WOOL From Sheep to Suit

When the fleece is first removed from the sheep, it looks nothing like the soft smooth fabric of a suit, or even the fluffiness of a knitted hat.  So how does it get from Sheep to Suit?

Shearing

This is the process of removing the fleece from the sheep.  In bygone times, people would have done this by hand – pulling the loose fleece or ‘roux’ gently from the sheep.  With the advent of shears this became a highly skilled job with the best shearers removing the fleece in one piece.  Today the job has become marginally easier with electronic shears that reduce the possibility of cutting the sheep.  Top shearers can remove a fleece in under 2 minutes, but an average would be 2-3 minutes per fleece. 

Shearing is an incredibly important part of sheep rearing in terms of the sheep’s health as well as for collecting wool.  It’s generally done annually in early summer to prevent sheep from suffering (and sometimes dying) in high temperatures.  It is also both the preventative and the cure for fly-strike, and it also helps keep down other parasites (such as ticks and lice).  If you don’t shear a sheep it can begin to find it difficult or uncomfortable to move, the wool can impair their ability to see and it can also make it difficult for lambs to find their mother’s teats.  So even if there was no market for wool, it would be important to shear.

https://youtu.be/CoH2-M8LedQ why sheep need shearing

Scouring

Once the fleece is removed it is called ‘greasy wool’ or ‘wool in the fleece’ and it needs to be ‘scoured’.  This is because the wool contains a high level of lanolin (a valuable commodity in the cosmetics industry) as well as dead skin, sweat, bugs, pesticides and vegetable matter which need to be removed.  Scouring can be a simple process of washing the wool in warm water, or an industrial process using soaps and specialised machinery.  The level to which ‘greasy wool’ is de-greased depends on what you want to use it for – if you want the wool to have more water resistance you would only clean it to a ‘semigrease’ state.  After the wool has been cleaned it is sorted into it’s different grades or types.

https://youtu.be/GuXa1sA7WdY

Carding

This is the ancient process of separating and straightening sheep’s wool so that it can be teased out during spinning to make yarn for knitting or weaving.  Once the wool has been sorted, two brushes are used – rather like pet hair brushes – and the wool is brushed from one onto the other to remove knots and straighten it all in the same direction.  At this stage if you wanted to blend in other fibres or colours you could do so.  (Wikihow)

https://youtu.be/SA8oCxLN7sQ YouTube/HervorandWeyland c.2 mins

Spinning

 After the wool has been carded to make it all lie in the same direction, it is teased out and spun into yarn.  Traditionally this happened on a spinning wheel – a once common sight in households across the West of Ireland – but these days the process has mainly been mechanised although some Irish companies do still produce handmade yarns.

Dyeing

Dyeing is the application of natural or synthetic dyes to change the colour of the wool. Because wool is a protein, made out of a combination of the 20 essential amino acids, it is more complex than cellulose (plant material) and therefore there are more ways that different dye chemicals can attach to it as well as more substances that can be used as dye.

To dye something, the dye (natural or otherwise) needs to be dissolved in water and heat and a fixative added to help it ‘stick’ to the fibre.  As with our own hair, wool does not respond well to alkali and so most recipes stipulate an acid such as acetic or citric acid.  Different dyes ‘take’ at different temperatures, and one dye – indigo – does not require a fixative, just water of a certain temperature, as it’s the oxygen in the air as you remove the wool that ‘sets’ the dye in place.  With natural dyes, the intensity of the colour can be increased by re-dying the yarn.

Emilia Furey