How It's Made... Wool

How It's Made... Wool

Originally written for Stitch Up - our bi-annual newsletter for our prison stitchers - below is a brief background to the history of wool.

The hairy coats of many wild animals provided our ancestors with fibres that could be manipulated in several ways to create textiles. Clothes made of wool were worn in Mesopotamia at least 4,000 years ago. In most parts of the world one species, sometimes more, has been domesticated and bred selectively to produce high quality wool or hair, for example, sheep and goats in Europe, Africa and Asia, camels in central Asia and alpaca and llama in South America.

The Salish people, native Americans, even kept packs of small white-haired dogs for their wool. The most widely reared animal is the sheep and the finest wool fibre is cashmere which is made from the soft under throat combings of Himalayan goats.


Animals have hair or fleece to create an insulating layer to conserve their body heat and to repel rain. Woollen textiles retain these properties and are therefore greatly valued in cold regions. Wool also keeps heat out and is widely used by desert peoples for shelter and clothing. Each individual hair is covered in tiny scales which resist water and also cause the fibres to mat together, giving strength and density. Natural oils secreted from the animals’ hair follicles also repel moisture so that clothing made from woollen fibres are naturally water resistant.

Wool has a wavy quality called ‘crimp’ which causes the fibres to wrap around each other during spinning, thus making a stronger yarn. The springiness of the crimp also means that woollen clothes keep their shape well.

To convert wool fibres into a form that can be manipulated more easily they must be spun into yarn. First the yarn needs to be carded or combed to remove impurities, disentangle the fibres and align them into one direction.


The Romans are credited with the invention of carding. By mounting the prickly heads of thistles onto a board, they were able to brush or tease the fibres into alignment. This evolved into a pair of wooden blocks with rows of bent teeth. A small amount of wool fleece is then carefully stroked between the cards until all the fibres are parallel.

Image: Wool going through the carding process


The simplest method of twisting wool into strands is to roll it between the fingers, but a spindle is used to achieve greater uniformity and length. A spindle is basically a stick with a weight at the bottom. Fibres are drawn out and attached to the top of the spindle which is then set spinning. The spinning process twists the fibres together into yarn. As the length of the yarn grows it is wound around the spindle and more fibres are gradually added. The spinning wheel is merely a more mechanised method of achieving a consistent yarn

Image: Wool on a spindle

How Wool Is Used

As yarn, wool can easily be knotted, twined or interlaced into a diverse range of warm, flexible textiles suitable for everyday wear in cooler climates such as northern Europe and high-altitude regions of the world.

    • All of the yarn used in Fine Cell Work needlepoint products is 100% pure new wool.

    • Modern wool fibres range from a fine 16 microns in diameter, from merinos, to 40 microns.
    • Wool has been a valuable commodity across cultures and centuries. When Richard the Lionheart was captured in 1192, Cistercian monks paid their part of the ransom to the Holy Roman emperor in 50,000 sacks of wool.
    • Besides clothing, wool has industrial uses, from piano dampers to absorbent pads for oceanic oil spills.
    • Wool is used in agriculture because it’s a lightweight ground covering that allows seedlings to grow right through it.

    • Wool is biodegradable. It breaks down slowly, fertilising soil with a generous nitrogen content of 17 % compared with the 6 % nitrogen in commercial turf products.
    • In a seeming paradox, wool can absorb and repel water simultaneously: The outer surface of wool fibre is made up of fatty acid proteins and does not absorb liquid. However, structural features in the fibre’s interior, called salt linkages, can absorb large amounts of moisture in vapor form.In short, wool hates liquid but loves vapor.
    • With a high natural ignition point of about 1,382 *F, wool is fire-resistant. And unlike nylon and polyester, wool does not drip or melt when it does catch fire. These qualities have attracted the interest of the U.S. Army, which is researching wool’s potential in clothing designed to protect combat troops from explosive blasts.

    • Early Antarctic explorers wore clothing made of natural materials, such as wool and fur. Before the British Antarctic Expedition took place, Scott organised for some tests to be carried out on different types of material and the team wore woollen undergarments
    • The fastest recorded time to shear a sheep is 39.31 seconds.     
    • Wool is naturally mildew and mould resistant making it the ideal material for socks.     





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