their fleece and skins, they’re treated as nothing more than wool-producing machines,” (PETA, 2019).
Shearing, the process of cutting/removing the coat of hair from sheep and other wool producing animals, is the stage of wool production that can directly hurt animals. Animals are usually resistant to shearing, and because of this, unskilled shearers need to be forceful in order to do their job. This sometimes means animals are hurt and cut. At the same time, there are also shearing facilities that are humane and whom are careful with their shearing. The shearers are much more skilled, patient, and careful not to hurt the animal during the process. The conundrum that we, as consumers, face is that there is no transparency within companies to inform us whether or not our wool comes from an ethical or caring facility.
Animal harm can be a lot worse than carelessly cutting sheep during the shearing process. Mulesing— the process of removing an animal’s rear end to prevent blowflies from gathering there and potentially multiplying— is a huge animal rights concern. This mutilation is painful for the animal, yet it is still being done on some farms and facilities despite growing concerns.
The high consumer demand for wool products is also a major concern. The harm done to wool producing animals ultimately traces back to market demand. To meet high production numbers, shearing facilities are encouraged to work fast, shear more hair per minute, tend more sheep per year and treat their animals like ‘wool-producing machines.’ This reality is even more true today, where fast fashion and hype has dominated so much of the current industry.
A common alternative to wool is acrylic fiber, used to make sweaters, socks, and scarves. Acrylic is a synthetic fiber and it acts like one; it does not have the regulating, active characteristics of wool that responds to your body heat. However, it is capable of having a soft hand feel and the fibers sometimes imitate crimping to trap warmth. However, if you are searching for a wool alternative, I would firstly recommend choosing cotton alternatives. Look for 100% cotton chunky sweaters and socks, because they do exist! Though they may not be as “plush” as wool, they are smooth and soft, insulatory, and moisture wicking.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Navigating wool sustainably and ethically is about education. When buying wool, buy from transparent companies that tell you how their wool is sourced. Read up on and look for global or national wool standards and certifications, and look for products with created with those certifications. And, because we love to be handy, we’ve created a list of resources for you to end off this week’s #MaterialMonday!
LINKS TO WOOL STANDARDS
RECLOSETED APPROVED - FASHION COMPANIES FOR WOOL
Read their reports and standards, too.
We hope that you learned a few new things! While this is a great starting point, if you want to learn more about wool, cashmere, and other materials, make sure you pre-order The Recloseted Handbook: Your Sustainable Fashion Guide to get access to all our in-depth research and tips! Also, because you took the time to read this post, you can use the good “DOGOOD” for 15% off the handbook (valid until Feb 15, 2019).