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Wool, a Good Choice for Cold Weather

Posted: November 6, 2012

Wool is a truly unique fiber and makes a great choice for clothing that can insulate you from both cold and heat.

Now that the weather is turning colder and those snowflakes are more likely to appear, many of us are looking through our closet to find our sweaters. Or, you may be thinking of buying a wool sweater for a holiday gift. Wool is a truly unique fiber and makes a great choice for clothing that can insulate you from both cold and heat. And, as an added bonus, wool is naturally fire resistant.

           Wool is obviously produced by sheep, but have you ever wondered about how it is produced and processed? At the farm, sheep are sheared typically once a year. However, some producers will shear twice a year. Most often sheep are sheared in the spring or early summer. The person doing the shearing can often complete the shearing process in just five minutes or less. Many shearers can shear 80 to 100 sheep a day, although the experts can shear as many as 200!

           The average weight of a fleece, the wool removed from one sheep, is 8 ½ pounds. This is enough wool to make a man’s suit. Now, not all fleeces are the same. I’m sure you have seen the different colors of sheep. While most wool is white, wool can also come in shades of gray and black and even a cream color. Different breeds of sheep will also produce difference qualities of wool. The Merino breed is the standard, because they produce the finest or smallest diameter fibers.

           Wool is graded based on fiber diameter as well as fiber length. Some breeds of sheep have very coarse wool that is used for making carpet. Sheep producers who earn high prices for their wool take great care in managing their sheep so that hay particles, mud and manure do not contaminate the wool. Sheep producers are also careful to provide good nutrition for their sheep so that the wool fibers remain strong. Sometimes when a sheep gets sick or stressed, the wool fibers will become damaged and have a weak spot in them. When the wool is graded, the fibers are checked for strength, and those that are damaged will break easily when pulled.

           At the woolen mill, wool is scoured or cleaned to remove any dirt and grease. The grease contains lanolin, a product that is used to make hand creams and some cosmetics. The clean wool is carded to straighten the fibers and then dyed into different colors. The wool can then be spun into yarn and then woven into fabric or knitted into sweaters. Wool can also be used to make insulation for your home. What a great way to use a green and sustainable product!

          A great innovation for wool has been the development of a process that removes the scales on the wool fibers. These scales are what cause the wool to feel itchy. Without the scales, wool can now be used to produce clothing that is very comfortable to wear next to your skin. This process makes some great t-shirts that will keep you cool in the summer heat! Superwash wool technology allows woolen products to go right into your washer and then into the dryer. This process prevents the fibers from matting together or felting during washing and drying.

           So, as you continue your holiday shopping, be sure to consider purchasing products made from wool. For more information on wool production, contact Melanie at the Penn State Extension office in Bedford County at 814.623.4800 or by email at meh7@psu.edu