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Part 1: The Magical Properties of Wool
A breakdown of a magical material
Jun 26th, 2020 | 5 min read

Introduction

I love materials. I love buying clothes that not only look good, but accomplish exactly the purpose they were meant to. Stretch when you need stretch. Breathability when it's hot. Moisture-wicking and quick evaporation of vapour moisture when you'll be sweating. Odour-resistance when you'll be re-wearing something or when it is difficult to wash. 

What bothers me about women's fashion is how often prices are hiked up for luxury brands that are, on a material level, no better than items at 10% of the cost. Other times, truly-well manufactured items made of fantastic materials that would feel great, look great, and last a long time are overlooked because they are misunderstood. I would love to go through every material, one-by-one, and break it down as I've done for wool below. If you enjoy this type of content, I would be happy to continue the series for every material, as well as answer any questions or create specific content you would like to see. 

Introduction to wool

Wool is magical. It's is one of my favourite materials, and people who have discovered its magic love it. It is incredible at resisting odour. It is moisture-wicking and breathable -- which makes it, listen to this -- temperature-regulating. Yes, it regulates your body temperature, the same way it does for the sheep that were sheared for it. When you wear wool, you are one with your sheep sisters. Wool even keeps you warm even it's wet, which is why it makes a great sock when working or hiking in wet conditions. In addition to being moisture-wicking, which refers to absorbing perspiration, wool's exterior is actually water-repellant. The outer surface of wool fiber is hydrophobic (repels water), while the fiber's interior wicks moisture in vapour form. The moisture-wicking will ensure you never feel clammy or wet, while the water-repellant nature will save you a little bit when you spill something on yourself (just dab with an absorbent paper towel). 

Ultra Brief History

Wild sheep by nature are not "wooly". We began domesticating wild sheep around 10,000 years ago, eventually selecting sheep which were more and more "wooly". The first wool garments are dated to roughly 3000-4000 BC. This means wool performed its honourable duties through ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, biblical times, through the Dark Ages and the Renaissance, all the way up to the present. 

While most wool is harvested from sheep, wool can be harvested from other animals as well, such as goats, camels, alpacas, and even rabbits. You may be familiar with the name for wool harvested from goats in the Kashmir region of Central Asia, which we end up calling cashmere. Different types of sheep also produce different types of wool, with a popular choice being the merino sheep, which produces a finer wool which is soft to the touch. But there are even variants within merino wool which depends on the thickness of each wool fiber -- ultrafine, superfine, and extrafine are the softest, while medium and strong merino may not feel soft at all. While wool can vary greatly in softness and thickness, wool’s main properties of being odour-resistant, moisture-wicking, temperature-regulating, and breathable, are unaffected by these variances. 

How wool is commonly used

Wool can mainly be found in the forms of sweaters, socks, formal coats (e.g. peacoats, topcoats), and performance clothing. Not all finished wool products are “wooly”. In more recent decades, performance wear has taken a liking to wool and have made ultrathin wool products which are used as baselayers. These perform verywell, and where you can really put wool’s anti-odour property to the test. Extrafine merino wool is also being used in baby clothing, where the material is not only soft to the touch, but where the temperature-regulating nature of wool works wonders in regulating the temperature of little ones who wouldn't be able to make those adjustments for themselves. 

Highlights

  • Anti-odour

  • Temperature-regulating

  • Breathable

  • Water-retention -- Holds up to 35% of its weight in water, more than any other material

  • Stretchable

  • Durable

Weaknesses

  • More care required: 100% wool cannot ever be placed in dryer or will shrink significantly. Luckily, it is rare that you ever have to clean it due to it's odour-resistance.

  • Heavy and bulky: wool sweaters do not pack down. Of course, this doesn't apply to a wool product that was thin to begin with. 

Score Breakdown on properties of wool

  • Anti-Odour: 10/10. Best on the market. Some people go hiking in the same merino wool sweater for 5 days straight. I suggest giving wool a rest and allowing it to air out, but expect to be impressed by its resistannce to odour. 

  • Breathability: 8/10. Highly breathable. Wool's ability to absorb large quantities of moisture vapour then move it away from your body to evaporate into the air is what allows it to be temperature-regulating. 

  • Durability: 9/10. Take good care of it, and good wool will last a long time. Wool can stand a lot of wear and tear. Eventually, a common place to wear a wool sweater might wear down is at the elbow, which can be patched. Give your wool a rest from time to time.

  • Stretchability: 8/10. Wool will stretch when you need it to, and will maintain its original shape afterwards. 

  • Water-retention: 10/10. Best on the market, retains 35% of its weight in water, while maintaining warmth even when wet. 

  • Moisture-wicking: 10/10. You'll never feel clammy in wool, it'll wick the sweat off you immediately. Interesting note: while it wicks the moisture and heat off your body, the outer fibres of wool actually repel water, which is convenient when you spill some liquid on yourself. 

  • Weight: 2/10. It is not light, unless you're buying an ultrathin baselayer. Apart from thin wool baselayers, thin underwear, and thin socks, light packers tend to avoid wool. 

  • Packability: 0/10. It does not pack down at all, and is difficult to travel with for any light packer. Again, the exception of course are the thinner wool items, which don't take up much space to begin with.

  • Wrinkle-prevention: 6/10. Thinner wool items will wrinkle significantly and are difficult to get out as you want to avoid exposing wool to high heat. However, thicker wool does not wrinkle at all. 

  • Softness: Depends/10. Cashmere and finer merino wools can be among the softest fabrics you've ever felt, while wool made of thicker fibres may be harsh to the touch.

  • Ease of care: 8/10. Follow the instructions on each garment carefully. Never put 100% wool in the dryer, it will shrink significantly. Wool pills over time, requiring a defuzzer if you want the item to look crisper, but these are cheap to buy off of Amazon. Store wool in a drawer, ideally with lavender to repel moths, whose larvae feeds on the keratin that wool is composed of. Sounds like a lot of work, why does this get a score as high as 8 instead of a 1? Because when your wool doesn't collect odour, you simply don't ever need to wash it unless you spill something on it. Don't spill, and you are golden. Avoid the no-nos, and the wool will take care of itself.



So there they are: the properties of wool. A wool primer.

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