A Love Affair With Wool
We were thrilled when Megan Elizabeth launched her business Wool Days in 2016. Based in VIC, Australia, Megan is the most passionate advocate for good wool we have ever come across. Here she shares some insight into this beautiful natural fibre.
Why wool? I get asked this a lot, and those asking seem genuinely interested in hearing the answer because really, ‘Why wool? Don’t you find it itchy?’
I love wool. All it wants to do is wrap you up in a warm hug and whisper sweet nothings in your ear. It’s the darling of cold weather and the embodiment of versatility. It’s nothing short of brilliant in its simplicity and beats science hands down every time. Wool is my passion and my pleasure.
When I say wool, I mean honest, reliable, natural, picks you wild flowers and wraps them with string kind of wool. Good wool. It’s a renewable and regenerative resource when managed with care, and has virtually unlimited uses. From filling your doona to insulating your walls, from covering your floor to sitting your hot pots on, from knitting to weaving, from blankets to furniture, from toys to bags, from slippers to jumpers, socks to underwear, hats to gloves, from here to the end of the universe. Wool can be reused multiple times and will completely biodegrade in soil when it’s reached the end of its useful life—the raw ingredients of wool are grass, sunshine and water, so you will be returning valuable nutrients back to the soil.
Along my wool journey, nothing has surprised, delighted or inspired me more than experiencing the charm and unique character of sheep. Around 10,000 years ago in Central Asia people started keeping flocks of sheep—they are mild mannered little bundles of wandering fibre, milk and meat; like to live in groups and happily munch on whatever the local landscape has to offer—what’s not to love? Since then, these little wool covered animals have played a vital role in the support and expansion of many civilisations. Australia currently produces about 80% of the wool for the global apparel industry.
Sheep grow wool like we grow hair. And just as hair can be so very different from person to person depending on where they live, what they eat, what they do day to day and most importantly who their parents are, wool varies dramatically too. Thick or thin; long or short; curly or straight; there are over 200 distinct sheep breeds, and each has their own unique wool. Such a variety of breeds has developed because sheep live all over the world—often in places of extreme climates and landscapes. So how do the masters of adaptability and adventure thrive in such places? Well, obviously they have a wool coat, which is a pretty handy thing to have. It’s water resistant (thanks lanolin) and highly insulated (thanks crimp and scales). And it’s these factors that help determine what kind of yarn a fleece wants to be when it grows up.
So wool itself is not good or bad, just different, with different wools being suitable for different things. Thicker wool is better for textiles and carpets for example, and finer wool is better for clothing or knitting. In part, it’s how people process wool that can make it good or bad. Wool is grouped and sold by its micron count (how thick the fibre is), and a group of wool might come from different breeds in different corners of the country, so there is a lack of uniformity. Then wool is generally shipped off to China to be processed. I find it incredibly sad, and nonsensical that something so wonderfully simple to produce and process has so many miles added to it for the sake of saving a few dollars. But I guess I don’t think like everyone else! Processing generally involves cleaning the wool with harsh chemicals, completely stripping the wool of its natural characteristics for uniformity and then coating and dying with plastics to ensure machine washability. The end product is what most of us consider wool yarn. I would say that it should no longer be classified as wool.
But back to good wool, and the unanswered question—the itch factor. As with hair, wool is a protein fibre. And protein fibres have a handy barrier against moisture and dirt—a layer of tiny fish-like scales covering each strand. These scales firmly hold wool fibres close to, but not against each other—essential for keeping sheep (and you!) warm and for spinning strong and supple yarn. Finer fibres with smaller scales tend to feel very smooth and are comfortable for next to skin wear (think soft baby hair), whereas thicker fibres with larger scales don’t bend so easily and may ‘poke’ the skin (think a rugged beard on a handsome man), potentially causing an itch on sensitive skin and making the wearer feel uncomfortable. So for most of us, the discomfort felt while wearing certain types of wool may be overcome with a bit of common sense and smart layering.
I waited such a long time for someone to create a business that celebrated the incredible history, diversity, passion, strength and community that surrounds Australian wool. Because I think it’s such an important story to explore and I wanted to support it—the story of the farmers and their land; the story of sheep and their breeds; the story of mills and their mix of traditional and modern practices; the story of dreamers and doers. The story of the things we make and the things we hold dear. It needed to introduce transparency into an ‘old fashioned’ industry and expose its unexplored potential, but more than that it needed to introduce fresh ideas and sustainable thinking.
But no one ever did. So, along with my handsome blue-eyed man, I started the business I didn’t want to wait any longer for. A business that celebrated good wool. Not as something that marked special occasions, but as something that elevated the everyday.
We are tactile creatures—we find pleasure in things that feel good, things that make us feel good and, more and more so recently, things that also do good in the world. Beautiful wool inspires innovation and creativity, warm conversations and remarkable fabrics. There is absolutely no better feeling than wool on skin.
But good wool is so much more than something that feels good, it is the ultimate in elegant multitasking.
So fresh and so clean
Wool is antimicrobial, which means odour causing bacteria has no chance to build up (a big problem with synthetics and cotton). So more wear and less washing—win win!
The thermo-regulating properties in wool makes it the absolute champion of cold weather—all the tiny pockets of air trapped in the spun yarn act as insulation, keeping you nice and warm when it’s cold!
Wool loves to absorb moisture from the air, in fact, it will still feel warm and dry until it’s absorbed 30% of its weight in water. In this way, wool ‘breathes’—happily absorbing moisture from areas of greater humidity and releasing moisture to drier areas to create a balanced environment for the wearer (and the sheep). As well as absorbing moisture from the atmosphere, wool also absorbs perspiration, allowing for a dry layer of air next to the skin, which helps keep us warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s warm. That’s a pretty neat trick.
On a low humidity day the moisture content of wool sits around 10-14%. This makes wool flame retardant—it will char and put itself out once removed from a flame, rather than burn (at temperatures below 600 degrees Celsius).
No tissues required
The relatively high moisture content of wool also means that it does not conduct static electricity, which tends to act as a magnet and draw dirt and dust into the fibre. Cleaner garment = cleaner breathing = good news for allergy sufferers.
Bend and stretch
Wool loves to move—it can be bent 20,000 times before it shows signs of weakening (compared to 3,000 for cotton) and can stretch 30% of its length (60% when wet) and happily return to form when released. This durability and elasticity are due to the natural crimp and coil in the fibre and make it really hard to wrinkle something made from wool. I don’t think anyone will complain about that. Ever.
Shake it off baby
Lanolin is a natural waxy substance produced by sheep to help protect their wool from the weather (it’s like a water resistant layer) and bacteria. While it’s mostly stripped from the wool in processing, good wool care involves lanolising the fibre when it is washed. This helps maintain the soft, durable and water repellent characteristics of the fibre.
It’s pretty amazing right? But we must not forget that there is also a dark side to the global and local wool industry, full of stories of abuse and neglect. Wool is still treated as a commodity in Australia today, meaning its price is based on global supply vs. demand, and not how much care and attention farmers pay their flock. There are no extra points for treating sheep as individuals or for going the extra mile. In Australia about 98% of our wool is sold through the auction system, which means farmers get no recognition for their work, nor do they know where their wool ends up. So the story of the individual (both the farmer and the sheep) is lost.
Overcoming this is at the very core of what we do at Wool Days — “to create purposeful connections between where things come from and the people who love them.” We value equally the farms we work with for their wool and their story, so we buy our wool directly from farms we know and admire. To ensure value for the farmer (and so too their sheep), we pay them a fair price for their work and their well-above-standard wool as well as share their story in an engaging way with our customers and community.
Good wool is sheep, and land, and farmers, and makers, and wearers, and storytellers. It only exists when a community of wool lovers stand up and demand more from their passions and take the time to indulge them fully. Good wool is a rare thing, not a thing to be put in a box and only used on special occasions, but celebrated every day by wearing your favourite beanie, gifting a handmade-with-love blanket to a friend and listening to the story behind your favourite wool product.