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What Is Wool Fabric?
Wool fabric is made from the natural fibers that form the fleece of animals such as sheep, goats, rabbits, camels, and more. This raw material is primarily made up of keratin-based proteins, which makes wool a remarkably elastic material. After cotton and synthetic fibers, wool is one of the most common textiles in the world. The biggest appeal of wool garments is that they hold in heat extremely well. Additional benefits of wool include its durability and its versatility, as it can be woven into both heavy, coarse fabrics and lightweight, soft fabrics.
The Australian wool industry leads the world in wool production with 25 percent of the total global wool output. China and the United States are next, each with 18 percent, followed by New Zealand with 11 percent.
9 Different Types of Wool
The pros and cons of each type of wool depend on the animal it comes from.
- Alpaca: A versatile medium-weight wool fabric used for many purposes like high-end suiting, coats, blankets, outerwear lining, and bedspreads, alpaca wool is a lustrous material that's soft, lightweight, warm, and durable. There are two breeds of alpaca—Huacaya and Suri—that produce different types of wool: Huacaya fleece is thicker and often used for knit items, while Suri is silkier and used more in woven apparel.
- Angora: Taken from the Angora rabbit (not the Angora goat which produces mohair wool), Angora wool is a soft and fluffy fiber that retains the most heat and has the best moisture-wicking ability of any natural fiber. Since Angora fibers are fragile, Angora is often blended with other fibers to make it stronger. Due to a combination of its valuable attributes and difficult cultivation process, Angora wool products are typically very expensive.
- Camel hair: A luxurious and warm fine wool with a natural golden-brown color, camel hair is typically combined with other less expensive types of wool to make it softer and more economical. Camel hair coats first became popular in the United States among polo players in the 1920s. Today, the softer undercoat of camels is still used for coats and other apparel, while its coarser outer hair is used as backing for carpets and upholstery.
- Cashmere: One of the most luxurious natural fibers, cashmere has a high natural crimp, which results in an incredibly soft and lightweight fabric. Cashmere is costly because it's difficult to obtain (fibers must be combed from cashmere goats instead of sheared), and the cashmere goat produces a very scarce amount of cashmere wool per year. One other downside of cashmere is that it's not as durable as sheep's wool.
- Lambswool: Also known as "virgin wool" since it's taken from a baby sheep's first shearing when it's only several months old, lambswool is extremely smooth, soft, hypoallergenic, and is difficult to wrinkle. Since every sheep can only produce lambswool once, it's a rarer and more expensive wool to purchase.
- Melton: One of the toughest and warmest wools available, Melton contains thick wool fibers and is typically woven into a twill weave. Melton is relatively wind-resistant and good at water-wicking, making it one of the more weatherproof wools and a prime choice for woolen outerwear and heavy blankets.
- Merino: This superfine, shiny wool is one of the softest types of wool and is perfect for regulating body temperature in both cold and hot weather, making it a popular choice for athletic apparel. Merino wool comes from the Merino sheep, which is native to Spain but today has its largest populations in Australia and New Zealand.
- Mohair: Sheared from the angora goat, mohair is a lustrous but durable wool that drapes well and is often woven into a plain weave. Despite being relatively lightweight, it has good insulation to keep you warm. Mohair is often used in dresses, suits, baby clothes, sweaters, and scarves.
- Shetland: Cultivated from the undercoat of sheep native to Scotland's Shetland Islands, this wool is an ideal choice for knitting due to its durable but soft nature. It's lightweight, warm, and available in one of the largest ranges of natural colors of any breed of sheep.
How Is Wool Fabric Manufactured?
The following are the main steps needed to manufacture wool.
- Shear the animal. The first step in the wool production process is to sheer the fleece coat off the wool-bearing animal.
- Scour the wool. Sheep wool in particular contains a fatty grease called lanolin which must be cleaned from the raw wool before it's spun into yarn. It's a time-consuming process that can be achieved by soaking the wool in warm water, but typically large wool producers use chemical additives to speed up the process.
- Sort the wool. Once scoured, the clean wool is sorted into bales.
- Card the wool. Carding is a process of separating and straightening the raw wool fibers into long strands in order to make it easier to spin into wool yarn. Carding can be done by hand or using carding machines.
- Spin the wool into yarn. The next step is to spin the wool into yarn using a spinning machine and one of two spinning systems: the worsted system or the woolen system. Worsted wool has the air squeezed out of it, creating a smooth, dense, and even wool. Woolen wool, on the other hand, is spun with air between the fibers, creating a lighter, fuzzier, and irregular wool. After the wool yarn is formed, it's wrapped around cones, bobbins, or commercial drums.
- Weave the yarn. The yarn is now ready to be woven into wool garments or other wool textiles. Woolen yarns are typically woven into fabric using a looser plain weave pattern, where worsted yarns are ideal for a more tightly woven twill weave pattern.
- Add the finishing touches. Wool manufacturers may choose to put the final item through any number of procedures to improve the wool quality. For example, fulling is a process where the wool item is soaked in water to interlock its fibers. Crabbing is a process that perpetually keeps those fibers in place. Decating is a process that uses heat to shrink-proof the item.