There is an old Spanish proverb that says; “Wherever sheep’s feet touch the ground, the land turns to gold.” Obviously the Spanish were onto something. Sheep’s wool is the most popular type of wool, due to it being widely available and highly versatile. Very fine quality wool is used…
There is an old Spanish proverb that says; “Wherever sheep’s feet touch the ground, the land turns to gold.” Obviously the Spanish were onto something. Sheep’s wool is the most popular type of wool, due to it being widely available and highly versatile. Very fine quality wool is used to make high-end fabrics for use in luxury garments likes suits, dresses, sweaters, and other apparel. Medium quality wool is used in the production of heavier sport coats, sweaters, and light blankets. Coarser wool is used for heavy blankets, topcoats and outerwear, and upholstery products.
Maintains shape when stretched.
Is colorfast when dyed.
Is wrinkle resistant.
Is soft, durable, and easy to work with.
Is naturally white, brown, grey, charcoal, and black.
Is flame retardant.
Types of Sheep’s Wool
Raised in the Shetland Islands off the northern coast of Scotland, Shetland sheep produce very fine, lustrous wool from the down of their soft undercoat. The warm, lightweight Shetland wool is only available in limited quantities and natural colors and is mostly used in the production of high-end knitwear (most often cable knit sweaters), sportswear, and coats.
Merino wool has superior shine, legendary softness, great breathability, and a lot of warmth for minimal weight. Merino sheep are most often raised in the mountainous regions of Australia and New Zealand. The wool is lauded for its easily dye-able pure white color. It is fine, strong, naturally elastic, holds dye well, and its softness resembles the hand of cashmere. Merino wool does not have the itchy feel of some wools, is odor absorbent, and provides high levels of UV protection.
Today, there are more than ten varieties of merino sheep worldwide. Some well known merino breeds are Australian, Peppin, Saxony, Rambouillet, Vermount, and South African.
This is the highest quality of sheep’s wool on the market. Lambswool is taken from sheep at their first shearing (usually at around seven months old). It is supremely soft, smooth, resilient, elastic, and has superior spinning properties. Because of its soft silkiness and warmth, lambswool fibers are used in the production of garments worn close to the skin. Lambswool is the most hypoallergenic of all wools and is resistant to dust mites, making it an ideal choice for bedding and linens.
Loden wool originated in the Tyrolean Alps in the 16th century and is still highly popular among sportsmen today. It is characterized by a slightly `greasy’ feeling and is most often used in the making of heavy coats. Loden’s luxurious nap is combed downward, creating a shingle effect that sheds water very effectively.
Melton wool is thick with a smooth surface. The wool is napped and very closely sheared. Melton wool makes a very solid cloth due to the finishing processes that completely conceal the weave. It’s durable, wears well, and is wind resistant. In its thicker weights, melton wool is used in the production of heavy outerwear. If the wool is a thinner weight, it is used mostly in the production of sweaters.
The type or grade of wool is selected to suit the needs of the product being made, with appropriate fiber length, fineness, and other properties to ensure the best end result.
Virgin wool has two definitions. First, it is the wool taken from a lamb’s first shearing. This is the softest and finest wool produced. Second, virgin wool can refer to wool that has never been used, processed, or woven before. This type of virgin wool can come from an adult sheep.
‘Super’ wools are classified by the count or the fineness of the yarn used in a particular cloth. The finer the count (measured in microns), the more fibers are used per square inch of cloth. The higher the number, the finer and softer the cloth will be.
‘Super’ wools are put into the following categories: Super 100’s, Super 110’s, Super 120’s, and Super 150’s. For example, Super 100’s wool must contain fibers which are finer than 18 microns. Super 150’s wool must contain fibers which are finer than 15 microns. (Statistically, Super 150’s wool is finer than cashmere.)
Boiled wool is created through a washing process applied to a knitted wool to make a dense, durable, and water resistant fabric. Boiled wool has the suppleness of a knit with the shape retention of a woven fabric. It has two-way stretch and is usually soil resistant. Boiled wool is used to make hats, gloves, scarves, and a variety of outerwear.
Worsted wool has been manufactured in Worstead, England since the eighteenth century. Wool fibers are spun into compact, smoothly twisted yarn before weaving or knitting. The wool then goes through a second combing process which removes unwanted short fibers. Because the remaining long-staple fibers lay flat and parallel, worsted wool is a popular choice for suiting and dress trousers. It is also wrinkle and crease resistant.
Tropical weight wool is a two-ply, plain weave, worsted wool that is sturdy but lightweight, airy, and breathable. Tropical wool (sometimes called `summer weight wool) is used in the production of warm-weather suits and other clothing items.
Shearling is lambskin or sheepskin that has been tanned with the wool still adhering to the skin. It is luxuriously soft, naturally moisturizing, and used in high-quality outerwear and slippers.
Flannel, fleece, gabardine, and tweed are all popular fabrics that are made from sheep’s wool or a sheep’s wool blend.
Softer and sturdier than cashmere and lighter than sheep’s wool, alpaca fleece is a luxurious commodity that produces warm, silky, durable, and feather-light garments. Alpaca wool boasts tremendous warmth and insulation with soft drape and texture.
It’s used in upscale suits, sportswear, sweaters, the linings of outerwear, draperies, bedspreads, upholstery, and baby clothing and blankets.
There are two breeds of alpaca, the Huacaya and the Suri, and they produce more than 20 different colors of fleece between them. The common Huacaya breed produces dense, thick, crimped, and fast-growing fleece. The rarer Suri alpaca have long lustrous fleece that takes more time to grow.
Is fine, silky, and lightweight.
Has a nice luster.
Is strong and durable.
Does not generally pill.
The Angora goat produces mohair wool, known for its silkiness and lustrous sheen. A very good insulator, mohair is also strong, durable, breathable, and lightweight. Although it accepts dyes well, natural mohair wool fabric is exceptionally beautiful because of its color variations. Mohair fabrics tend to be non-crushing, non-matting, and non-pilling. Mohair is used in high-quality suiting, sweaters, dresses, scarves, blankets, upholstery, and baby clothing and blankets.
Lustrous and silky.
Lightweight but exceptionally durable.
Non-crushing, non-matting, non-pilling.
Absorbs dye well.
Does not stretch so it’s easy to care for.
Angora wool is an extraordinarily soft fiber produced from the fur of the Angora rabbit. Angora fibers are hollow, which gives them loft and a characteristic `floating’ feel. They’re exceptionally soft and possess the highest heat retention (two-and-a-half times warmer than sheep’s wool), and best moisture-wicking properties of any natural fiber.
Pure angora fibers are rarely woven into fabric because the fibers are so fine and fragile. Rather, they are blended with other wools to increase warmth and enhance softness. Angora wool can be worn outside in very cold conditions and then immediately worn inside without overheating.
Because Angora involves a laborious harvesting process and a small number of producers, most angora wool products are expensive. Angora is used in luxury undergarments, underwear, thermal base layers, sweaters, scarves, and sportswear.
Extremely soft, lofty, lustrous, and lightweight.
Best heat retention of all natural wool.
Cashmere is an extremely soft, luxury fabric made from the hair of the Kashmir goat. Native to India, Tibet, Turkistan, Iran, Iraq, and China, the Kashmir goat produces hair with a lofty feel and natural crimp.
Technically, cashmere is the downy wool that grows beneath the goat’s coarser outer hair and is gathered by combing the goat rather than clipping it. Only a few ounces of cashmere can be harvested per goat each year.
The natural crimp of cashmere fibers helps them interlock during processing and allows the fibers to be spun into a very fine and lightweight fabric. The crimp of the fiber correlates with the fineness of the spun yarn and the softness of the finished product. The fabric retains the loft of the fibers which makes it warm without weight. Because of its extreme warmth, light weight, and softness against skin, cashmere is used in sweaters, scarves, and undergarments. Coarser cashmere is used in outerwear.
Is a luxury fabric.
Is lightweight and lofty.
Adjusts to humidity in the air for adaptability in all climates.
Is not known for its durability.
Because cashmere has a high moisture content, its insulating properties change with the amount of humidity in the air, making it comfortable in all climates (even warm ones).
Like other luxury wools, camel hair is extremely soft, durable, lustrous, lightweight, and warm. Clothing manufacturers prefer the fabric in its natural state (a buttery, golden brown), but it is sometimes dyed navy, red, or dark brown. Since it is so highly prized and expensive to harvest, camel hair is usually blended with sheep’s wool to make it more economical for the manufacturer to produce.
Camel hair comes from the Bactrian (two hump) camel, which is bred in the extremely cold climates of China and Mongolia. The hair is gathered when the camel molts instead of by shearing or clipping. The fibers are used in the making of suits, coats, blazers, jackets, skirts, hosiery, caps, and robes. Because of its warmth, camel hair is also widely used for sweaters, gloves, scarves, mufflers, overcoats, quilts, etc.
Extremely soft and fine.
Durable and lightweight.
If you are already experiencing hand, arm, and/or neck pain due to knitting? Below are suggested exercises for knitters to Help Your Knitting Induced Pain.
Sit in a straight chair and slowly turn your head from side to side, trying to look back over your shoulder on each side. You must do this very slowly so that there is an opportunity for proper stretching to occur. Repeat at least 10 times.
Tip your head to one side trying to touch your ear to your shoulder. You can’t really do this. It’s just a description of the movement. Hold your head in the position described for a count of 10 and then try to touch the ear on the other side to your other shoulder. Hold. Repeat at least 10 times.
One by one, bend each finger and your thumb backward towards the back of your hand, stretching so that you feel a pull on the inside of your wrist. Repeat with the other hand.
Sit comfortably in an armless chair with your arms hanging down at your sides. Bend your arms at the elbows so that your forearms are parallel to the floor. Stretch your shoulders back as if you were trying to make your shoulders meet behind your back. Hold and repeat at least 5 times. Be sure that you are sitting straight and that your shoulders are relaxed when you begin this exercise.
Place the backs of your hands in the small of your back at waist height. Stretch your shoulders backward, trying to make your elbows touch behind you. You can’t really make them touch. This is just a description of the position. Hold to a count of 5. Repeat at least 5 times slowly.
Sit straight in a chair with your arms hanging at your sides and your shoulders relaxed. Slowly move your head back a bit, keeping your chin parallel to the floor in a horizontal position. Do not strain but seek to do this movement in a smooth way. Repeat this small movement 5 or 10 times. You will feel a pleasant stretch down your back. This is one exercise that you can do in public. Most people will not notice that you are doing anything.
These series of exercises, if done slowly and regularly, will result in a more relaxed spine, neck, shoulders, and hands. I’m certainly not a doctor or physical therapist, but I hope these exercises are helpful.
Natural animal fiber spun from the fleece of sheep. Other animal fibers are often called “wool”, but for precision, I’m listing those separately. For me, wool means sheep.
Characteristics: wool comes in a variety of softness and fiber length. Elastic and light. Some wool very fine, some very hairy. Feltable unless treated to be Superwash.
Advantages: often affordable, long-lasting, warm, forgiving for the new knitter. Stays warm when wet.
Disadvantages: some wool can irritate some skin. Some people are sensitive to animal fiber in general, others have an allergy to lanolin which is only found in sheep’s fleece.
Wool variations you might see on labels:
Merino: Merino wool comes from the Merino breed of sheep and is considered one of the softest wools. You will see categories of Merino: fine, superfine, extrafine, supersoft, New Zealand.
Shetland: from the Shetland breed of sheep; fine and soft.
Peruvian or Peruvian Highland: comes from the Peruvian Highland sheep, a cross between Merino and Corriedale. Soft and inexpensive.
Lambswool: wool from a young sheep.
Virgin wool: a grade of wool meaning either that the wool comes from the first shearing or that the wool was spun for the first time rather than recycled.
Superwash: wool that is treated or coated to make it machine washable.
Synthetic polymer fiber made from polyacrylonitrile.
Characteristics: comes in a wide variety of textures and colors, feel soft to the touch.
Advantages: inexpensive, washable, non-irritating. When blended with other fibers, add lightness and durability.
Disadvantages: after washing, can look shiny, often pills.
Natural animal fiber from the alpaca. (What’s the difference between a llama and a alpaca? Alpacas are smaller, and are raised specifically for their fleece).
Characteristics: long, fine, fibers, often looks slightly “hairy”. Feltable.
Advantages: Warm. Soft. Baby, suri varieties very soft. Contains no lanolin.
Disadvantages: Like wool, can irritate sensitive skin.
Natural animal fiber from the hair of Angora rabbit. (Not to be confused with Mohair, which comes from the Angora goat.)
Characteristics: very fine and soft.
Advantages: downy soft, makes pretty fabric with a halo.
Disadvantages: pricy, needs special care.
For most Bamboo listings on a yarn label, you should see Rayon. According to the FTC, fiber content labels should specify “viscose from bamboo” or “mechanically processed bamboo.” The first, and most commonly used, is viscose rayon made from bamboo cellulose. The second is fiber spun from the bamboo plant.
Advantage: affordable, soft to skin, shiny, luxurious
Disadvantage: can be heavy, absorb water, allow UV light to penetrate
Natural animal fiber from the undercoat of the Bactrian camel.
Characteristics: tan colored. Light weight, fine, soft.
Advantages: very soft, luxurious.
Disadvantages: expensive, limited color selection.
Natural animal fiber from the undercoat of the Cashmere (Kashmir) goat.
Characteristics: very light, very fine, very soft. Easy to work with. Has soft halo.
Advantages: soft, lightweight, non-irritating, luxurious.
Disadvantages: expensive, delicate.
Natural vegetable fiber made from the cotton plant.
Characteristics: typically dense and less elastic than wool. Texture ranges from rough to glossy.
Advantages: does not irritate sensitive skin, washable, suitable for warm weather. Has great stitch definition. Inexpensive.
Disadvantages: can be heavy on the hands, and is unforgiving on mistakes and uneven tension. Large garments can be heavy and stretch. When washed, some cotton shrinks dramatically.
Variations you’ll see on labels: Pima (soft), Egyptian, mercerized (shiny).
This can have two meanings. As a yarn name, it means that the yarn looks like Donegal Tweed fabric, which is characterized by its earthy, dense colours, and wool slubs. As a fiber listing, “Donegal Tweed” is a synthetic fiber slub blended into yarn to make it look like Donegal Tweed fabric.
Natural vegetable fiber from the hemp plant.
Characteristics: matte, highly textured, inelastic.
Advantages: when blended with other fibers, soft to the skin. Durable. Touted as eco-friendly. Usually machine washable.
Disadvantages: can be hard on hands.
Natural plant fiber made from flax.
Characteristics: matte, slightly grassy texture, inelastic.
Advantages: when blended with other fibers, soft to the skin. Durable. Good for warm weather. Often machine washable and dry-able.
Disadvantages: can be hard on hands, sometimes sheds as you knit, or when wearing.
Natural fiber from the hair of Angora goat. (Not to be confused with Angora fiber, which comes from the Angora rabbit.)
Characteristics: very light weight, long hairs. The softness of mohair varies. Kid mohair is softest. Feltable.
Advantages: a little goes a long way, makes a featherweight open fabric.
Disadvantages: can be itchy to the skin.
Synthetic polymer fiber derived from petroleum.
Characteristics: often seen blended with wool (especially in sock yarn), or used in novelty yarns.
Advantages: strong, dyes well, drapes nicely, inexpensive.
Disadvantages: tends to be inelastic, melts in contact with heat, can hold on to body odors.
Synthetic polymer fiber derived from petroleum.
Characteristics: often used in novelty yarns (like eyelash yarn). Sheen ranges from dull to satiny.
Advantages: can add sheen or novelty elements (sequins for example) to yarn.
Disadvantages: can feel synthetic to the touch.
Natural animal fiber from the fur of possums.
Characteristics: usually seen blended with wool. Grey in color.
Advantages: Soft to the skin. Very warm. Often sold as part of fundraising campaign.
Disadvantages: No color selection. Not widely available.
RAYON, VISCOSE RAYON
Semi-synthetic fiber spun from chemically treated and extruded plant cellulose or proteins. Soy, Bamboo, Milk sound Natural, but they are semi-synthetics.
Characteristics: silky feel, heavy, sometimes shiny.
Advantages: drapes nicely, lustrous, soft on the skin. Inexpensive.
Disadvantages: inelastic to work with, stretches when wet, can become shiny. There are some concerns about the environmental impact of rayon production and the overhyping of eco versions of rayon.
Natural animal fiber spun from the cocoons of silk worms.
Characteristics: typically dense and less elastic than wool. Texture depends on how the fiber is processed. Ranges from matte and textured to glossy and smooth.
Advantages: does not irritate sensitive skin, suitable for warm weather. Has great stitch definition. Drapes beautifully.
Disadvantages: can be expensive. Some question regarding the ethics of harvest methods.