Not all woolens are created equal. Here’s where we’re going to get super snobby! Let’s talk about wool fiber types. So, what does this mean, wool fiber? It refers to the animal that the wool comes from and also any special finishes that the wool may undergo to become a yarn. First, I’m going to talk about the animal that the hair fiber came from in order to make the yarn to be woven or knitted into cloth. Remember that wool as a general definition is the hair of any animal made into fabric. So let’s talk animals, eh?
Most wool comes from sheep. When something just says its wool, it’s coming from a sheep. This is not a bad thing in any way, it’s just the base level and from here we’ll get a little more exotic.
Cashmere. I’m sure that’s one you’ve heard before. Cashmere. Oh how excitingly lush! Cashmere comes from cashmere goats (and a few other similar goats apparently) and the reason it’s such an expensive cloth is because it’s most specifically the hair around the goat’s neck. Not a whole bunch of hair there if you know what I mean. So you have to shave a lot of goat necks to get a small stash of hair to spin into yarn. This cloth is usually very very soft. Yum!
Merino. Another fairly common wool out there. Merinos are sheep. A special sheep that is very much prized for its soft hair. Merino is very high quality and especially in knits, it’s positively heaven.
Mohair is another wool fiber type. I actually see this fiber coupled a lot with rayon in suitings, but alone it’s more like a fur (but it’s not fur, so don’t be confused). Mohair comes from a certain breed of goats.
That leads right into Angora which does come from little angora rabbits. I’ve actually never seen angora as a single fiber in a cloth. I’ve only ever seen it coupled with other fibers – perhaps to make it stronger? Either way, this stuff is quite soft and little bit fluffy.
Alpaca is a pretty wonderful woolen. It’s from an animal that is very similar looking to a llama. Alpaca hair is hypoallergenic! There are a few different breeds of the animal, Suri (considered the more luxurious) and Huacuaya.
This leads me to Vicuna which is considered one of the finest wools you can buy. It is very rare and the animal itself (relative to the llama also) can only be shorn once every three years! Surprisingly, I have a Vicuna scarf that was given to me by my dad. He lived in Bolivia when he was younger and a family gave my dad a pure vicuna scarf that had been in their family for many many years. It was considered a very prized possession. Crazy enough, it does not feel like the traditional wools I’ve come across. It’s very soft and almost feels like a very fine cotton, meaning it doesn’t itch in the slightest!
I also wanted to touch on a few other things that can make a wool special. These have to do with finishes or processes that the wool fiber goes through to become a yarn.
What is worsted wool? The worsted yarn goes through a different process than regular wool yarn to become yarn – that was a mouthful! When I come across worsted wools as a buyer, it typically implies that the wool is fairly soft and is light to medium weight and opaque. When I see a worsted I usually buy it because it usually means fine quality.
Have you ever seen high quality suiting wools? They are usually marked as super 120s or super 130s. I’ve even seen some go up to super 180s (very rare). These are very very high quality wool suitings. And they do not feel like wool, they feel akin to silk. Many have a luster to them – a little bit of a sheen – and the numbers themselves refer to the long staple yarn count per square inch. Like bedsheets. The higher the number, the better the quality. I’ve only seen these kind of suitings come from Great Britain or Australia, and that is usually reflective in the price as they can run pretty expensive. They hold a press, but wrinkling is very minimal.
What about virgin wool? Have you heard that term before? Virgin wool implies that all the wool in the piece is new and it does not contain any recycled wool. Virgin wools are typically more expensive than others, but worth the price. They are finer quality, have minimal wrinkling, usually a bit softer and have a lovely brilliant color in whatever color they are dyed in.
I know this was a long post, but hopefully this gives you a better idea of wool fiber types and what you’re looking at when you purchase something in store or online. It’s more than likely that I’ve missed a few here, but hopefully I’ve nabbed all the major ones! Do you have any of these fabrics in your stash?
For more about Wools, visit the Working with Wool Section!