Where can I buy good quality wool that will allow me to knit high quality wool socks that don’t burn holes in them in the first year of use?

It’s not the wool.

Virtually any wool or non-sheep fibre can be used for making socks. Some people like a blend of wool with nylon/polyester/acrylic or cotton for strength and wear. Others like a sturdier fibre like mohair, or breed-specific wool such as Herdwick:

Herdwick ewe with lamb at foot.

Still more prefer worsted-spun over woollen-spun, or an unbalanced ply over balanced. Then there are the arguments over yarn weight, between the die-hard fingering-weight knitters, the never-anything-but sportweighters, and the worsted warriors.

And superwash wool is a must if you’re planning to machine-wash your socks – or even if they need vigorous handwashing.

But beyond such matters, there’s a deeper issue; a philosophy, as it were, of socks.

  • Socks go on your feet. Feet are the hardest-working, most active physical part of your body. Feet are also the roughest, most abrasive part of your body. Look at your feet. Look at your toenails. Are they hard, horny, ragged, split? The condition of your feet and toenails can affect your socks, like putting them on an orbital sander or an angle-grinder. Fix your feet, and you’ll fix most of the problems with your socks.
  • Even with perfect baby-soft feet, your socks still undergo a lot of wear and tear from shoes and simply being on your feet. You can’t do much about the latter, but you can make sure your shoes aren’t causing the problem. Assuming the shoes aren’t the problem, you need to accept that socks, however tough and hard-wearing, whether handmade or shop-bought, are going to require darning at some point. This is the truth of being the most hard-working item of clothing you own. You need to become a darning diva. It’s not difficult and can be as soothing to the soul as knitting the socks in the first instance.
  • Or you can rise beyond the sock to realise a more perfect solution, a sublimation of the sole if you will. The sock is not the problem – the sole is. So knit your perfect sock – and then, knit your perfect sole, and sew them together. You can even use completely different yarns, a delicate fingering for the cuff and foot arch, and a sturdy pure wool Aran or Bulky for the sole. And when that wears through, simply snip off the sole and replace it.

I’m a worsted warrior, and I like Novita 7 Veljestä wool right now. I will happily use pure wool Aran mill-ends, too, especially for kilt hose – you can get these directly from your nearest spinning mill, or they might have a local shop outlet. They’re on cones, from 500g upwards. I also have a 4kg cone of Herdwick, which I’ll probably be buried with, even though I have made multiple items from it. It just never seems to get any smaller.

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Are Irish wool sweaters itchy?

It’s very unlikely that you would ever find out.

The majority of sheep in Ireland are meat breeds. Their wool is poor quality, and usually goes into landfill.

Therefore, there is no Irish yarn to make into egg cozies, much less sweaters.

Most of the (very, very tiny amount of) yarn produced in Ireland is made from Australian merino. That’s not scratchy* in the slightest.

There is some (an incredibly tiny, miniscule amount) wool currently spun from Irish sheep, principally Zwartblés but including some other breeds including the rare-breed native Galway Longwool. However, this is usually only spun in fingering weight, for making socks. You can make a sweater out of sock wool, but it will take years and will only be suitable for hot summers.

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Why is Melton wool so much softer than other wool fabrics even though they are all made of common sheep’s wool?

Hmmm…

Are you sure you mean Melton wool?

Because Melton wool isn’t soft. It’s actually quite hard, stiff, rigid, tough, thick, dense – take your pick. It’s the fabric used for weatherproof overcoats and upholstery for its toughness and robust wearing characteristics.

It’s primarily a twill-woven fabric, which means it should drape and fold well. Then, it is fulled – pounded and agitated, causing the microscopic scales on individual wool fibres to attach to each other, resulting in a thicker, shrunken fabric*. Finally, the surface is napped – brushed to a fluffy, velvetty texture – and then shaved to remove these loose fibres.

suppose one could say that Melton has a “soft” surface – like a low-pile corduroy, perhaps. But it is not what I would consider remotely comfortable or skin-kind. I certainly wouldn’t want to wear Melton next to my skin, like the handknit Blue-Faced Leicester wool sweater I’m currently wearing – and I absolutely wouldn’t consider it for underwear, as I would a fine merino or Wensleydale.


*: Felting achieves the same aim, but, technically, felt is made with fleece, whereas fulled fabrics are woven or knitted first.

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Is Angora wool cruel?

No.

Angora wool comes from the Angora rabbit, of which there are several breeds. All Angora rabbits are large, some startlingly so:

Woman holding a gigantic white rabbit, which pretty much covers her torso. The rabbit's head appears to be larger than the woman's, though this is because of the amount of fur on it.
FLOOFF!!

Their wool grows to about 3″ (7.5cm), though some can be up to 5″ (12.5cm).

An almost featureless squashed sphere of oyster coloured fur that occupies the entire top of a bedside locker, which on closer inspection, turns out to be an Angora rabbit just prior to moulting.
FLOOOOOOOOOFFFFFFFFFFFFFF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This naturally falls out every 90 days, although some owners trim their bunnies regularly:

An Angora rabbit just after trimming. It looks more like a white scottish terrier than a bunny, but with rather longer legs, and sporting what looks like two huge, fluffy feather dusters on its head. I swear. I could just DIE of the cuteness.
Like a Scottish terrier with feather dusters on its head.

The main reason for keeping Angora rabbits is not for their wool – it’s for competitions. After competing for a year or two, they’re retired, often becoming pets as they are very used to being handled. They’re terrific fun, a mix of dog-like rascality and cat-like snuggles.

Their wool is harvested through regular brushing, moulting, or trimming. It’s actually possible to spin directly from a bun in moult:

As long as it’s moulting, it will happily sit there and let you. If it isn’t moulting, you can expect a surprisingly painful kick in the stomach. These are not coot widdle bunnikins, they can and will draw blood.

Most owners, however, will collect wool from brushings:


Now, a number of people have mentioned PETA. It may be true that some Chinese Angora farms have poor animal protections in place, and that abuse took place. I deal with that by never buying Angora from China, or from anywhere that is even slightly suspicious – but I do that for any fibre*. However, I would like to direct you to this website, and, when you have examined it in full, I would like you to think about whether PETA is the sort of organisation from which to get your information on animal abuse.


*: this means that I only work with substandard cashmere, for example, because the truly high-quality cashmere comes from half-starved wild goats. Starvation is the reason for the ultra-fine fibre these goats produce. NB: they’re not deliberately starved. It’s because their native environment (mountain grassland) doesn’t produce enough food. Cashmere goats living in, e.g., Australia or Scotland, are well-fed, and therefore produce thicker cashmere fibre.

Quora linky.

What is a “Donegal” sweater?

As a Donegalwoman, there is no such thing as a Donegal sweater.

There is, however, such a thing as Donegal tweed. Donegal tweed is woven from wool, of course. But what is interesting about this wool happens during the spinning process. The fleece is dyed after scouring (cleaning and washing), then woollen-spun with minimal or no carding to remove short fibres. During the spinning process, these short fibres fall on the mill floor. After a few days or a week, the floor is swept, and the resulting semi-felted little bobbles (‘neps’) are added to the next batch of spinning. The yarn looks like this:

The neps stick to the yarn giving little pops of colour. A sweater knitted in this yarn could be called a Donegal sweater:

Carol Feller, wearing her Killybegs cardigan, in Studio Donegal Aran Tweed in shade Green (4824). The cardigan is has a round collar and opens from throat down, and features a delicate honeycomb cable pattern at the cuffs, waist, and yoke.
Killybegs pattern by Carol Feller, in Studio Donegal Aran Tweed

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When making textiles, how would early people card them?

There is such a thing as craft historical re-enactment – it’s not all Vikings and Romans. Craft historical re-enactment can happen on its own, often in living history museums, but also in conjunction with the sword and sandals kind of re-enactment*. There are also many knitters who are interested in historically-accurate crafting – there’s large and active communities of Historic Knitters and Spinners on Ravelry, for example, and another dedicated group of crafters who are preserving old, out-of-copyright patterns and crafting books online.

So, how would people have carded fleece to make yarn in the pre-industrial era?

Image showing modern and historical carders.

I’m sorry this is such a poor-quality image – I took it with my phone at my first-ever wool festival, and, while camera quality is my main criterion for buying a phone, that phone was high quality for 2009. These are carders: the pair at the front are relatively modern, but at the back, on the cross-shaped handle, is a typical pre-industrial carder. Those fuzzy blobs you can see are the seed heads of one of the Teasel species of plant:

Historically, Fuller’s Teasel seeds were used for both carding wool for spinning, and for finishing woven cloth by brushing and softening the surface.


* – In my LH characters of Jodis (formidable matron) and Finnbogi (beardless and somewhat inept young warrior), my craft skill was naalbinding, a kind of Viking knitting but with a sewing needle.

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Why don’t goats produce wool the way sheep do?

Strictly speaking?

Because goats produce their own spinnable fibre – notably the Cashmere goat breeds and the Angora goat, which produce cashmere and mohair respectively. Yes, mohair – not angora, which is produced by the Angora rabbit.

Historically, or rather paleoagriculturally, sheep appear to have been bred primarily for their wool, whereas goats seem to have been bred primarily for milk, although there are such things as milk sheep and, clearly, fibre goats. I can only hazard a guess that the primitive sheep domesticated by our ancestors must have produced more fibre than goats did*, and/or that primitive domesticated goats had more milk or were easier to milk than sheep

Milk goat

Milk sheep.

Yep, definitely easier to milk the goat.


* – The Jacob sheep, a relatively primitive breed, produces about 2–3kg fleece, whereas (modern) Cashmere goats produce only 1kg.

Quora linky.

What’s the carbon footprint of wool?

Somewhere between zero and a non-trivial fraction of infinity, depending on the production, preparation, marketing and post-purchase care, the locations thereof, and transportation methodologies between.

You’re going to have to be a lot more specific.

What would you think if you saw a man knitting in public?

Absolutely nothing, because I’m not stupid enough to think men can’t, or shouldn’t, knit.

Men have always knitted. It’s likely that knitting was invented by shepherds – men herding sheep. In the medieval era, men completed a 7-year apprenticeship to become professional knitters in men-only guilds. The Moorish knitter who created the silk pillows in the grave of Spanish prince Ferdinand de la Cerda was probably a man:

Back and front of silk pillow from the grave of Spanish prince Ferdinand de la Cerda

The first knitting machine, in 1589, was invented by William Lee, a man. Sailors and soldiers have knitted, at sea and in the trenches. Most haute couture knitwear designers, even in recent history, have been male:

Kaffe Fassett:

Wedding dress by Jean-Paul Gaulthier
Wedding dress by Jean-Paul Gaulthier

My uncle became a globe-trotting mining engineer not because of his education, but because he could cook, sew and knit, and therefore could be sent to uninhabited regions of the world without female support. My father, a lorry driver and former amateur heavyweight wrestler, won prizes for his lace knitting:

My father and I at my PhD graduation.
My father and I at my PhD graduation.

My younger brother learned to knit before I did, and can still knock out a decent pair of socks.

So, if I saw a man knitting in public, I might ask what he was making or which pattern he was using, ask what his Ravelry name was, and give him mine.

Why can’t Merino wool be replicated? Could a cheaper, artificial alternative be created without sacrificing quality?

No natural fibres can be “replicated”.

The reason is that all natural fibres are fiendishly complex in structure. We’re probably closer to replicating a sheep from raw atoms than replicating wool.

This is what you’d have to recreate in your lab. Good luck with that.

It’s not much simpler to replicate a plant fibre like linen:

There are, however, innumerable artificial fibres, mostly derived from petrochemicals, which mimic the qualities of natural fibres. Most can only imitate the feel of the natural fibre. For example, acrylic fibre has the softness of wool – but not the warmth, rainproofing, elasticity, inflammability, or biodegradability; and acrylic has many disadvantages besides, such as being a significant source of microplastic pollution in fresh and saltwater.

I prefer nature.

Quora linky.