WOOL What is it used for?
Wool is one of the most versatile materials at our disposal. Its used in beds and sofas, woven into fabric for suits, coats, upholstery, carpets and rugs, felted to make hats and decorative items, knitted into jumpers, crocheted into bedspreads and turned into sound and heat insulation. The question is, what can’t wool be used for?
One of the areas we probably don’t think about much in terms of wool much is our furniture and furnishings. The strongest wools are used to make durable rugs and carpets which withstand tearing, are easy to care for and resist stains and indentations from furniture. Wool is increasingly being used for hypoallergenic duvets and pillows. Not only is it antimicrobial and soft enough not to irritate skin, but wool actively (and quickly) reduces Volatile Organic Compounds that occur in the home. In addition, the thermal properties of wool and its ability to wick away and absorb moisture mean that your body temperature is regulated better, leading to deeper and more comfortable sleep whether you are sharing the bed or not. But as well as that, wool is used inside our beds and sofas. The crimp of the wool fibre makes it springy and elastic and so perfect for creating a soft but firm surface to sit or lie on. Wool is also turned into fine fabrics for curtains and upholstery. Its strength and durability, along with resistance to stains and fire make it a fabric of choice particularly because it’s also easy to work with, resists creases and can be dyed to virtually any colour.
Another ‘hidden’ use of wool, but this time in our walls, floors and ceilings. Wool’s ability to trap air due to the crimp in the fibre means that it can insulate against both cold and sound at a better rate than other insulators. It improves air quality by filtering out VOCs like formaldehyde, NOx and SO2 and provides moisture and climate control, absorbing moisture from the surrounding wood and walls. The natural keratin in wool also prevents the spread of mold and mildew. It is fire resistant – it won’t support a flame below 560°C* – and because it’s a natural product it is renewable, sustainable, doesn’t release harmful gases over time, and is easy to install, and does not cause irritation to skin, eyes and lungs while handling it. It will last longer than non natural insulators and also requires less than 15% of the energy required to manufacture fibreglass!* (*https://www.thegreenage.co.uk/advantages-sheep-wool-insulation/
“Weaving is a method of textile production in which two distinct sets of yarns or threads are interlaced at right angles to form a fabric or cloth”
There are three basic types of weaving – plain weave, twill and satin. Each produce a different look and feel. The two sets of yarn are called weft and warp. The warp threads are ‘fixed’ and the weft is threaded through them.
Plain weave is where two or more threads of equal weight are woven together in an ‘over and under’ pattern. ‘Basketweave’ is a type of plain weave where two or more threads are grouped together and then woven. ‘Rib Weave’ is a variation where one set of threads has more weight than the other. Plain weave looks the same on both sides of the fabric. It is strong and hardwearing and can create fabrics from chiffon and taffeta to heavy canvass and blankets.
Twill weave has the look of a diagonal pattern of weaving. This is created by the weft going over one set of warp threads and then under two more. As this builds up the ‘diagonal’ feel of the pattern begins to show. The front and back are different and are called ‘technical face’ and ‘technical back’ respectively. The pattern is more obvious on the technical face, and it is also more durable so this is the side that is usually visible. Examples of this fabric are denim, garbardine and tweed.
Satin weave is created by elongating the under over pattern of the weave even further. It creates a very soft feel, and typically the surface is glossy and the back is dull.
Fancy weaves such as Pile, Jacquard, Dobby and Leno require special looms. Satin Weave is the only one where you wouldn’t use wool.
Knitting is another way to create fabric from wool or yarn. Knitting can be done by hand using two straight knitting needles or using a knitting machine. Unlike weaving where the threads follow a straight path, knitting threads meander forming loops above and below the mean path of the yarn. Because of this, knitted fabrics have more elasticity than woven fabrics as they can be stretched in all directions. This makes them suitable for clothing articles that need to stretch in response to the wearers movements – socks, hats, jumpers, tights as the wool will always return to its original shape. Knitting can unravel easily unless the ends are secured so it is important to ‘cast on’ and ‘cast off’. Depending on the yarn and the pattern used, knitted garments can stretch up to 500%!* With a wide variety of stitches, sizes of needle, and no restriction in what yarn you use, it’s possible to create beautiful patterns within each piece, to seamlessly knit in pockets to a jumper, or to scallop the edges of a cardigan – to create whatever you have in mind. A handmade piece of knitwear is completely unique.
This method of creating a piece of fabric uses one crochet hook to interlock loops of yarn, thread or even plastic! The word crochet is French and means ‘small hook’. As well as a difference in implements, crochet differs because generally only one stitch is open at a time, although there are some forms of crochet where multiple stiches are open at once. Whereas there is evidence of knitting as early as the 11th century, crocheted fabrics seem to have taken off in the 19th Century. No-one is sure of its origins but there is evidence that it is connected to French tambour embroidery.
During the Famine, crocheted lace work was introduced as a form of famine relief and people were encouraged to learn and teach crochet across the country.
Irish Crochet lace, late 19th Century (Wikipedia)
Crochet continued in popularity up into the 20th Century, but patterns gradually became simpler after the Edwardian period, and fewer were published. There was a resurgence in the 1960s with a move to using thicker yarn and more colours, and there is a further revival being witnessed today.
Felt is believed to be the oldest known textile. (Chad Alice Hagen (2005). Fabulous Felt Hats: Dazzling Designs from Handmade Felt. Lark Books. pp. 8–. ISBN 978-1-57990-542-2.)
Wool felt is made by taking advantage of the natural scales on wool fibres using hot water and agitation to lock them together to create fabric that is dense and warm. It’s possible to lay out different coloured wools to create a pattern or a picture, wet them, wrap them carefully in a mat and then agitate them. When you unroll the mat, the pattern is still intact. It’s also possible to felt other animal fur for example beaver, rabbit or hare, (often used in hat making) and also synthetic fibres. As well as the wet felting described above, there is needle felting (used to create felted objects) and ‘carroting’ which used toxic chemicals such as mercury which caused many cases of poisoning. As carroting was mainly used in the production of hats, this is where the term ‘mad as a hatter’ came from.
Felt is used in a wide variety of ways, from crafting and toys, to dampers in musical instruments, cushioning and padding for moving parts in machinery, framing paintings and on pool tables.
Samples of felt in different colours