People were breeding wooly sheep as early as 6000 BC, and wool figured strongly in lifestyles and economies until late into the 1960’s when synthetic fabrics became more common. Today, in their search for a more natural alternative, many people have returned to wool. They have discovered the magical way it handles water, air, and fire.
The magic of wool is in the fiber itself. Wool has scales all along its shaft, like fish scales, that grab each other and hold on; this makes wool easier to spin into a sturdy yarn. The fibers are also naturally crimped, which gives spun wool more volume. That volume means many, many air pockets. And just like the air trapped in the foam board to insulate houses in all sorts of climates, the air caught in the wool helps you regulate body temperature wherever you live.
Wool also readily absorbs moisture. It can take up to a third of its weight in water, which is pretty amazing when you compare it to cotton only absorbing up to 8% and synthetics 2 – 5%. This means that in warmer conditions, like the Saharan Desert, the wool draws away your body’s moisture, facilitating the evaporative cooling the human body relies on. What it does with all this water is another part of its magic. The moisture is drawn into the shafts of the wool. A chemical reaction occurs in the inner shafts when there is enough water present; the hydrogen bond of the water is actually broken, which releases heat. So, in wet conditions, the wool not only insulates you, it generates heat. The surface of the wool stays relatively dry, because the moisture is pulled into the shafts. Whether it’s a sailor’s peacoat, a baby’s nappy pants, or a skier’s jersey, the wetness is on the “right” side of the fabric.
With the third element, fire, wool is no less amazing. For starters, it flames at a higher temperature than cotton and many synthetics, so it will not burn as quickly. If it does catch fire, it forms char, which extinguishes the flames. This is part of the reason firefighters choose wool for uniforms, and it means wool is a natural alternative for nightclothes and bedding for babies.
Despite all this, you still might not choose wool because you are worried it will be itchy. Some people are genuinely more sensitive to it and have to choose carefully. However, wool is not intrinsically itchy. Modern, commercial garments are made of a very high grade of Merino wool that is wonderfully supple and fine. You should be willing to give garments a try to see whether they irritate your skin, as different brands do seem to vary in itchiness. You can also get wool undergarments with a little silk in the blend, which makes for a lighter weight and softer fabric. You might also consider what the garment will be used for.
Wool socks, for example, almost always have a little nylon worked in, and are usually made with superwash wool; you probably will not find them itchy. A garment that wraps around your neck, like a turtleneck or scarf, or sits right against your face, like a hat, needs to be completely free of itch. A coat, a crew neck sweater, or a pair of nappy pants might not matter as much. If you are knitting the garment yourself, take some time to test yarns, and maybe let a person who is more sensitive pick their own yarn. You might try alpaca or a wool blend that includes cashmere to soften the finished product. Finally, even if you already know the magic of wool and have the perfect garment, it still might get itchy come spring. That’s just your body’s way of saying it’s time to be shed of that layer.