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It’s hard to get outdoors when it’s chilly outside, especially on those darker days. Even though we know that being outside and exposed to sunlight supports our physical and mental health. If it’s not a drop in your mood that keeps you indoors, then not having good cold weather gear definitely will! Nothing feels worse than heading out for a winter walk and feeling a cold wind whip through your clothing. If you live in the far northern or southern hemisphere, you’ve probably experienced this more often than you’d like to.
Many people turn to synthetic fabrics to keep them warm by blocking out water, wind and colder temperatures. But unfortunately these materials, including polyester, nylon and acrylic, are made out of non-renewable petroleum. They’re also manufactured using resource intensive production processes, and their use and disposal can be unsustainable for the environment.
So, then what natural alternatives are out there? Enter wool! This is one of my absolute favourite natural fibers, especially since my childhood wool allergy improved with age. Wool has so many benefits that really up my cold weather game like durability, insulating qualities and odour resistance. It will keep you toasty all the way through the fall, winter and spring seasons, and can even be used in the summer!
What makes wool such a wondrous fiber? And how can you find sustainable wool wear to help you enjoy the colder months?
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Wool has lots of useful qualities for clothing
Wool is a natural protein-based fibre made of keratin (just like human hair). It has many useful qualities for clothing because of its unique cellular structure.
Durability and Flexibility
Wool fibers can bend 20,000 times without breaking and can stretch to more than 30% of their length. This makes them great for use in clothing since they help your garment’s fibers return to their original shape after use.
The structure of wool fibers and their hygroscopic qualities react to changes in and regulate your body temperature. Wavy wool fibers trap pockets of air that hold heat and insulate your skin, making you feel warm and dry. When you’re hot and perspiring, wool can absorb up to 35% of its own weight in moisture and release it as heat to keep you cool and dry.
These same qualities help to prevent build-up of sweat, bacteria and smells. When you’re wearing a wool garment, its fibers bind to odour molecules that are released when you wash your clothes.
Wool’s ability to absorb moisture also makes it less prone to build up a static electric charge. (Super helpful for cutting down electric shocks from fabrics and surfaces!)
Although wool fibers can absorb water vapours, wool fabrics are also water repellent or naturally “shower-proof.” This is because each fiber has an overlapping scale pattern of outer cuticle cells and a waxy lanolin coating.
Lanolin has emollient qualities that can lock in moisture to soften or soothe your skin and hair. It’s perfect for protection against cold, harsh weather. You can find lanolin in lots of personal care products like Lanolips Lemonaid Lip Treatment and Lanolin Day Cream, and even shampoos and soaps.
Wool’s cuticle cells have jagged edges that make it possible to bind fibres together when they’re agitated in water, which creates felt.
As well as having high water content, wool also contains nitrogen that makes it naturally flame resistant. Because of this quality, wool is used in high-risk situations like firefighting, space travel and search and rescue.
Which wool works best for which types of apparel?
There are as many different types of wool as there are breeds of sheep. The key characteristics that affect how we use wool fibers are their diameter, staple or fibre length, crimp, elasticity, strength/durability, luster/sheen and felt-ability. A wool fiber’s diameter (thickness) and its crimp (waviness) are determined by how its cells are arranged. The crimp in wool makes it feel soft and springy. Coarser (rougher) fibers have less crimp, and finer (softer) fibers have a tighter crimp.
Some common types of wool and their apparel uses include:
- Cross-bred wool, such as from Romney sheep, has coarser fibers with a long fiber length and a subtle wave. These wools are best used to make heavy-duty clothing items like socks.
- Merino wool has a very fine, tighter and delicate crimp, and a high degree of flexibility and is commonly used for items worn closer to the skin like sweaters and long underwear.
- Down breed wool such as from Suffolk, Clun Forest and Southdown sheep is springy and its crimp gives it good elasticity and strength. It doesn’t have a lot of lustre and doesn’t felt very well. And so it can be used to make socks, mittens, hats, and sweaters.
Other types of animal fleece often get grouped with sheep’s wool, like alpaca, cashmere, angora and mohair. While they can have a similar look, feel and qualities, these fibres come from different animals including alpaca, goats and rabbits.
Is wool sustainable?
Like most renewable products, wool clothing can be more or less sustainable depending on where it comes from and how it’s made. Some of the key sustainability issues to think about are animal welfare, environmental impacts, social impacts and economic sustainability.
Sheep should live with plenty of space to roam and in safe and clean conditions. But as with other livestock, that’s unfortunately not always the case.
Sheep transform their diet of grass, water and fresh air into a new fleece harvest typically twice a year. Their wool is then sheared or cut off without killing the animal. The sheering and transport of sheep can be a stressful experience for the animal. And so, both activities need to be undertaken humanely and responsibly to maintain the sheep’s health and wellbeing.
Mulesing is one controversial sheep-rearing practice that should be avoided. This surgical procedure involves the one-time removal of skin around a sheep’s breech to prevent flystrike. Flystrike is when parasitic blowflies lay eggs in the wet wool around a sheep’s tail that feed on the animal once they hatch. The majority of procedures are performed with anesthesia and analgesia, but not all of them are.
Sheep farmworkers should respect the ‘Five Freedoms’ or rights for all animals under human control, which include freedom:
- From hunger and thirst;
- From discomfort;
- From pain, injury or disease;
- To express normal behaviour; and
- From fear and distress.
Sometimes intensive farming practices are used to raise sheep, which have negative impacts on the environment. These practices may include overgrazing, using pesticides and fertilizers for feed crops, and chemical treatments for tick and pest removal. Overgrazing can lead to soil erosion and increased salinity, and also reduces the amount of land available for other species and trees that sequester carbon. The pesticides, fertilizers and chemicals used in sheep rearing can leach into surrounding ecosystems.
The processing of wool to remove elements like lanolin, dirt and vegetable matter can be energy-intensive. It uses heat, water, detergents, chemicals like soda ash, sulfuric acid or hydrochloric acid, and dyes. Untreated wastewater can leach into rivers and streams, which then transport these pollutants into groundwater and marine ecosystems.
When wool is used and worn its environmental impact is less than synthetic fabrics. Wool is usually washed less frequently, and so fewer microfibers are released into the ecosystem. When disposed of, wool degrades quickly and its keratin content is readily digested by microorganisms living in soils within approximately 4 weeks.
Social and Economic Sustainability
Wool production is a big industry. And it involves risks and farming incentive structures that challenge the industry’s commitment to animal welfare, and social, environmental and economic sustainability.
Agricultural work can be hazardous for sheep farmworkers. Some of its risks include exposure to insecticides and other chemicals, zoonoses (diseases that can transfer from animals to humans), and injuries during shearing. The health and economic sustainability of a farm worker’s family is also impacted when a worker’s welfare is put at risk.
Sheep farmworkers are paid by the ton of fleece shorn (or sheared), which incentivizes them to work fast and efficiently. This incentive structure can encourage workers to cut corners, put themselves at risk of accident, and mishandle the sheep to increase output. Shifting to an hourly pay model would reduce the pressure to process more animals in less time. And it would also give workers economic security.
How to find sustainable wool products
It’s possible to find wool producers that are committed to maintaining animal welfare, supporting social systems, and reducing negative environmental impacts.
1. Look for wools certified for sustainability and ethics
There is a wide range of wool certification standards that focus on animal welfare, and sustainable and ethical practices for land management and fiber production, and social responsibility. Some of the certifications and standards to look for when you’re buying wool products include:
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): Identifies that textile processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading and distribution meets organic standards.
- Responsible Wool Standard: Recognizes farms that have a progressive approach to animal welfare, land management, and social welfare throughout the supply chain from sourcing to garment production.
- Soil Association Organic Standards: Recognizes producers using organic farming and growing standards such as maintenance and enhancement of the soil, recycling of waste and by-products, and providing organic feed for animals.
- ZQ Merino Standard: Provides access to wool that has passed certification standards for commitment to animal welfare, environmental sustainability, fiber quality, traceability to source and social responsibility.
2. Get to know your local wool producers
Sustainably and ethically produced wool products may be closer to home than you think. Especially if you live in Canada, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand or the USA; countries that all have active wool industries. The wool industry is diverse and made up of large and small-scale producers. Visit local farms and look for companies that are transparent and describe their farming practices on their websites. Resources like the Ontario Sheep Farmer’s Wool Map can give you a head start on finding them.
3. Buy used wool clothing
Buying used textiles gives clothing a longer useful life. You can find wool garments in most thrift shops, vintage, pre-loved and consignment stores, and some stores also make clothing out of recycled wool. To freshen up your new (old) garment, try hanging it in a steamy bathroom to remove wrinkles or outside in the fresh air.
If you’re feeling crafty and want to reuse old wool clothes, consider frogging it! Frogging is when you unravel a knit garment to return it to a ball of yarn. Be sure to wind the wool loosely around an object to prevent it from getting tangled up. Your yarn will also probably look kinky or curly when you pull it out of its knit shape. To straighten it out:
- Soak your ball of yarn in slightly warm water;
- Remove from water and press out any remaining liquid using a towel; and
- Set the yarn aside to air dry.
Conclusion: Wool is ideal for high-performance clothing, and it can be produced sustainably
When temperatures drop, being prepared to brave the cold is one of the best ways you can stay active and outdoors. Wool is a versatile natural and renewable fiber that can help you keep the chills away. It has so many useful qualities like temperature regulation, odour resistance, anti-static, water resistance, felt-ability and flame resistance.
A wide range of products can be made with wool. Crafters and clothing manufacturers alike use the qualities of wool to create apparel that can keep you warm and dry throughout the year. You can find wool clothing like outdoor gear (coats or jackets, hats and scarves), sweaters, undershirts and long-sleeved t-shirts, long underwear and leggings, and socks.
Here are some great companies selling wool wear from your head to your toes:
- Patagonia uses the Responsible Wool Standard and Patagonia Wool Standard to ensure its wool products respect animal welfare, ecologically sustainable land management practices and traceability.
- Smartwool partners with ZQ Merino, uses recycled wool fibers in some of its products and is using a wool life cycle assessment to help optimize its supply chain for sustainability.
- Unbound Merino, a Toronto-based menswear company, sources from independent, mulesing-free wool farms in Australia to create its simple, versatile and high-performance merino wool clothing.
- Sweater Chalet sources high-quality hand-finished woolen products from small family factories in Austria, Norway, Sweden and Scotland.