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Not All Wool Knitting Yarn is Created Equal ... Why?

Have you ever wondered why two skeins labelled "wool" are sometimes so different - yet they are both labelled wool?

Not all wool is created equal .... why?
Janette Osborne
Published on

Have you ever wondered why two skeins labelled "wool" are sometimes so different - yet they are both labelled wool?

Not all wool is created equal .... why?

Breed

Sheep's wool is a natural product grown by our wonderful sheep friends.  However, did you know that worldwide there are over a thousand different breeds of sheep?  All with unique qualities - some black, some white, some with horns (up to six of them!).  Susan Schoenian, Sheep and Goat Specialist at the University of Maryland's Western Maryland Research and Education Centre has developed a fantastic website called Sheep 101 which includes pictures and information of hundreds of different types of sheep from all around the world.  It is one of the most comprehensive sites on sheep I have seen.  www.sheep101.info/index.html

But what does this mean for knitters and crocheters?


Micron (Diameter)

The biggest factor as to whether a particular wool is soft or harsh to the touch is the diameter of the individual fibres.  The measurement used for this is called a micron or (micrometer).  One micron is one millionth of a metre, or one thousandth of a millimeter.

Sheep's wool can range from 11 microns to well over 40 microns depending on the breed and the age of the sheep.  Younger sheep will have finer wool - the fibres get thicker as the sheep ages.

The scientists have determined that wool that is thicker than 30 microns is strong enough to press on human skin and excite the nerve receptors just below the skin - this is the main cause for what we all know as THE WOOL ITCH.

Those of us over 40 will well remember the wool itch - those jerseys lovingly knitted by our Mothers and Grandmothers - but oh so scratchy!

A few things have happened since then which can help us choose the right type of wool for our knitting projects:

Scientific Fibre Measurement
The development of objective testing for fibre diameter - the IWTO (International Wool and Textile Organisation) sets and standardises testing standards for fibre diameter worldwide.  Wool tested under IWTO standards in the USA, Europe, Australia or New Zealand will all be tested to the same exacting standards.  In the old days, wool testing was very subjective - the wool buyer would visually and physically assess the wool and make their best guess - now it can be measured exactly.  For next to skin - stay below 30 microns.  The rule of thumb is the lower the micron the softer the wool.

Improved Genetics / Breeding for Wool
Many sheep breeders in New Zealand have specialised in breeding specifically for good wool.  In New Zealand we love our sheep and wool and a really good example is the Emmerson Family of Forest Range Merinos (https://merinonz.co.nz).  In the late 1980s their merino wool measured an average of 18 microns - today there is nothing above 15 microns.  Daughter Anna Emmerson won the worldwide Loro Piana challenge for the finest bale of merino in 2010 with 10.9 micron and 2013 with a stunning 10.6 micron average!

Sorry ladies and gentlemen we won't be seeing that fineness in knitting yarn - in fact it is just too fine for knitting yarn.  However, ask your local tailor about the world class fabrics made in Italy and England out of ultra fine New Zealand Merino wool.  How about the perfect pair of trousers or a skirt made to go with your next knitting project??

Identify What Breed of Sheep The Yarn Comes From
Ask what breed of sheep the knitting yarn comes from.  Below are the breeds of the wool we stock here at Briar Patch.  We can tell you exactly which farm this wool comes from and what breed the sheep is and what type of knitting projects it is suitable for:

 

Type of Yarn

Type of Wool

Micron

Most Suitable for:

Lammermoor Organic Merino.

Super soft merino – non dyed – natural cream and chocolate colors

18.5 micron available in worsted weight yarn and rovings for hand spinning. Worsted Spun. Untreated so also suitable for felting.

Next to skin garments – lovely and warm – a one layer garment will keep you stylishly toasty warm!

Te Toko Station Perendale Lambs Wool

Perendale Lambs – wool – a breed developed in New Zealand in the 1950s.

31 micron available in Double Knit and Sport weight in twelve stunning colors. Shrink resist treated and woollen Spun.

More suitable for garments where a layer will be worn underneath. Ideal for colourful jerseys, mittens, children’s cardigans, outer garments, toys, cushions and afghans.

Briar Patch Wool for Hand Spinning

Special  breed of Arapawa, Gotland and Corriedale

In natural undyed colors approximately 25 microns

Wow – anything you like! Suitable for next to skin.  Untreated so also suitable for felting – let your creativity run away on you!

Grey Wool for Spinning Romney In natural Grey - 31.9 microns.  This is my favourite to spin. More suitable for garments where a layer will be worn underneath but strangely doesn't feel like 31.9 microns!

Always Check the Label.  Wool is so precious and special that sometimes the name is "borrowed" - or even worse - "stolen".  Double check the label and the fine print - to check you are really buying wool.  The reason I started Briar Patch NZ was because I was deceived - it was only after I finished my beautiful project that I discovered the "wool" I bought wasn't wool at all!!

Now I make sure I know where my wool has come from!
 

Spinning Method

There are three main spinning methods used for hand knitting yarn:
  • Woollen
  • Semi-Worsted
  • Worsted
Woollen yarn is lofty, soft and resilient.  It is the only method of spinning for shorter wools such as lambs' wool.  The finished yarn is fluffier than other spinning methods.

Semi-Worsted was originally developed for synthetic fibres and is best suited tolonger and stronger wools.  The finished yarn has medium bulk and resilience.

The main feature of worsted spun yarns is that the fibres are lined up in parallel - it produces a low loft (smoother) yarn with firm handle and can be spun to a much finer yarn count.
 

Only Wool is Wool!

Sheep's wool is a natural fibre - if you put each fibre end to enda single sheep grows a kilometre of fibre every day.

Once or twice a year all the sheep come in for shearing and, just like us humans after a haircut, bounce happily outside again afterwards.

New Zealand sheep eat natural field grass to grow their wool - they are fuelled on grass.  Their wool consists of natural keratin proteins - similar to our own hair.  Wool is also a natural carbon sink.

Did you know it takes over five litres of oil usage to produce one kilogram of nylon finished fabric (four litres for acrylic and over three for polyester) but less than one for a kilogram of finished wool fabric?  And even less for wool knitting yarn.  (Source IWTO publication:  Wool Change to a Healthier and Safer Environment). 

What will your next knitting project be fuelled by?  Grass or Gas? 

As soon as a sheep is shorn it will start to grow a new crop of wool - it is renewable and sustainable.

Wool comes from the wonderful sheep - a friend of mankind since our earliest existence.  The humble sheep has both fed and clothed us since time began.  Thanks to our woolly friends, mankind has been able to expand the areas in which we can live comfortably - loin clothes in snow would only be for the very hardy!

Did you know that:
 
  • Wool is flame resistant - it requires more oxygen than is available in the air to become flammable and will not melt, drip or stick to the skin.  Your garment will be safe around open flames - and might even save your life in the case of being caught in a car, plane or house fire.
     
  • Wool has a natural ability to breath and can absorb up to 35% of its weight in water vapour.  As it releases the water vapour back into the atmosphere it generates heat.  This provides comfort from perspiration, warmth and no nasty body odours sticking to your garment.
     
  • Wool provides natural UV protection for the wearer.
     
  • Wool can trap and neutralise toxic chemicals in the atmospherere.
     
  • Wool fibres can be bent 20,000 times without breaking which explains why wool garments are so long lasting.
     
  • Wool is naturally 100% biodegradable in soil without harm to the planet or the environment.
The natural qualities of wool are stunning - sheep have evolved to survive in a wide range of weather conditions.  From searing heat to snow blizzards the sheep's wool keeps them comfortable in all weather conditions - they simply wouldn't survive if they wore only polyester!
 

Comparison of Fibre Properties

(Source IWTO publication: Wool Change to a Healthier and Safer Environment)
(Ratings: 1 = Excellent, 2 = Very Good, 3 = Good, 4 =Moderate, 5 = Poor)

 

Wool

Polyester

Nylon

Acrylic

Appearance

Drape

1

3

3

2

Texture

1 – 2

3

3

2

Colour

1 – 2

3

2

1

Crease Retention

2

1

2

3

Wrinkle Recovery

2

1 – 2

2

3

Comfort

Moisture Absorption

1

5

4

5

Elasticity

1 – 2

2

2

3

Permeability

1 – 2

4

4

4

Insulation

1

4

4

4

Performance

Water Repellency

1 – 2

2

2

3

Abrasion Resistance

2 – 3

1

1 – 2

2 – 3

Laundering

1

1

1

2

Drycleaning

1

3

2

4

UV Stability

2

1

3

1

Safety

Fire Resistance

1 – 2

3

3

5

Anti-Static

1

5

4

5

Acid Resistance

1 – 2

1

4

1


So why would you want to knit with anything but wool?

Quality and comfort is remembered long after price is forgotten.


 

 

Janette Osborne
Published on