Quality Makes A Difference- Wool

ScannedImageNot all wools are created even (You may have heard me say this before). When I was a kids I gained a negative perspective on several things that I had only been exposed to in its poorest quality. A few of these things were in foods…I dislikes butter and cheddar cheese for years, but later understood that the really poor quality products that were supplied through the government commodities program during the era of my childhood should not be defined as butter or cheese. After experiencing better quality it is hard to go back.

This was also true for me with regards to wool. As a kid my wool exposure was really poor quality wool blankets. Granted they did the job of keeping you warm, but you did not want them anywhere near your skin, as it would cause nothing but itching.

After being exposed to wool products of quality I understand that they are soft, warm, and nothing what I was initially exposed to. So what causes this “itchy” factor? Typically it can be caused by a couple of things.

Unspun wool Ready to be Yarn

Drafted wool, ready to spin into yarn….long staple, fine micron

For on, it could be the staple (length of the “fur” cut from the sheep). If it is short, then both ends of the staple or close in length and often blunt cut. One way to think of this is stubble of an area that has been shaved. As the hair grows back it is often bristly to the touch and if you let it grow out a couple of inches and cut it off, it is still going to feel a bit bristly. This is true with the staple of wool, so a short fiber can create a yarn that can scratch.

Another factor that can contribute to the “itchy” factor is the micron count of the fiber. This basically means how big the diameter of each fiber is. The smaller the diameter that softer the wool. Different breeds of sheep have different micron counts to their wool, with the best known in the yarn world being Merino. Merino has a small micron count, thus a soft yarn. In the era of my childhood I think that the wool I was exposed to was from fleeces that were removed from sheep that were bred of meat purposes, and if a breed is good for meat it is not typically great for wool, and vice versa.

That does not mean that you don’t find poor quality wool in yarn today, in some cases it has a purpose. It is often made into rugs. So when you are looking for a wool yarn, be mindful of what purpose you would want to have it worked as. Does it feel comfortable against the area just under your chin? If it does, then consider it for your fabrics that are close to the skin. If they have a slight scratch, but not completely horrible? Then maybe consider an outer wear garment like a coat; something that will not be directly sitting on the skin. It is something that is immediately uncomfortable? Then consider a nice wool rug, or bag.

I may not have found a use for the butter and cheese of my youth, but at least I now understand the wool, and have some ideas for it.

Uncovering the Wool from Over My Eyes

ScannedImageI will admit, as a long time crocheter, I used acrylic yarns almost exclusively for years. I do not say this as a negative thing, acrylic yarns have many practical purposes and companies are creating new textures of yarn with them daily, but there are other practical mediums out there that deserve attention too. However there were several reasons for my long term use of acrylic.

First, availability. In years past I could actually pick up Super Saver in the grocery store while my mom got milk and eggs. Since it was already at hand it was easier to use more regularly. However times have changed, even finding the box stores with Super Saver are getting harder to locate (or involve quite a drive to get to). However box store yarns have become more diversified and I can find fibers that would have been seen only in small local yarn stores in the past.

Secondly, I knew how to use it. A pull skein is a simple concept that involves no extra work on my part. I could pick up a skein and a hook and go right to work, with a hank I was at a loss. I did not want to look like I was confused or unskilled, so I never really picked them up. I guess I figured that if the yarn could confuse me as to how to actually start using it, things would not go well. But after meeting some local spinners and learning how yarn is created at a wheel, I learned how to handle a hank (Here is a past post that shares the explanation).

Vineyard at Dawn Shawl (back), Crochet! Magazine Spring 2013 Photo courtesy of Annie's

Vineyard at Dawn Shawl (back), Crochet! Magazine Spring 2013
Photo courtesy of Annie’s

Finally, thirdly, cost. I like to think of myself as spend conscience. I always looked at the cost per yard to find my best value (I admit I still am very aware of this even today). However, over the years I have come to realize that quality can make a really difference in my end product. Often the yarn can make or break a design. I use my Vineyard at Dawn Shawl (pattern in Spring 2013 Crochet! Magazine) as an example (created with a Blue Heron Rayon/Metallic), it has great drape, and is just striking, but if it were worked up in a chunky yarn it would have a very different effect, imagine it in soft, fuzzy mohair, which would be a different effect as well.

So, while these three obstacle where in place, I never tried luxury yarns or even wools for that matter until the last decade or so. When I first attempted wools, using my value shopping method, I found fibers that were not the most ideal. It worked up like I expected wool to, scratchy, itchy, and somewhat stiff. It played into all my negative preconceptions, but the more I learn out fiber the more I realized that not all wool is created equal.

Basically saying “wool”, is like saying bouquet, while terms like Merino, Shetland, and Romney are names of the flowers. These “flowers” have different properties that offer a different quality to the yarn. They have different degrees of softness, of loftiness, of felting ability, of amount of twist in the end yarn, and of durability. I won’t pretend to be an expert in know all the differing qualities of wool breeds, but I do know that the differences are there and can really make a difference in the end quality of my work.  

New Born LambOne of the first grading areas is the diameter of the individual fiber. The smaller the measurement in microns the finer the yarn, for example Superfine Merino might have a range of 15.6-18.5 microns, while carpet wool can have a measurement of 35-45 microns. This is before they are spun into yarns, so basically the larger the individual fiber the courser it will be. This alone can create many differing yarns out of wool, but then there are other properties such as crimp and staple length that play into a yarns texture. So you cannot take the term “wool” on face value, different wool breeds react differently (even to felting, some felt very little and others felt just by looking at a washing machine). I guess like most of us, there is more than meets the eye.