Why fabric awareness?
As part of the fashion revolution month celebrations Sustainability in Style will be introducing you to eco-ethical-sustainable fashion labels and getting you familiar with what your clothing is made of! To be honest, I am a total fabric nerd. Way back when I was studying my Clothing Production course I was completely enthralled with my textiles course. It really is amazing to see how raw material can become beautiful garments and sometimes the process of getting there just seems like magic. What is even more mind-blowing is the diversity of uses that fabrics can have and the different properties of each fabric. What surprised me when working in the fashion industry was how little consumers considered the fabric of their garments in the end use of a product. So often I would see people purchasing inappropriate fabrics for their end use and it would be difficult to convince them otherwise.
So lets take a look at fabrics starting with wool. I have decided to focus on Merino wool as it is a very commonly used fibre for wool products, especially here in Australia. Wool does come from a variety of different animals but they each have their own sets of ethical issues and fabric properties and would be far to complicated for me to research and condense to just one post. So this is all about Merino Sheep.
The Ugly Side of the Industry
If you have worked through your purchasing values and decided that ‘no animal products’ is an important factor for you in your wardrobe decision making process, then wool may not be an option for you. Before we look at the positives of wool as a fibre it is important to explore the reasons why someone would opt out of including it in their closet. One of the most topical issues with the use of wool is the practice of mulesing, which is the removal of the wooly skin near the buttocks of a sheep. This gruesome process (often completed without any pain relief) is done to prevent flies from laying eggs in the *ahem* ‘nutrient rich’, fleece near the sheep’s nether-regions. This practice has been common in Australia in the past and there is increasing pressure from the public to implement alternative fly control measures across the industry. Other issues associated with purchasing wool is the fact that animals are kept for human purposes. They often have their tails docked, ears clipped with identification tags, male lambs not required for breeding are castrated, and they can be sold for human consumption. Wool also requires the use of land for keeping livestock that could otherwise be used for wildlife habitat or crops and here in Australia the hard hooves of this introduced species have a detrimental effect on the soil creating issues with erosion.
Museling Free Merino Wool
Now that the ugly side of the industry has been addressed we can discuss wool alternatives. Fortunately there are now options for consumers to purchase mulesling free wool within the fashion industry. Yes, you do have to hunt for these kind of options but with increases in community awareness and ethics in fashion these options are becoming available. Some brands, like Finisterre UK, are opting to use wool with traceable production lines, and companies like NewMerino are offering independent auditing and certification of non-mulesing cruelty free wool.
Why Wear Wool?
Ethical and eco nasties associated with wool aside, we can now look at its amazing abilities as a fibre. Wool is pretty darn incredible! Made from the same stuff as our hair (a protein called keratin) wool has some of the most unique characteristics of all natural fibres.
- It is highly absorbent which makes it easy to dye and comfortable to wear as it draws moisture from the skin.
- It has excellent thermoregulation properties. Which means is helps keep your body at a comfortable temperature despite the weather conditions keeping you warm and also preventing overheating.
- Depending on the way it is utilised it can be thick and chunky and warm, or lightweight soft and silky.
- Unlike the synthetic options (such as acrylic) wool is resistant to static electricity, making them less clingy on the body and unlikely to create static electricity sparks.
- Wool doesn’t retain odours or dirt easily and is wrinkle resistant.
- As it is a natural fibre wool is biodegradable (unless chemically treated).
- It is considered to be hypoallergenic
- Wool is one of the most fire retardant fabrics available
One of the most memorable visions I have of wool fabrics was from watching the documentary series ‘Kill it, Cut it, Use it’ in which will was put to the fire test against synthetic bedding alternatives. The results in video below speak for themselves. I would recommend watching this series in its entirety as it addresses many of the (totally weird and unexpected) ways that we use animals. It would be of interest to all folk, including those who are eliminating animal products from their lives. They are hidden in the most unexpected of places!
Merino Wool: The Verdict
This is where defining your values can help assist in making educated shopping purchases. Wool is definitely a no-go for Vegans or those who dislike the use of animal products. As for me, I grew up around sheep on a small hobby farm and my mother used to spin our sheep wool by hand and knit some our clothes and toys from the fibre. It is something that I have felt has been a part of my lifestyle so it is a product I feel comfortable in buying.
My purchasing values and wool
I haven’t purchased any wool products since my 365 day challenge ended but if I were to do so I would look for mulesling free options or shop secondhand, and would purchase merino wool for the following reasons.
- I live in a hot climate and sweat A LOT. Wool works well to keep me at a comfortable temperature and lightweight wool is very appropriate for subtropical winter days. I have attempted to wear synthetic alternatives but end up overheated quite regularly (honestly, heat exhaustion is a once a week occurrence for me for at least half of the year here). Synthetics also give me stinky underarms. I can wear natural fibres with no deodorant all day and not experience any stink. Meaning less chemicals for me and less This correlation between stink synthetics has been scientifically tested and proven.
- I like that wool is biodegradable. It means if I care for it like I have with this vintage vest picture above it will last a VERY long time (this vest has been in my life for many years and was bought second hand). It also means that when I am done with it the fibres will break down. Synthetics do not do this. Recycling synthetics into new synthetics is the only sustainable disposal option. The only downside to this is that bugs can eat wool. I usually store mine in crates with bug repellent all summer. This year I opted to keep them in my closet with ‘eco bug sachets’ which resulted in disaster. Much of my beloved wool possessions are now beyond repair and will be used to stuff some yoga bolsters. Tears were shed and I did require a few beers to be consoled with my loss.
- Wool hardly needs washing. Between you and I, some of my wool has NEVER been washed and I have had it for years. Unless visibly dirty (or stinky but its pretty impossible to get wool stinky) I don’t bother washing at all and a good airing usually suffices. Laundering garments is the most energy intensive part of the garment lifecycle so owning items that require less laundering is always a good thing.
- Wool makes for great bedding. I have a wool quilt for two reasons: one is that it breathes well in subtropical weather, and two is that it won’t melt to me if our house caught on fire. The way synthetics fuse with skin in fires scares me immensely. This is definitely not a topic that keeps all people awake at night but all the fabric identification ‘burn tests’ I did during my studies have stuck in my mind for life. I sleep well under my fire retardant duvet and will probably have the same one for many years (it’s already at least five years old).
So for me wool is an option. If I were to live in a less sweaty environment and had the option to recycle unwanted synthetics I may make a total switch. But for now the properties of wool in my environment combined with my purchasing values make it an option for me.
This may not be the case for you! I am in no way promoting an agenda to get you to purchase wool just providing all the facts I know so you can make your own decisions.
Here at Sustainability in Style discussion is always welcome and all points of view are valid. If you have any additional wooly information or want to share the reasons you would or wouldn’t buy wool please comment below.
Look forward to hearing your feedback.
Ps. We will be looking at a number of different fabric types but if you are interested in looking into other options check out this post I wrote back in October last year