It seems paradoxical that wool has so many beneficial properties yet is a “hard sell”. Nicola Dennis takes a close look at the strengths and drawbacks of wool and its competitors.
With shearing costs surpassing wool returns, the conventional ewe is now shorn for the good of her health rather than for profit. Wool is natural, sustainable, fire resistant, moisture wicking, biodegradable, non-toxic, it keeps you warm, it keeps you cool, it’s everything the customer says they want, and yet selling wool is a hard racket.
If it is any consolation to crossbred wool growers I anticipate that fake meat manufacturers and many passengers on the virtue-signalling ship will find themselves in a similar situation. For every customer there are the things they want and there are the things they actually buy when it comes to opening their wallets. Everyone wants free-range eggs until they realise they could have caged eggs for a fraction of the price. Similarly, in a world where one red “Make America Great Again” hat can indelibly label you as racist, people outwardly revere the VW Beetle – a vehicle commissioned by Adolf Hitler himself. Humans are complex and you don’t get as far as you might think when trying to work out what makes them tick. Instead, let’s eye up wool’s competitors.
THE HYDROCARBON FIBRES
Nylon, polyester, polypropylene and acrylic – these all start their life as crude oil although modern polyester products might also be made from recycled beverage bottles since humankind has amassed such a collection of these. You will find these mimicking wool in carpets, upholstery, yarn, and apparel. In fact they will also be alongside wool in woollen products keeping the cost down and the durability up.
To be fair, merino wool is starting to disrupt some of these hydrocarbon fibres on their home turf by sneaking into footwear and face masks. Coarse wool doesn’t get much of a look in, however, even for making surfboards.
There is a growing concentration of microplastics in the sea, for which the hydrocarbon fibre family is copping the blame. The theory here is that fibres shed during textile laundering are making their way, via the wastewater system, to the sea. There is a danger that these microplastics will build up in the aquatic food chain and cause real harm. Wool fibres do not pose this risk but, in all fairness, it would be even better if we stopped putting our sewage in the sea.
Polytrimethylene terephthalate (PTT) or Triexta are the formal names for the carpet fibre that we know as “Rhino smartstrand”. It’s the carpet that you can keep a rhinoceros on and still get your tenancy bond back. For those of us with small children, that was all we needed to hear.
PTT can be made from corn syrup and turpentine, which are both plant based although, according to the manufacturer, only 37% of the fibre is made from renewable sources at this point. Unlike wool, PTT is not biodegradable.
PTT is cheaper to produce and reportedly just as durable as nylon (a fibre that was the gold standard for durability). However, PTT has not been around long enough to live up to its claims around longevity. But then again, you can keep zoo animals on it.
Rayon and viscose are derived from cellulose, usually extracted from wood. Wood pulp is put through a 17-step chemical process to make the silky smooth fibres. The rayon itself is basically pure cellulose but along the way carbon disulfide is used, which has been implicated in degrading the health of the workers in the rayon factories and nearby waterways. Before we get on our high horses we wool lovers might also want to have a think about how our favourite natural fibre comes to be presented in such an array of bright colours and what that process might be doing to overseas workers and waterways. It is entirely possible to dye wool and produce rayon safely but a lack of wastewater treatment and worker rights is a concern across the whole textile industry.
Rayon/viscose is biodegradable and used to make apparel, carpets, and home decor that designers love and professional cleaners hate.
Cotton (along with linen and jute) is a plant-based fibre. As with wool, humans have a long history with cotton so, naturally, it was one of the plants that was very briefly grown on the far side of the moon as part of the Chinese lunar exploration programme. Being a plant, cotton is renewable and biodegradable. Cotton gets a bad rap for being a water-intensive crop, apparently using 8000L for a pair of jeans. Beef producers will recognise the kind of accounting taking place here – the majority of US cotton farms are not actually irrigated. There are also concerns about the use of insecticide and forced labour in cotton production throughout the world.
Cotton, and to a lesser extent linen, compete with wool for use in curtains and clothing.
THE OTHER ANIMAL FIBRES
Sheep don’t have the monopoly on animal fibre. The fleeces from alpacas, opossums, rabbits (angora), and goats (cashmere and mohair) are all brimming with natural warmth. These are at the fine end of the micron scale so are competing with merino wool rather than the coarser crossbred wool.
Owing to production scale, Merino gives all of these a run for their money, price wise.
Wool has natural fire retardant properties that make it good for residential building products. Sheep rarely catch fire, but do you know what else rarely catches fire? The rocks that the “mineral wool” insulation (e.g. Pink Batts) are made out of. Pink Batts look weird but are essentially glass. Most of it is even recycled glass.
Wool can be used for insulation and, unlike apparel etc., this is a job for strong coarse wool. Wool requires some treatment to hold its shape and make it pest proof for insulation. Often this requires the addition of recycled polyester, which is part of the crude oil family of fibres.
Material cost is an important factor for insulation. With recycled glass trading for mere cents per kilogram, even recycled coarse wool oddments are at the pricey end of this market.
Firefighters used to wear wool – in fact it is still out there on the backs of rural firefighters. However, if you are running into a burning building then flame resistance is only one consideration. Heat protection, puncture resistance, and weight are also very important. As far as I can see, kevlar has pushed wool out of the mix. Kevlar is synonymous with bullet proof vests and is often coupled with flame-retardant-treated cotton to make protective clothing. Kevlar is part of the hydrocarbon fibre crew and is derived from crude oil.
First things first, vitamin D is not a textile. But vitamin D supplements are an important product of the wool clip. Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is in very few foods. With plenty of people spending their time indoors far, far away from the equator, vitamin D deficiency is common. Severe vitamin D deficiency causes rickets and milder forms of vitamin D deficiency correlate with almost every health issue under the sun.
The most effective form of vitamin D is vitamin D3 which is made from lanolin, pressed from wool during wool scouring. Alternatives to wool-based vitamin D supplements, which are generally only sought by vegans, are synthetic vitamin D2 which is less effective. Or, vitamin D3 made from lichen which can’t compete with lanolin based vitamin D3 for cost.
So that roughly sums up the contenders that wool is fighting against. However, at the risk of seeming defeatist, I want to point out that customers could do with some relationship counselling with wool. Cheaper wool blends of scratchy sweaters and school uniforms have ruined many a youngsters perception of “real” wool in the same way that warm school milk deterred a generation from dairy products. This is an important point for those campaigning the government to use more wool.
If you remember fidgeting your way through class mat time with the harsh loops of an industrial carpet eating into your shins and buttocks like a bed of nails then you can understand the allure of an oh-so-soft Rhino smartstrand carpet that doesn’t remind you of the time when you were powerless and small. The call for the government to “do something about wool” is ringing. If they “do something” it will be done to a budget. This could result in another generation being exposed to the worst experiences that wool has to offer.
- Nicola Dennis is an agricultural analyst and scientist.