The Wonders of Wool
Since most of the continent seems to be in a deep freeze at the moment, I can’t help but appreciate all the ways I have to keep warm. Not the least of which is utilizing ethical, sustainable, renewable resources from the animal kingdom. Wool has long been a staple of winter wear that is incredibly effective at keeping us warm and cozy during the long, cold winter months. But it’s so much more than just socks and sweaters! Recent research has brought to light some fascinating benefits!
Once a household and wardrobe staple, wool experienced a decline in popularity with the invention of cheap synthetic materials made of petroleum byproducts. Polyester factories contributor significantly to air and water pollution. Synthetic fabrics treated with a cocktail of chemicals, many of which are designated carcinogens by the EPA and known endocrine disruptors, often end up right against the skin. Since the skin is our largest organ, what goes on us also goes in us, and that’s a sobering thought when you consider what these fibers contain.
Synthetic fabrics require significantly higher levels of dye as they do not take colour as well as natural fibers and do not decompose once they hit the landfill. Considering Americans trash 14 million tons of clothing annually (as of 2016), that is a lot of synthetic fibers sitting in our landfills and contaminating our environment. And let’s not forget about microplastic pollution that is contaminating our oceans and sea life at an alarming rate, the bulk of which are shed from synthetic fabrics.
(re)Enter wool. Its renaissance, highlighted by initiatives such as The Campaign for Wool, is well deserved!
Practically speaking, there are few fibers more efficient. The original smart fabric, wool is beautifully temperature-regulating, keeping you toasty warm when you need it with it’s insulating properties and cool when you don’t by wicking moisture away from the skin. It is highly durable and fire-resistant. The flame-retardant properties are so effective that mattresses may not need chemical fire retardants in order to pass the open flame test if wool is used at the proper density.
High levels of lanolin give this fleece its antibacterial properties, and it is resistant to mold, dust mites and bed bugs, making it an even better mattress choice. More coarse fibers are used as rugs, upholstery, and even environmentally-friendly insulation. There is even exploration into wool for use in automobile manufacturing and children’s car seats. Companies are looking to move away from using plastics and chemical flame-retardants and wool could be part of the answer.
Sheep are well-known for thriving in areas that are unsuitable for other forms of agriculture. With good management, sheep (and other livestock) can rejuvenate infertile land and restore healthy ecosystems which results in carbon sequestration and benefits us all. Climate Beneficial Wool further adds motivation to raise sheep in an ethical and sustainable manner. This benefits the environment and gives consumers a choice for better products. In fact, a study out of UC Berkeley found that sustainably managed sheep produced wool with a net carbon benefit and a difference of over 150lbs of CO2 per garment versus conventional fleece.
Sheep run alongside complementary crops replace mowing and synthetic fertilizer usage. This is known as integrated crop livestock systems. Wool is a abundant renewable resource that is obtained with minimal stress to the sheep. Plus it is biodegradable and compostable. Taking a year to decompose versus the centuries it takes polyester to do the same.
Wool was on my Christmas Wish List this past year. And with good reason! It has a plethora of health benefits that are only just now being explored. This study found that low birth weight infants who slept on lambswool gained weight faster than those who slept on cotton sheets. As the mother of a LBW baby, I can tell you that this is huge! This study recommends wool as a treatment option for those suffering with fibromyalgia pain and joint issues. I was on my way to a fibro diagnosis before I started AIP in 2014. Even now, I appreciate the insulation it gives me against the cold to which I am so sensitive.
This study found that those suffering with chronic lower back pain experienced significant improvements in their pain levels and mobility when wearing wool underwear for a period of time. It can even improve your sleep quality (something from which Little Miss and I could both benefit). Sheep skin and wool is also well-known for preventing bedsores and pressure ulcers in those susceptible to them. Diabetic patients benefit from wearing wool socks to keep feet cool and dry and prevent pressure sores. Superfine Merino has even recently been found to be therapeutic for those suffering from eczema!
Local wool production revival can also have a positive effect on the local economy. It revives trades and craftsmanship associated with wool products which will have a further trickle-down effect. In 2013, Fibershed found that wool production in the state of California alone could clothe nearly 5 million people annually! Unfortunately, they found most of it in storage sheds, compost heaps, or dumped in ditches. It is not worth it, financially, for the farmers/ranchers to process their wool in the face of cheaper overseas competition. Imagine the jobs that could be created or improved by resurrecting the wool trade here in North America. The the farmers/ranchers, weavers, mill owners, dye-makers, sewers, knitters, and spinners! The demand for local, sustainable choices is only growing and a rebirth of these crafts with it. This will result in improved sourcing and sustainability of products.
Some Wool Considerations
Even with all these great benefits, there are still some considerations. A process developed in the 1970’s can make wool less itchy and machine wash compatible. This process involves soaking the fibers in chlorine and then applying a polymer to the fibers. This undermines some of the attractive natural properties of wool and may carry some health concerns. Look for chlorine-free products and those pieces requiring traditional care practices. Allergies also concern some. Many with allergies have found that they are sensitive to the chemicals/additives found in some wool and not the wool itself or were exposed to exceptionally course wool fibers (>30µm) that caused irritation. Of course, if you are truly allergic, it would be best to avoid it. Many now consider wool largely hypoallergenic in light of new evidence!
It is best to source wool as close to home as possible to reduce transportation resources. The less it has to travel, the less its carbon footprint. It should also be noted that some chemicals and pesticides used in conventional sheep farming can find their way into the water system when the wool is processed, so it is important to source ethical/sustainable or organic wool when possible.
Considering the health and environmental risks associated with synthetic materials, it is clear that we need to make better choices. The sustainability and benefits of well-managed sheep herds and quality wool are a clear and obvious choice for so many reasons.
What has been your experience with wool? Love it? Hate it? Have questions about it? Let me know below!