Most people who claim to be allergic to wool have simply been wearing (or were forced to wear) wool that is not fit for purpose.
Wool comes in many qualities, from soft enough for baby skin (e.g., most merino, Blue-faced Leicester, Wensleydale) to fire- and chemical-resistant industrial carpeting. Historically, people wore underwear in the softer wools,
and outerwear in progressively rougher wool, up to Melton fulled twill for weather-resistant coats. Even then, there were differences: trousers or skirts for indoor wear were typically in softer wool, and usually worsted-spun*; outdoor clothing was more usually in sturdier, coarser wools, often blended with mohair, woollen-spun*, and ideally should be lined if you’re not wearing your merino long-johns or cotton petticoat underneath.
In addition, a lot of these ‘wool allergies’ come from a time when wool blends became A Thing because (1) the wool industry was going into decline and (2) more people had washing machines and wanted to wash their woollens in them. So your granny couldn’t afford the quality wool when she was knitting your school jumpers, and used a crappy wool blend with scratchy plastic in it, the washing machine battered the crap out of it, part-felted it á la Melton – and you blamed the wool.
So, the simplest solution for people who find wool scratchy – apart from buying better-quality woollen goods – is to wear something else next to the skin, such as a shirt under Granny’s Christmas sweater that she knitted specially for you with her crippled, arthritic hands, you ungrateful brat. Or you can try ‘superwash’ wool, which has the sticky-outy scales on each fibre chemically stripped off, which means it won’t felt, and isn’t (as) scratchy.
However some people are allergic to lanolin, the natural grease in wool. This is a pretty serious issue, as lanolin is the skin-softening ingredient in many lotions and moisturisers, and finds its way into soaps and makeup too.
To my knowledge, only sheep’s wool contains lanolin. That leaves a huge range of yarns available – note, I say ‘yarn’. Wool comes from sheep, yarn comes from everything else. You can choose from –
- Huacaya Alpaca
- Suri Alpaca
- Paco-vicuña cross
- Cashgora (Cashmere-Angora cross)
- Cashmere goat
- Nigora cross
- PCA (Pygmy-Cashmere cross)
- Pygora (Pygmy-Angora cross)
- Bombyx / Cultivated / Mulberry
- Eri (Peace Silk)
- Arctic Fox
- Highland Cattle
- Musk Ox / Qiviut
- Bast Bamboo
- Flax (linen)
- Acala / Upland
- Naturally Colored Cotton
- Carbonized Bamboo
- Corn (Ingeo)
- Milk (Casein)
- Nylon / Polyamide
- Rayon / Viscose
- Rayon from Bamboo
- Rayon from Banana
- Soy Silk
- Stainless Steel
- Sugar Cane
- Tencel / Lyocell
Full disclosure: I haven’t tried all of these.
Of those I have tried, I would recommend the following as a substitute for wool:
- Alpaca – any;
- Muskox/Qivuit for next to skin softness;
- Angora – if and only if you aren’t afflicted with the scratchies. Angora is incredibly soft, but fuzzy and therefore tickly;
- Bamboo bast or rayon – suitable for baby-soft skin;
- Pima cotton – even though it dries the hands out as a knitting yarn;
- Banana or soy silk – baby-soft;
- Milk or milk and cotton blends;
- High-quality acrylic, if you absolutely, positively must. It fills the seas with plastic micro-fibres, so think long and hard before you spend (serious, like cashmere-serious) money on this.
Of these, in terms of value for money, I’d go for alpaca, bamboo and cotton, in that order.
* – Worsted spinning sees the wool combed before spinning, so that all the individual fibres are parallel. It produces smooth, non-fuzzy yarn which weaves to a superior fine fabric. Woollen-spun yarns are simply carded without combing: the fibres are higgledy-piggledy and produces a fluffy, round yarn which is wonderfully warm – one example being Melton fabric, used for coats and blankets. While woollen-spun fibres are popular with handknitters, and worsted-spun with weavers, it is possible to use woollen-spun in weaving and worsted-spun in knitting.