Picture the farmhouse, the barn, and a few sheep in the field. Inside, great grandmother is spinning the last of the wool from this year’s flock. She has washed it, dried it and combed the fibers so they lay in one direction to make her wool ready to spin into yarn. When she finishes, she will knit the family sweaters and socks. They will wear them even if it makes them itch and scratch.
Take heart, wool lovers! Today’s sheep are not your great grandmother’s sheep and today’s wool is not your great grandmother’s wool. You don’t have to wear itchy garments any more.
To find out why today’s wool can be machine washable, shrink proof and soft against your skin, I called Angus McColl of Yocom-McColl, a 50-year-old independently owned commercial wool testing laboratory in Denver, Colorado.
“The breed of sheep determines the success of the end use of the wool,” McColl said. “So, while the coarser wool sheep raised in a damp climate is best for carpets and blankets, dry climates are needed for the finer breeds suitable for garments worn next to the skin. Many people think they are allergic to wool, but if you are having problems, the chances are good that the wool includes coarse fibers (measuring more than 30 microns) among the finer ones. A coarse fiber will not bend, but acts like a needle poking your skin to activate its sensory receptors. This can cause what is usually mistaken for an allergic reaction.”
McColl believes producers can develop animals, which will maximize their success in the market if they test the wool from their flock.
“While rug makers are looking for the best rug wool, the military is looking for the soft fine wools that can be worn next to the body and protect the soldiers from heat, cold and fire from explosive blasts,” he explains.
No longer reliant on wool from our own farms, today’s wool comes from all over the world. The top 10 countries with the most wool production (in descending order from FAO STAT – United Nations (2014) and USDA NASS (2015) are: China, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Iran, Morocco, Sudan, Russian Federation, Argentina and India, and Iran (2012). The top 10 wool-producing states (2014) are: California, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Texas, South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Iowa. Though China is the largest producer of wool, Australia dominates the world wool market. The United States is a net importer of wool and accounts for less than one percent of the world’s wool production.
In addition to the importance of fiber fineness and length, McColl emphasizes the importance genetics and animal health have on the quality of wool.
“Good nutrition and selective breeding are important,” McColl said. “Objective testing and making good decisions based on the results maximizes the quality of wool and allows processors to give the consumer the best products. It allows growers to produce uniform wool in their flocks and to sell it on a tested basis.”
He noted, “Very little testing was done when I started in this business in 1961. Testing continues to be what is bringing consumers the fine wool products they enjoy today.”
So, whether it’s fine lingerie to wear next to your skin or durable carpets to walk on, Angus McColl has it right. It is all found in the wool.
For more information on micro-testing fiber, visit www.ymccoll.com.
Jan Jackson is a freelance writer photographer who publishes the Country Traveler Online www.countrytraveleronline.com.