A closer look at wool
‘It is frequently hailed as a wonder fibre thanks to its unique properties as well as its long-lasting nature and versatility. Sadly, like many natural fibres, wool has fallen victim to overproduction, misuse and misunderstanding, therefore as with most products, there are good and bad ways of sourcing it’
From the peaks and troughs of the Lake District to the rolling hills of the West Country, sheep have been traditionally kept for wool across the UK for thousands of years. Wool has kept us warm and protected us from the elements since the Stone Age. It is frequently hailed as a wonder fibre thanks to its unique properties as well as its long-lasting nature and versatility. Sadly, like many natural fibres, it has fallen victim to overproduction, misuse and misunderstanding, therefore as with most products, there are good and bad ways of sourcing it.
As part of wool week, we recently attended a talk at clothing manufacture Finisterre’s London store. The capabilities, beauty and ethical elements of wool were discussed by Finisterre Product Director, Debbie Luffman, The Campaign for Wool’s COO, Peter Ackroyd and Lesley Prior, the guardian of the last twenty eight Bowmont Merino sheep on the planet with whom Finisterre have built a long-lasting relationship. Finisterre design functional and sustainable clothing and use Merino wool in many of their winter garments as well as their socks and some of their lighter layers. Finisterre’s choice to use wool comes from their commitment to designing with longevity in mind.
Wool is 100% natural, and as long as there’s grass for sheep to graze on they will naturally produce a new fleece each year; making it a renewable material. Whereas synthetic fibres such as viscose and polyester take a long time to degrade, wool will decompose in a relatively short time. The natural fibres of wool are also better next to our skin compared with chemical based synthetics. From a practical perspective, wool is a highly-effective natural insulator. Its unique structure allows it to absorb and release moisture meaning it will maintain its wearer’s body temperature in both warm and cold weather.
Wool is extremely strong and durable; its fibres will resist tearing and can be bent back on themselves over 20,000 times without breaking. Naturally elastic, it will stretch with the wearer but also return to its natural shape, maintaining its appearance long term, whilst the waxy coating on wool fibres makes it resistant to staining. Hence why a good quality wool jumper will last you many years.
From a sustainability standpoint we know wool is far better than its man-made counterparts, however it’s also important to consider it from an ethical point of view. At the Finisterre event, Debbie highlighted the importance of asking questions about the ethics behind the production of wool and the welfare of the sheep.
Farmers have come under fire for the care and treatment of flocks, especially during the shearing process. Investigations conducted by PETA resulted in their ‘there is no such thing as humane wool’ campaign in 2014 after the organisation released footage of sheep being cut, manhandled and mangled at wool-shearing operations in the US and Australia. This eventually led to the prosecution of several Australian shearers depicted in the footage – Australia currently produce ¼ of the world’s wool.
However, hearing Lesley talk about her sheep proves wool can be harvested ethically, but that we must make an effort to do so. As Lesley said “it is not the easy option” which is why there are so many unethical practices taking place around the world sadly putting convenience over ethical standards.
Unlike most other materials, ethically produced wool ticks nearly all of the boxes. Long-lasting, biodegradable, natural and renewable. We like what journalist and environmental specialist Lucy Seigl had to say in an article for The Guardian: ‘Personally I value wool’s eco credentials – it’s natural, hardy and potentially biodegradable – so I want brands to use more of it, but ethically sourced.’ Brands like Finisterre, who carry out thorough research when it comes to sourcing the materials they use, are doing just that.
The talk concluded that it’s not about ‘wool vs other materials’ when it comes to ethics. As always, it’s about doing your research as a consumer, and buying from companies that are transparent about their approach. It’s about ensuring that the sheep providing us with this incredible fibre are treated properly, and putting thought into repairing, reusing and extending the life of such a versatile material. The conversation around wool is ongoing and we’re always interested in hearing your thoughts on the topic so please leave your comments below.