All About Wool

Welcome to All About Fibers!

This is the first post in a series about different yarn fibers. We’ll be talking all about what the different fibers are, their properties, how they’re used, and more. My goal is not only to provide an educational resource for anyone who might need it, but also to geek out about fiber, which is something I love to do. To kick off this series, there’s no better fiber to talk about than everybody’s favorite: wool!

Okay, so maybe it’s just my favorite fiber. I’ll try not to let that influence my discussion of it though and give you the facts. Let’s get started!

What is wool?

Technically speaking, the term wool describes the fiber obtained from the coat of any number of animals, including sheep, goats, rabbits, and more. In terms of knitting and crocheting though, our use of the word wool almost always refers to sheep’s wool. It has been used for centuries in weaving and other fiber arts to make garments to protect against the elements.

So how does wool become yarn? In a very quick and basic sense, the woolly coat is sheared from the sheep, washed (cleared of oils, dirt, etc.), and combed or picked—that’s when the material is opened up and turned into a light, fluffy fiber. From there, the wool fibers can be spun using a tool like a spinning wheel or a drop spindle. Wool can either be spun from a single strange (single ply or unplied yarn), or it can be spun into multiple strands that are then twisted together (plied yarn).

What are the properties of wool yarn?

The fun and interesting thing about wool yarn is that there are about as many types of it as there are people who raise sheep! Different breeds of sheep produce different fleece, and then even among the same breed there are differences depending on how they’re raised, the climate, etc. But for the sake of this post, let’s talk about some of the characteristics of wool that are pretty consistent regardless of the type or breed of sheep.

Some Pros:
  • Warmth: Garments made from sheep’s wool do the same thing for us that they do for sheep: they keep us warm! Not just that, but the special properties of wool mean that you’re not going to be wrapped up in some sweaty heat prison. Instead, wool more gently insulates against the skin and prevents body heat from escaping, resulting in a more comfortable warmth.
  • A Forgiving Knit: Wool has a property that I and other crafters call bloom. Let’s say you knit up a swatch in wool and your stitches aren’t super even. Over time and as it’s handled, the wool fibers sort of open up and shift around to fill in the gaps in your work to a certain extent, resulting in a naturally more even-looking knit. Blocking makes this work even better!
  • Versatility and Availability: Mentioned before, wool comes in all different shapes and sizes—and, for that matter, all kinds of price ranges! If you need yarn of a certain weight, color, texture, etc., there’s a great chance you’ll be able to find some wool that will fulfill that purpose.
Some Cons:
  • Ease of Care: Most wools are not machine washable. Instead, they must be washed by hand and laid flat to dry, in most cases. Superwash wools are the exception, treated chemically to prevent felting when washed (more on this below).
  • Roughness: Don’t get the wrong idea—there are some incredibly luscious, baby soft wools out there. But to that end, there are also some wools that are positively scratchy to the touch, earning the fiber an unfortunate reputation as our least favorite Christmas present.

In a Blend: When used as one of multiple fibers in a blended yarn, the properties really tend to depend on whether wool is the major fiber or a more minor component. As the main fiber, the yarn tends to mostly reflect the properties of wool, perhaps taking on some characteristics of its companions. For example, many sock yarns are primarily wool with a bit of nylon added so that it remains elastic when worn. When wool is a more minor component, such as in many acrylic/wool blends, it’s usually a matter of trying to give that yarn a bit more of a comfortable warmth, and maybe some rustic fuzziness.

When should you use wool yarn?

Wool is the king of cold weather knits! Well, at least in my humble opinion. No fiber does a better job of braving the cold and trapping heat close to the body comfortably. Other fibers either don’t do as strong of a job insulating or end up creating a sort of over-hot barrier, causing sweating and discomfort; but wool is really your best friend for winter.

Really though, because of the incredible variety of wool yarns out there, it’s a super popular choice for just about any type of project. I don’t think you can go wrong with wool no matter what your goal is.

Some Other Fun Facts

Compared to fibers such as alpaca or cotton, wool doesn’t have a ton of drape. That makes it better for garments with solid shape, such as fitted sweaters or non-slouchy hats. You can still create drape to a certain extent via pattern or gauge, of course. As mentioned above, machine washing wool can cause it to felt. What this means is exactly what it sounds like: when exposed to heat, moisture, and agitation, woven wool literally turns into felt! While this is often and unfortunate side effect of mishandling it, it can also be used intentionally to create felt accessories, toys, and hats!

So, what do you think of wool? Is it a fiber you use often, and did you learn anything new? Let me know if there’s anything else you’d like to know about this incredible fiber!