You might not realise it, but for a tiny area of land the British Isles is home to an extraordinary number of sheep breeds, over 60 in fact. All of these breeds have been carefully classified and graded according the lustre, colour and quality of their wool.
There are other wool-laden animals homed within our shores, and further afield, Cashmere and Angora goats produce Cashmere and Mohair respectively. Llamas produce a courser wool than their cousin the Alpaca, while both originate from South America they can be found in our green and pleasant fields. An equally exotic source of wool is the Camel, most camels which produce useable hair live in Inner Mongolia and China.
The Angora rabbit produces a wonderfully fine wool as does its cousin the Jersey Wooly. As you might be aware, there has been considerable controversy around the combing of the rabbits to retrieve the hair. In some countries the combing action more resembles plucking than combing. For this reason, some are wary of using and wearing products created from Angora wool. However, in recent years, ethical Angora farms have been set up, including in the UK. Finally, there is the Musk Ox’s inner wool, known as Qiviut. Qiviut is known to be one of the softest and warmest wools on the planet, and it has a price tag to match!
It’s not just the species and breeds that are classed, the wool is classified according the breed of sheep, the chemical used, the visible stains, and wool crimp, strength and colour. The wool crimp refers to the number of bends along the wool fibre. More bends indicate fibres with a finer crimp, which will ultimately be a finer wool. Fibres with fewer crimps will be used in the production of coarser products. The wool’s colour is graded on natural shade and impurities. It also takes into account whether it could be dyed into other light colours.
Regardless of species of origin, the wool has to go through a fairly similar process before it can be beautifully presented on a shop floor. So how does the wool from the flock of sheep down the road turn into a wooly jumper? (Sounds a bit like a Christmas cracker joke…)
Most sheep get shorn once a year, although there are some breeds with faster growing fleece. Shearing is a long, hot process, but it offers farmers a good opportunity to inspect their flock. Expert shearers can shear a couple of hundred sheep in a day (puts hairdressers to shame!).
The mound of wool removed from the sheep is referred to a fleece or grease wool. It’s hardly the soft fluffy stuff we would recognise as wool. The sheep’s coat contains lots of natural oils and lanolin to keep it waterproof and protect the sheep from the environment. Who needs a raincoat, eh?
In large shearing sheds the grease wool gets thrown onto the slotted board wool table. This allows the smaller parts of the wool to drop through the boards, leaving the intact fleece behind. This large piece of fleece is then skirted. No, I haven’t gone baaaarmy! I did mean skirted. As you can imagine, a lot of the wool shorn from sheep is just too dirty to be used. Skirting is the process whereby the mucky parts of the fleece are removed.
The remaining fleece needs to be given a good clean. This process is known as scouring, where the wool is given a number of different washes, with different types of detergent, designed to remove the natural oils, dirts and other contaminants.The fleeces are then sorted, in regard to their length and coarseness.
With the clean fleece, the next stage is to start making it recognisable as yarn. The locks of wool are teased or picked to make up a spider’s web like structure. This process makes the wool fluffy. The fluffy wool then undergoes carding.
The design of the cards, used for carding, is similar whether it is the wool is carded manually or mechanically. The cards look similar to a dog’s grooming brush, with metallic teeth sticking out of the brush head. The wool is combed between the hand cards, or mechanical carding cloth. The carding process helps remove the final contaminants and produce a continuous web. The final product of carding are smooth bundles of fibre known as rovings. Finally, spinning the roving twists it into yarn. With the yarn in its final form, it can be made up into the skeins we would recognise.
What about dying? You might well ask! There is no set time to dye the yarn, both for hand-dyeing or on an industrial scale. Dyeing usually occurs with the roving or once the wool has been spun into yarn. Before dyeing either the roving or the yarn, it needs to soaked. Only then can the dye be added. The mixture is gently heated. Finally, the yarn is rinsed and left to dry.
There are a couple of things to bear in mind when dyeing yarn. Firstly, make sure to avoid sudden temperature change. Try to raise and lower the temperature of the water and wool gradually. If not, you will shock the wool, causing it to felt. If you actually intend to felt your wool at a later date, make sure to choose a dye that won’t run with subsequent wetting.
There are a plethora of dyes to use, from natural pigments to acid dyes, to food colouring and Kool Aid. Wool is subject to shrinking whilst the roving can start felting, so the mixtures shouldn’t be agitated. However, you do need to stir the yarn, to ensure even dyeing.
So there you have it, wool from animal to shop floor! Who wears it best, I wonder?
It’s always good to know where your wool comes from, it gives a sense of history to your knitted item. As part of the Kids Knit programme our teachers take the time to talk to their students about the wool making process. To let your child learn more about the process or to knit yourself, sign up for classes today!