Everything You Never Knew About Wool's Pros, Cons & Environmental Impact
Looking to clean up your wardrobe and adopt a slow fashion mentality? Wool can be a great material to welcome into your eco-closet. Here's what you need to know about the different types of wool, how they're made, and how to spot a sustainable, durable wool garment.
What is wool fabric?
Wool is a natural fabric made from the hair of an animal. While wool is most often associated with sheep, it can also come from alpacas, llamas, goats, camels, and rabbits. Because of its breathability, longevity, and versatility, it's used to make clothing, upholstery, blankets, carpet, and more.
How wool is made.
Turning wool into fabric takes a few steps. And according to a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the designer of Born Again Vintage Bridgett Artise, the raising and processing (first and last) steps are what you really want to pay attention to when shopping for a sustainable garment. Here's how it all works:
An animal gets a haircut.
It starts with shearing (or cutting) the coat of a wool animal. This usually happens about once a year.
While PETA claims that shearing hurts the animal, this is an extreme outcome and generally happens if the animal isn't given the proper time to recoup its fleece before the next shearing. Meaning, the animal is only harmed if the farm or shearer in question cares more about profit and the amount of wool than the animal itself.
Otherwise, shearing is pain-free for the animal and necessary for maintaining the health of the flock. When sheep that are bred for wool don't get sheared, their hair can get too long and start to trap debris, making the animal prone to illness.
The wool gets cleaned up.
After the animal has been shorn, the wool is sorted to remove the unusable pieces of the fleece. Once those waste pieces are repurposed or put to the side, the rest of the wool is scoured to remove the natural lipid lanolin and dirt from the fibers.
Traditionally, scouring is done with warm water, but some wool producers opt for using chemical additives to speed up the process.
The wool is separated into fibers.
Then, the wool most often meets its first machine—the picker. The picker separates the fibers and combs out larger debris still entangled in the fleece.
Next, the wool is "carded" to make sure all of its fibers are straight, elongated, and lying in the same direction. This can be done by hand or with a carding machine specifically designed for the task. Once carded, you're left with what's known as roving—wool that's ready to be spun into yarn.
The fibers get spun into yarn.
From there, the roving is spun into yarn in one of two ways: worsted or woolen. The worsted system results in soft and dense wool, while the woolen system results in irregular and light wool.
After the wool yarn is created, the wool is ready to weave or knit into fabrics!
Along the way, wool might be treated with chlorine.
Chemical treatments, like a chlorine wash to prevent felting, can be applied before or after the final garment is produced.
Unfortunately, treating wool with chlorine involves using tons of water and electricity. The process also creates water runoff with concentrated amounts of adsorbable organohalogens (AOX) toxins, making it potentially harmful to the environment.
Chlorine-treated wool is also known as washable wool. To avoid contributing to this environmentally taxing process, look for pure untreated wool, chlorine-free wool, or AOX-free wool.
Types of wool.
There are many varieties of wool. Here are some of the popular types you'll likely find on the rack:
- Cashmere: Cashmere fibers come from the underbelly of the Cashmere goat, making it a soft and luxurious fabric. The lower yield per shearing leads to a higher price tag.
- Merino: Taken from the merino breed of sheep, these wool fibers are extremely thin and make for great base layers. Outdoorsy folks will know merino wool as the fabric that can keep you warm and dry in a blizzard.
- Alpaca: Known as an all-weather fabric, alpaca fibers are more resilient to heat, allergens, and water than other wools. Artise from FIT also enjoys the versatility and beauty of this fabric.
- Angora: The world's warmest natural fiber comes from the Angora rabbit. The fibers are extremely soft but also delicate, which is why angora is often mixed with other wool fibers.
- Camel hair: Often kept in its natural golden brown color, the wool from the Bactrian camel has uniquely long fibers that retain its shape over time. Camel hair garments are known to become softer with use.
- Lambswool: Lambswool is particularly special since it comes from the very first shearing of a baby lamb and has hypoallergenic properties.
- Mohair: Mohair is not from a sheep but from the Angora goat. Guard hairs (the outer layer of the goat's already long fleece) are kept intact during the shearing process, making mohair garments fascinatingly fuzzy.
- Shetland: From the Shetland breed of sheep of Scotland, this wool is much more coarse and thick due to the sheep's native environment.
The pros & cons of wool.
Wool is an inherently durable fabric. With the right care, it can last you forever. It’s also super versatile, and there are so many types and blends out there to choose from.
Overall, Artise considers wool a very sustainable fabric. She especially appreciates the fact that it's a natural material that is compostable as long as it's not chemically treated.
On the flip side, wool is a tad temperamental and can felt or shrink if it isn't properly washed. (Check out a wool care guide here.) Some people may also find certain wool fabrics uncomfortable or itchy.
And though the material is sustainable by nature, it can be treated with toxic chemicals.
How to find sustainable wool:
First and foremost, love on the wool that's already out there.
Take good care of your wool garments and they should last you a lifetime. Since wool is so durable, Artise says it's a great material to thrift, borrow, or buy secondhand.
When buying new, ask about sourcing.
When you do want to buy new wool, consider it an investment piece. Take the time to do the research before deciding on the right choice for you.
"If you're interested or happen to like a particular brand, you need to take the time to find out where their wool is sourced," starts Artise.
Peek around a brand's website to see how their animals were raised and how often they were shorn. Avoid companies that have been accused of mulesing, aka cutting crescent-shaped pieces of skin from the rear of the animal to prevent flies (and maggots) from creeping into the folds of its wool. It's painful and harms the overall well-being of the animal.
On the processing side, go with pure wool that has not been chlorine-treated (AOX-free). If you can't find information about a company's wool online, Artise recommends writing in to ask about it.
For added assurance, look for third-party certifications.
These third-party certifications verify wool that has been created with the well-being of the animal and the environment in mind:
The bottom line.
Wool is environmentally friendly from the jump—but if you're looking for a wool staple for your wardrobe, get ready to play detective. "We all have a specific role in regard to how we can contribute more to the sustainability of anything," Artise tells mbg. That means that in the end, that cozy wool sweater will be worth the little extra legwork.
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Alex Shea is a freelance sex and relationships writer based in Texas. She studied Life Sciences at San Jacinto College and has a journalism certificate from Michigan State University. Her work has been published at Huff Post, Allbodies, Obsev, and elsewhere.
Aside from the work she does in the wellness industry, she writes about environmental causes, travel, and animals. She’s also the author of I Don't Know Yet, a book of poetry and prose. She currently lives in San Antonio with her partner and her pup, Scout, and is writing her second book.