Sheep and wool have been woven into the fabric of human civilization for more than 10,000 years beginning in Asia Minor, which is now basically the country of Turkey. The natural migrations of peoples, the spread of religions, and the conquests of armies – especially the Roman armies in Northern Africa, Spain and the British Isles, and the Spanish Conquistadors and Church in the New World of the Americas – spread sheep and the use of wools across large parts of the world. After all these millennium wool is still a major textile cornerstone for clothing, bedding, carpeting and household furnishings.
Some people feel that the reason for this enduring and endearing relationship is because wool is composed of the same protein that makes up the outer protective layer of your skin and wool works in total harmony with your body's own protection mechanisms. Wool has naturally developed a higher level of in-built UV protection than many other fibers. Wool also has natural recovery. Each fiber is resilient and springy, thanks to its complex internal structure, giving clothes a beautiful drape and greater crease resistance.
Wool is a uniquely natural fiber that has a number of benefits. So, why wool?
- Built-in climate control. Wool is a natural insulator to keep you warm in winter and naturally breathable to keep you cool in summer. Wool fiber helps to keep your body at the optimal temperature zone for comfort and rest. When used in blankets, synthetic fibers, down and even cotton fibers do not breathe as well as wool, and are more likely to trap heat in your bed. Wool buffers the extreme cold or hot air on the outside, keeping your body in that comfort zone.
- Naturally absorbent fiber. Wool fiber is the original wicking fiber. Its coil-like shape pulls excess heat and moisture from your skin while you sleep. Wool fabrics can absorb up to 30% of their weight without feeling heavy or damp. Cotton fabrics begin to feel damp after 15%. The absorbent fibers "breathe" by wicking away moisture from the body and releasing it into the air. This quality makes wool fabrics comfortable to wear in warm and cold weather.
- Natural mildew and mold resistance. Wool's natural resistance to mildews and molds comes from the way it repels moisture, and lets moisture pass through it's fibers without holding the moisture. Mildews and molds require moisture to live and grow.
- Perfect insulator. Wool is warm in winter and cool in the summer because of its hydrophilic ability to wick away excess moisture. In the winter, wool removes moisture from the skin to keep the wearer feeling warm and dry and wool’s insulating qualities trap dry air and warmth near the skin. This is unlike synthetic fleece, which is warm but does not breathe easily. Wool's natural insulating quality and its ability to shed water results in a fabric that keeps the body warm even when it's raining. In the summer, wool’s coil-like shape pulls excess heat and moisture from your skin helping the wearer stay cooler.
- Water repellent. Tiny overlapping scales encase the wool fiber like tiles on a roof. This allows wool to repel rain, snow and liquid spills with ease.
- Wool is durable. Laboratory tests have shown that wool fibers resist tearing and can bend back on themselves more than 20,000 times without breaking. Cotton breaks after 3,200 bends, silk fibers break after 1,800 bends, and rayon fibers break after just 75 bends. Wool clothing will last for years. Wool resists spills, dries very quickly and is mildew resistant.
- Naturally wrinkle resistant. Wool fabrics resist wrinkles. Wool is the most resilient fiber because it has a natural crimp that helps it keep its shape. Wool fibers can be stretched and still bounce back to their original shape.
- Fire retardant. Wool is safer to wear having natural fire-retardant properties. It can resist flame without the chemical treatment involved in fireproofing. Synthetic fleece is oil based, ignites easily, burns fiercely and melts. If your synthetic fleece is fire proofed, then you have the fire proofing chemicals next to your skin.
- Resists static, dirt and dust. Wool fabric doesn't collect much static because of its absorbent fibers. Static attracts lint, dirt, and dust. Wool fabrics also clean easily because dirt sits on the surface of the fiber. The outside surface of the wool fiber consists of a series of overlapping scales, similar to the feathers on a bird, making it easy to brush off and for stains to lift out.
- Wool is colorful. There are an amazing variety and number of breeds of sheep that come in a wide array of colors giving us a huge number of natural colors. In additional to natural color-grown fibers, the structure of wool fibers allow wool to easily accept dyes without the need for harsh and sometimes toxic chemicals to prepare the fiber for dyes. When wool fabrics are dyed, the dye reaches to the core of the fiber and bonds permanently. Almost any color and dye can be used.
- Naturally non-allergenic. Wool is almost entirely non-allergenic. Although some people do have a rare natural allergy to Lanolin, the oil found in wool, most people's allergy to wool is a reaction to the many harsh and toxic chemicals that go into the treatment, and finishing of conventional wool garments and bedding. Serious chemical abrasives are routinely used to wash raw wool for processing. Chlorine and mothproofing chemicals are routinely applied to conventional wool before turning it into a finished product.
- Renewable and Sustainable. Wool is a renewable resource that can be shorn from sheep annually. It is biodegradable and kinder to the environment than oil-based synthetics, which contribute to global pollution. Wool is sustainable. Wool from free-grazing sheep, treated ethically throughout their long lives, represents a traditional small-scale industry that once thrived in America. Today, many small organic farmers are returning to this sustainable industry to create clean and healthy wool that is produced without stress to the animals or the environment.
At the Polytechnic Institute in Wales, research conducted on the effect of various bedding materials during sleep indicated that wool's ability to wick moisture away keeps skin drier during sleep than any of the other fibers tested. This is significant because during sleep people can lose more than one pint of water per night through their skin and breath. Their research also indicated that sleepers in wool-filled comforters had lower heart rates suggesting a more restful state of sleep than sleepers using comforters filled with down feathers or synthetics.
All of this just substantiates what many have known and experienced for centuries: wool is a wonderful fiber. Unfortunately, just as with the purity of cotton, sheep growers and wool fabric manufacturers have fallen under the dark siren’s song of better, easier and more profitable living through chemistry.
Conventional Wool Production.
Here’s the story. Sheep live outside and require large areas for grazing. When sheep are confined and their pastures are overgrazed, they become more susceptible to mange and pests such as mites, lice, and flies. To control these pests and parasites, more than 14,000 pounds of pesticides were applied to sheep in the U.S. The most common conventional pesticide treatments contain potentially dangerous organo-phosphorus compounds. The top three pesticides used on sheep are moderately toxic to humans but they are moderately to highly toxic to fish and amphibians, such as frogs, and they are suspected endocrine disruptors. Some of these pesticides are also highly water soluble which means that they can easily be carried from the sheep dip application site by rain or irrigation water runoff into our streams and rivers and contaminate our groundwater.
According to the Organic Trade Association:
“Pesticides used in sheep dips have consistently been linked with damage to the nervous system in workers that have been exposed to them in the United Kingdom. Even low-dose exposure over the long term has been conclusively linked with reduced nerve fiber function, anxiety, and depression. Long-term exposure to sheep dip has also been linked to reduced bone formation. In addition, residues of diflubenzuron, an insecticide used in sheep dips, persist in the environment for more than a year.”
This is just to control external pests. Sheep are also susceptible to internal parasitic worms. The conventional doctrine for control is to routinely dose the animals with drugs.
And then there is the issue of antibiotic feed additives, such as oxytetracycline and chlortetracycline, sometimes given to sheep to promote slightly faster growth and to compensate for overcrowded and unhealthy conditions in concentrated sheep pens. Again according to the Organic Trade Association, “Mounting evidence suggests that widespread use of agricultural antibiotics is contaminating surface waters and groundwater, including drinking water, in many rural areas as a result of their presence in animals waste. This non-human use of antibiotics is compromising medicine's effectiveness in people as bacteria become resistant to antibiotics over time.”
So much for the purity of conventionally grown wool. Small wonder that Little Bo Beep lost her sheep. She probably also lost her lunch after discovering what Farmer Brown was doing to her sheep.
Conventional Wool Fabric Manufacturing
As with cotton, the health dangers to the environment and the consumer are only compounded with the conventional production of fabrics and garments from conventionally grown wool. The conventional wool garment manufacturing process typically employs harsh scouring agents and bleaches to clean and whiten the wool, formaldehyde, polyester, foams, dioxins, conditioners, moth-proofing, harsh chemical dyes, and other, often toxic, additives to finish the fabric and garments. Chemical dyes frequently include toxic heavy metals such as chrome, copper and zinc, and sometimes contain known or suspected carcinogens.
For the chemically sensitive and chemically concerned consumer, beware of garments manufactured with new fabric technologies that boast of creating “smart wools” that will not shrink and have high performance capabilities. Many of these “unique and innovative properties” are achieved through a combination of chemicals and manufacturing processes which change the structure of the wool fibers and utilize the latest fabric technologies for processes such as sliver backwashing and continuous chlorine oxidization shrink resist systems. The chemically sensitive should be cautious with new wool fiber technologies such as Sportwool™, Woolscience™, Sensory Perception Technology™ and Arcana™.
As much as possible and appropriate, buy organically grown wool and organically processed wool garments and products. Organic wool is from sheep that have been raised without synthetic or harmful chemicals under healthy, natural, and responsible animal husbandry methods which reduce or eliminate the need for most agricultural chemicals and promote healthy soils, air, and waterways. The sheep are grazed on pesticide-free land that is not over-grazed and are never sprayed or dipped as is commonly practiced in conventional sheep farming. Responsible organic animal husbandry methods help raise sheep that have healthy immune systems that are most resistant to external and internal parasites.
Organic wool yarn is not chemically treated during the entire production
process, from the farm to the finished garment or product. The raw wool is scoured clean in an approved
biodegradable cleansing agent before being carded and spun at an organic mill. This organic cotton sweater is the Organic Wool Crew Neck Sweater from Patagonia.
Wool is a natural fiber and a renewable resource that is non-allergenic. Organic wool can be used extensively by those who normally suffer from chemical sensitivity when in contact with conventional grow wool. Sometimes those who ‘react’ to wool are actually displaying a reaction to the harsh scouring agents, dyes and chemicals used in conventional wool production and not the wool itself.
If you are having trouble knowing your Balwen from your Cotswold, visit Garghenor Organic Pure Wool , home of traditional and rare breeds of organic sheep. Garghenor is located in Ceredigion, Wales. The hilly countryside of Wales is home to an astonishing variety of sheep. For centuries, sheep have been a cornerstone of the economic and cultural life in Wales.
We hope that you search out for some of the exceptional organic wool products. In our next posting, we will explore the efforts of the Organic Wool Network to raise consumer awareness of organic wool products.