Wool is a textile fiber obtained from sheep, which were domesticated in Central Asia about 10,000 years ago, and used for meat, milk, and their hides, for leather goods. Sheep have a coarse, outer protective coat, and a much softer inner layer. Somewhere along the line, we realized that sheep fur could be woven together to produce fabric, and that the inner, soft hairs were best suited for this purpose. Records show that during the Roman Empire, sheep were selectively bred for their undercoat, and these animals were combed, then sheared to obtain this fur for the production of wool.

Wool fibers are bulky, trapping air between layers, thereby insulating the body and keeping one warm when it is very cold outside. Wool fabric was a clothing staple throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, becoming a mass-produced commodity during the Industrial revolution. Throughout this time, many countries continued selective breeding for fine, soft wool; the Spanish are credited with developing very high quality merino wool. Merino wool-bearing sheep were exported across Europe, Australia, and New Zealand during the late 1700’s. Continued breeding and refining techniques were employed to produce very fine wool, much of which was the byproduct of this merino wool breeding stock. Today, the top three wool producing countries around the world include Australia, China, and the United States. Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado are the top wool-producing states in this country. Most of the wool that is produced is used for clothing. However, wool is also used for blankets, bedding, rugs, insulation, fertilizer, and other products.

The historic impression of wool is that it produced very warm, dense, bulky outerwear that was often itchy. However, modern innovations have greatly improved the use of wool in athletic and outdoor clothing. Wool is one of nature’s top performing fabrics. Its structure allows it to insulate the body keeping us warm when it’s cold outside and cool when it’s hot. Wool can absorb water near the skin thereby keeping us dry and cool. Wool can repel water from the outside and helps block ultra violet radiation from the sun. Wool has natural elasticity which allows it to stretch then bounce back in shape. Wool is also considered to be very odor resistant. Since the 1970’s there have been a number of processes developed to incorporate various polymers and materials with wool to increase its elasticity and allow washing and drying without excessive shrinkage. The development of very fine grades of merino wool now mean that wool clothing can be made in a very soft and thin texture. This natural fabric that has been around for thousands of years was high tech after all.

Article by FCFCDB

Header photo credit: pixabay.com - S. Hermann & F. Richter

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