I love wearing wool but I know sheep farming can be a terrible industry. Can anyone suggest ethical wool clothing brands?

What makes you think sheep farming is a “terrible industry”?

Have you spent any time on a sheep farm, or any kind of farm? Even a petting farm? Or are you just spouting nonsense from delusional idiots who know nothing about farming?

If you’re genuinely interested in ethical clothing, forget about “brands”. A lot of the big brands you’ll have heard of may have ethical lines, but quite often they’re not as ethical as they’re cracked up to be. Those who are genuinely ethical are usually very small brands, and can be hard to find because they embrace local marketing – for example, a sheep farmer who shears, spins, and weaves or knits garments for sale in local farmers markets or online, and/or sells wool to handknitters and weavers.

One way in which you could actually make an impact and have some control is to try making your own clothes. You can recycle fabrics and clothing, or buy artisanal fabrics. Here’s a duvet cover dress:

Here’s a puzzle dress you could also make from a duvet cover. Or an old embroidered linen table cloth:

An apron from an old pair of jeans:

and here, by the miracle that is (or was) the Wayback machine, are swants – trousers made from old sweaters:

Of course, you could also learn to knit…

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Where does the wool go after it is taken off the sheep?

That very much depends on a lot of different factors.

In wild sheep or domesticated self-moulting sheep, the fleece may just lie there and decompose, unless taken by another animal or bird for burrows or nests.

If the sheep is a meat sheep, the fleece is usually of very low quality. Occasionally, it can be sold as insulation material or for industrial carpeting, but it is quite often just dumped and allowed to decompose.

Better-quality fleece can be made into high-quality carpeting, upholstery and soft furnishings; clothing; or yarn for fibre arts – knitting, weaving, etc. In some countries, there is a central processing board to which all such fleece must be sold (e.g., British Wool, in the UK), in others there may be competing processers to which farmers can sell fleece.

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How does wool keep you warm when you are wet?

As it happens, the other day I had one of those very common sink-tap accidents which resulted in me being sprayed down the front with water.

That kind of thing, except all over my woolly jumper.

If I’d been wearing almost any other top, I’d have had to change. However, with my woolly pulli, I just brushed off the drops sitting on the surface of the fabric and carried on. Some spray did go right through the fabric and landed on my chest, which was unpleasant, but that water swiftly evaporated with my body heat, right back through the fabric. So I had no excuse but to carry on washing those damn dishes.

This is the kind of thing woollen garments excel in. You can wear your Aran sweater out fishing on a drizzly day, and stay perfectly warm and dry on the inside. Your Melton-weave wool overcoat will see you through moderate to heavy rain, and only require a shake-out on the doorstep when you get home. However, if you fall off the boat into the sea, or are unfortunate enough to walk home in torrential rain, neither is going to help you much (of course, no other fibre will help either – you’re soaked: get changed).

From: Wool fibre structure and properties

The above shows the structure of a single wool ‘hair’. Off the left-most end is the root of the fibre, where it grows out of the skin. For our purposes, the important bits are the Cuticle, and the Cortex.

Cuticle: The outer surface of the fibre is made up of overlapping cuticle cells, or scales. These have a chemically-bonded waxy coating, which repels water. This allows tap-spray and light rainfall to simply run off the fabric.

Cortex: The cortex is made up of two types of cell with different chemical compositions. One type attracts moisture more than the other, and therefore expands more than the other. This difference in expansion causes the fibre to ‘crimp’ (curl). It is the crimp in wool that allows it to trap air pockets, providing insulation. So, a slightly-damp woolly jumper becomes ‘crimpier’ and warmer.

I’ll mention a third region for completeness: the Matrix. This is mostly hydrophilic sulphur-based proteins, which allow wool to absorb up to 30% of its weight in water. If you get thoroughly soaked, this layer fills up, your woolly garment weighs a ton, and it takes forever to dry out. In an emergency, you can try wringing it out and relying on the cortical crimp to – at least – keep you warm, but the waterproof outer cuticle has been subverted. You need to get somewhere warm, with hot food and dry clothes, stat.

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Why would a vegan be opposed to wearing wool when sheep need to be sheared?

Because vegans lack common sense, and have no understanding of the natural world.

Their existence is only possible in a post-scarcity Western society, where there are lots of vegan alternatives which are only available by raping and bankrupting developing nations for their avocado toast, cutting down rainforest to grow their monoculture soybeans, and destroying and polluting the environment for their cotton clothing and ocean-destroying plastic ‘leather’.

They need to spend a year or two living on locally-sourced turnips and wearing nettles to knock some damned sense into them.

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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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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.

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.

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Can wool be synthetically made without sheep?

No.

It is possible to make something that looks like wool, either with plant materials or, more usually, petrochemicals.

Cotton and linen, two common plant-based yarns, can look the same but are cooling rather than insulating, flammable rather than inflammable, heavy rather than light, and liable to stretch irreparably rather than keep its shape. Other plant-based fibres such as viscose and ramie (e.g., bamboo, sugarcane, cornsilk) are similar. Their production, and that of cotton in particular, is also rather bad for the environment.

Petrochemicals, such as acrylic, are sweaty, very flammable (and melt into your skin when they do, which is oodles of fun at the Burns Unit), appallingly bad for the environment for centuries, and are only “easy care” if you wash them on the same cycle as wool – and even then, they shed microplastics into the watercourse and thence to rivers, lakes and seas.

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Does shearing a sheep’s wool hurt the sheep in any way? If it did hurt the sheep, could you just “trim” the wool instead of taking it all off?

No. It’s like you getting a haircut.

Trimming is the same as cutting, in hair terms – except less hair is removed. Trimming wool does not help the sheep; it leaves most of the wool in place which is uncomfortable and unhealthy. In addition, the trimmed wool ends would be too short to have any commercial value and would end up in landfill. As wool flocks would no longer have any commercial value, thousands of sheep farmers would go out of business and their flocks would be slaughtered. Those industries dependent on sheep wool would have to turn instead to synthetic alternatives which are very damaging to the environment.

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How do I store wool for a long period?

The main issue with storing wool is making certain that moths don’t get at it. Wool can survive almost anything else.

The best method is sealing it in something airtight. This might be some kind of sealable plastic box, or vacuum bags – the kind that you suck the air out of with your vacuum cleaner. NB: the vacuum method may leave the wool flat and crinkled, but you can restore it by steaming it for a few hours. Place the wool in your freezer for a few days before storage: this should kill off any moth eggs that might inadvertently have got into it (this also works for wool garments that have been infested with moth larva).

However, if you mean raw wool, just off the sheep, don’t seal it in plastic: that will just allow it to stew in the sweat and grease. Might not harm the wool, but no one will want to touch it afterwards. Raw wool should be scoured – cleaned – before long-term storage, and placed in an air-permeable bag – hessian, cotton, or hemp is good, or failing that an open plastic bag – if you’re just taking it to be scoured.

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