When you think of snow, winter, cold, chilled, shivering, freezing, cuddling, etc you think of wool. It is a natural progression. Wool is equated as the material that is the most insulating and warmth giving ever. And the best thing is that man discovered this secret a long long time ago – the secret of converting the fur of animals that protect them from the elements into one that will protect themselves.
Wool is a thick natural/protein fiber made from the fleece of lambs and sheep and wool is also the fabric that is made from these fibers.
History of wool production
The origin of wool fabric can be traced back to the city of Anatolia in 5800 BC (Neolithic age) where remnants of woven wool has been discovered. But I guess humans have already been using animal pelts (The skin of animals with the fur or hair still on it) to protect their bodies against the cold from the Stone age. The people of the ancient city of Mesopotamia wore clothes of crudely woven wool. The breeding of sheep to get their wooly felt is supposed to have started in 3000 BC. Then the textiles were mostly made of wool.
Before long, wool became a trading commodity. In England, people recognized the value of wool and started commercial production. Soon other countries started to enter wool trade and today wool has become a global industry. Countries like Australia, Argentina, the United States, and New Zealand are the major suppliers of raw wool, with Australia leading the pack.
How wool fabric is made
This part explains in simple words how the fleece of animals is made into wool yarn and then processed into wool fabric. The manufacturing of wool is a long process and goes through shearing, sorting, cleaning and scouring, carbonizing, carding, spinning, weaving, and finishing. Fleece from the coat of sheep and certain other mammals like the goat and alpaca are used for wool fabric production.
Related post : One of the easiest way to make wool fabric from wool fleece is Felting. You can read more about felting here.
Steps from fleece to fabric
Step 1. Selection of Wool
Wool is extracted mainly from the fleece of sheep. But there are other animals whose hair falls into the category of wool. Goats, camels, lamas, rabbits, musk ox, vicuña, guanaco, pashmina, cashmere, and alpaca are some of the other sources.
A young sheep which is one year old is called a Lamb. Ram is a male sheep and Ewe a female sheep.
Fleece is sheared from the skin of the animal. As it is sheared the wool is called grease wool. First clip is a soft fleece obtained from a young lamb of 6-8 months from its first shearing. Hogget wool is fleece taken from a 12-14 month old sheep (this too first shearing). Wether wool is fleece from sheep which is more than 14 month old.
If it is sheared from the skin of a live animal, it is called clipped wool, and the fleece taken from the slaughtered (for meat) sheep is called pulled wool. Pulled wool is inferior in quality compared to clipped wool. Dead wool is fleece taken from sheep that have died of age or is killed accidentally.
There are so many different kinds of fleece used to make wool (over 200
varieties of fleece according to this source) because there are various breeds of sheep. Other than this the quality of wool depends on how the wool fibers are processed into fabric.
Step 2. Shearing
Animals are sheared off their fleeces using a shearer. Normally a sheep is sheared once a year, preferably during spring.
The most common and popular method of shearing is by hand. Different types of shears are used to clip the fleece. Recently, automatic shearing by electrical machines are used widely in many countries to save time and effort.
The wool thus collected is used to spun two types of woolen fabrics, namely woolen and worsted.
Step 3. Sorting of fleece
Sorting is the process of grading fleece into different categories. First of all fleece from ewes, rams, lambs, older sheep, and sheep that has been exposed to severe climate, fleece that is obtained from a first shearing are sorted and kept separately.
Some important criteria when sorting wool are Staple length which is the length of fiber, diameter of the fiber which is measured in microns, crimp of the fiber which is the waviness of the fiber along its length, Luster of the fiber, hand of the fiber.
Wool fibers are also sorted based on the quality of the fiber which depends mainly on the part of the body it comes from. The best quality fiber comes from the sides and shoulders. They are mostly used for clothing. The lower quality comes from the lower legs. This is mainly used for making carpets and rugs. Say Cast is the coarse wool taken from the tail part of the fleece.
The length of the fleece is also taken into consideration. Woolen yarns are made using short fibers of wool and worsted yarns are made using long fibers. Color can also be a criterion.
Step 4. Cleaning of fleece/Scouring
Raw or washed fleece has to under go cleaning (scouring, washing and drying) before spinning.
Picking has to be done at this stage – wool will contain twigs, leaves and other vegetable matter embedded inside; picking refers to opening up the wool fibers to remove vegetable matter stuck inside.
Fleece in its natural state contains a high level of lanolin or wool wax secreted by the sebaceous glands. In addition to it, it will have dead skin cells, wool wax (suint), wool grease, dust, dirt, and sweat. Infact it is said that about half of the raw wool you get consists of impurities.
To remove the contaminants, scouring is done by passing it through various water baths containing alkaline, soda ash, and soap. It is followed by rinsing and partial drying processes. Agitation is avoided to prevent felting.
Step 5. Carbonising
After scouring, sometimes wool is immersed in a solution of sulphuric acid to remove any impurities of vegetable matters like burrs or seeds.
Step 6. Carding/combing
Carding and/or combing of the fleece is done to open up the locks and to straighten the wool fibers into slivers; generally brushing the wool fibers to organize them. It makes the fleece easier to spin. Carding and condensing are done for woolen fibers.
The wool is fed into the carding machine where they pass through a series of metal teeth that straighten them into slivers. This procedure also helps to remove short Fibres and place long Fibres parallel to each other for drawing.
Worsted fibers undergo carding, gilling, combing, blending, and drawing. Combing is done for sharing fleece and is done with a comb or a hackle and it is an optional process and only done for worsted/semi-worsted yarn (long fibers).
The result of carding can be made into wool batt as it is (laid flat and matted) or rolled into rovings to be taken for spinning.
In the process called drawing, the card sliver is made into an intermediate roving. This roving is wound onto a roving bobbin. The roving is taken to the next process – spinning
At this time wool fibers can be blended with other fibers – this is done for greater performance (the fabric gets the properties of all blended fibers) or for making the wool affordable.(highly expensive wool is mixed with sheep wool to make the fabric cheaper)
Step 7. Spinning
It is easy to spin the wool into yarn because of their affinity to cling and stick to one another. Fibers are spun together to form one strand of yarn or thread. The strand can be spun with two, three, or four other strands.
Woolen yarn is normally spun on a mule spinning machine. Worsted yarn, on the other hand, can be spun on any number of spinning machines. Woolen yarns are loosely spun with a little twist and worsted yarns are spun with a higher twist.
The spun yarn is wrapped around bobbins, cones, rollers, or commercial drums.
Step 8. Dyeing
Natural wool in colors of white, tan, brown, fawn, yellow and gray are very much in demand but for the sake of fashion, wool may need to be dyed into other colors.
The yarns can be dyed before the fabric is made or the fabric can be dyed afterward. Bleaching is done when pure white yarn is needed.
Step 9. Wool yarn is made into fabric
You can use weaving, knitting, felting or crotcheting to make your wool fabric.
Weaving is the process of interlacing warp and weft yarns in a weaving machine or looms to produce fabric. There are two main types of weaving in the wool industry – Plain and twill weave
When 100% wool that has never been spun, woven, or used before is made into a fabric it is called pure virgin wool. Wool fabric is available in a 100 varieties depending on so many variables. Here is a list of the Different types of wool.
Step 10. Finishing
After weaving the wool, both woolen and worsted, go through a series of final processes.
Milling is the process in which the hand of the wool fabric is changed to a dense felting or matting . It is done under low temperature using soap/detergent and soda. Commercially milling machines are used for this.
As you can see, making wool fabric is not an easy process. It involves many different, long winding, labor-intensive processes which is why the wool fabric is more expensive and not as easily available as other natural fabrics like cotton.
Though the production process of wool fabric has been refined throughout the centuries to make wool a very desirable fabric for all fashion needs, making it soft, non-itchy, lightweight, etc, Wool production as well as demand, has seen a steady decline since the early 20th century. It is sad, considering that wool has been clothing man for so long.
You can read about the Properties of wool that makes it an exceptional fabric here.
More information on wool
- International authority on wool : International wool textile organisation – website
- Australian wool testing authority
Updated on August 31, 2022 by Sarina Tariq