Different Types of Luxury Wool
Labels can be confusing—what’s the difference between cashmere and merino? (Hint: one is actually made of hair, and the other is wool.) Here’s a brief guide to the different types of luxury wool.
Clothing to Cuddling
Humans have been covering themselves for warmth and protection since Adam and Eve ate that apple. People once had to kill and skin something to make clothing, but they soon figured out that wool and animal hair are renewable resources. Domesticating animals for harvesting the furry, fuzzy stuff all over their bodies grew into an industry, producing fibers for knitting into clothing and blankets. That industry then grew from supplying fibers for purely utilitarian purposes to specializing in different types of luxury wool, valued not only for warmth but also for fashion and as indicators of wealth and social status.
Wool Comes from Sheep
A great variety of breeds of sheep produce wool that’s wonderful for spinning into fibers and knitting into sweaters. Properties such as strength, length, and fineness of the fibers determine the wool’s quality. For example, lambswool comes from the first shearing, performed when a sheep is around seven months old. It’s extremely soft and luxurious. Merino sheep produce very soft, fine wool used for clothing, while other breeds produce wool that’s resilient enough for heavier use in carpets and upholstery. The wool from merino sheep must be “scoured” to remove lanolin, which is reserved for cosmetic uses, leaving only about half the shorn wool for use in clothing. The result, however, is soft and luxurious.
Cashmere, Alpaca, and Angora are Hair
Animals raised to harvest their hair yield some of the softest, most desirable fabrics. Goats and rabbits provide cashmere and angora fibers. Hair used for clothing comes from the undercoat of these animals—the top layer is coarse for weather protection, while the undercoat is finer for warmth. The undercoat of a cashmere goat makes up only about 25% of the total fleece produced, and each goat produces only about one third of a pound of cashmere per year, which is one reason why cashmere is so expensive. Cashmere is warm, lightweight, and very soft, making it an especially cozy fabric for use in items such as baby blankets, which will need special care during cleaning—cashmere is also very delicate.
Alpaca hair can be naturally hypoallergenic, and it’s lighter and more durable than cashmere. Angora goats produce mohair fibers, which are slightly more shrink-resistant than wool. Angora also comes from several breeds of rabbits. It’s very soft and light, but not very strong, so it’s often blended with other fibers. It can be very warm. Camel hair is soft and durable, and it takes some colors of dye well. No one shears a camel—instead, herders gather hair from the two-humped Bactrian camel when the animal naturally sheds.
Both wool and hair are naturally water-repellent, but they become weaker when soaked. However, these fibers wick water well. They’ll also shrink when exposed to heat. These fibers contain keratin, which provides the springy resilience found in many of these fabrics. Selecting among the different types of luxury wool will depend on the intended use, the price, and their durability.