WHAT is cozily warm in winter but surprisingly cool in summer? What is coarser than cotton, yet makes lightweight fabrics? What is a skier’s protection and a designer’s dream cloth? What can be stretched almost one third of its length and then return to its original length when released?
The answer to all these questions is wool—versatile, durable wool! Yes, the amazing coat of the docile sheep produces one of the most versatile fabrics available to man.
When early explorers arrived in South America, they found many of its people, such as the Peruvians, wearing beautiful alpaca wool garments. Even further back, in ancient Bible times, large flocks of sheep were kept, and garments were made of dyed and processed wool.—Exodus 26:1; Leviticus 13:47.
Modern history focuses on the sturdy Spanish merino sheep, outstanding not only for its prolific, high-quality wool production but also for its hardiness and ability to survive in rugged climates. The hardy merino was ideal for the arid climate of Australia, the island continent down under. In the late 18th century, founders of the new colony were on the lookout for more than something to eat. They needed a promising export on which to build an economy.
They selected wool because it literally grows on the hoof. Sheep could wander virtually unattended for long periods of time, and very little labor was needed to produce wool in volume. It could easily be packed and did not age in storage. Its resistance to mildew would enable it to withstand the long six-month voyage to England by sailing ship. Another big advantage was that wool did not burn readily.
“Riding on the Sheep’s Back”
And so, for a century and a half after the first merinos arrived in 1797, Australia survived economically largely because of wool exports. Following World War I, however, with the gradual development of secondary industries, together with the increasing use of synthetic materials in place of wool, the expression that Australia was financially “riding on the sheep’s back” became less applicable. That is, until the last half of the ’80’s when the Australian wool trade entered an unprecedented boom. At that time Australia’s sheep population stood at about 166 million—more than 10 sheep to every person in the country, and the annual production of wool had reached over 950,000 tons.
By 1990, however, the boom had turned to bust. The demand for wool plummeted and left Australia’s 70,000 sheep farmers with too many sheep—about 20,000,000 too many, according to the Sunday Correspondent of London, England.
Why So Wonderful?
Wool’s versatility and usefulness certainly cause wonder, as a brief review of its qualities reveals. Wool grows in a similar way to human hair, and many breeds of sheep have long hair mixed with their wool. This has been bred out of the merino strain, leaving just the fleecy undercoat that is so much in demand. Although wool is coarser than cotton or linen, its low density allows for the manufacture of lightweight fabrics. Its excellent affinity for dyes also increases its versatility. If you see a young woman wearing a bright red scarf that blows lightly in the breeze, it could be pure wool.
But have you ever tried to break off a strand of wool with your fingers? Tough, isn’t it? Yes, a single fiber of wool can resist breakage by a force of from one half to one ounce [15 to 30 g]—so you will need scissors to cut wool fabrics. Wool fiber also has a crimp, or wave, which makes it very pliable, and when stretched up to 30 percent of its length, it will return to normal length when released. It is this quality that makes wool wrinkle-resistant when dry.
Moreover, it is the air trapped between the unique fibers of wool that provides it with an insulating quality, making it warm in winter but cool in summer. Its surface is also water resistant, so that a damp woolen cardigan will not chill you by drying too rapidly, as other fabrics could. After all, sheep wear it all the time in all sorts of weather and do not suffer from colds.
You may not realize that felt—which has hundreds of uses, from carpets to tennis balls—is actually wool that has been compacted under heat and pressure. And worsted material, used for men’s and women’s suits and some soft, fine dresses, is produced from wool spun in a particular way.
From Sheep to You
In larger wool-producing countries, the shearing shed is an integral part of the rural landscape. Usually, sheep are sheared once a year, but in some warmer climates, shearing may be done twice annually.
Sheepshearers are a hardy bunch, with sinewy arms and strong backs. Using power shears, the shearer aims to remove the fleece in one piece. An experienced shearer can clip about 200 sheep a day. He first cuts the belly wool off, starting inside a leg, then moves up over the back, neck, and shoulders and down the other side. The best wool comes from the shoulders and the sides of the sheep.
As the newly sheared sheep are released from the shed, it is a pleasure to see them joyfully leaping about with newfound freedom after losing their heavy overcoats.
Next, the fleece is sorted and graded. Sorters stand at waist-high boards, examining the wool for brightness, crimp, purity, fineness, softness, and length. A skillful wool classer can work through about 10,000 pounds [4,500 kg] of fleece per week. Next the fleece is cleaned and dried, and the wax, or lanolin, is extracted. Wool sheared from a live sheep is the best.
Tender Care for Longer Life
You probably don’t need to be reminded that moths love wool. They lay their eggs so that the newly hatched caterpillars have plenty to eat. Their preference is for wool flavored with perspiration or substances spilled on it. So never store away soiled or dirty woolens. If you can buy mothproof garments, that is an extra protection. Store woolen clothes in airtight containers when you are not wearing the garments regularly. And even woolen clothes you wear frequently should be brushed and shaken regularly, for wool loves air.
Modern technology has helped a lot, for today much wool sold has been treated for insect and mildew resistance and is often preshrunk and fire-resistant. Still, you need to take care when laundering. Many modern washing machines have a wool cycle. But if you are washing by hand, gently squeeze the garment clean, working with your hands under the water, which should be warm or cool. Wool-washing agents are obviously better than soap, but if these are not available, dissolve your soap powder before you start. Do not use detergents, as they are usually alkaline and can damage the garment. Use the same temperature for rinsing, making sure that all soap is removed by using lots of fresh water. Roll the wet garment in a towel and squeeze out the moisture.
One of the advantages of woolen clothing is that it seldom needs ironing. If you want an extra smooth finish, however, use either a steam iron or an iron along with a damp cloth but only after the garment has completely dried. Light, quick strokes with the iron prevent the shine that no one wants, and it is better to lift and lower the iron rather than to push it along.
Wool Is a Wonder
You must surely agree that wool is a fascinating material. From overcoats to tennis balls, it supplies us with durable products. The early Australian settlers certainly made a wise choice in selecting sheep. We are grateful to them for that as we continue to enjoy the almost endless variety of things made from this wonder product, wool.