Glossary: Wool Fiber

Wool is a natural fiber which comes from the fleece of sheep, or sometimes other animals such as goats (including cashmere) and even rabbits. Usually, however, the term refers to the wool of sheep. Many different fabrics are made from wool fiber, including wool gauze, wool challis, many different weights and types of wool tabby (including some varieties of suiting), many varieties of twilled wool (including gabardine and herringbone), and fulled wool fabrics, including flannel and a variety of suiting and coating fabrics. Historically, wool broadcloth was a tabby-woven fabric which was fulled and otherwise processed.

“Wool fibers are composed of a protein called keratin, and are in general composition similar to human hairs. The fibers have three parts, or layers: the epidermis, the cortex, and the medulla. The medulla is at the center of the wool fiber. Thick, stiff wool fibers have larger medullas; fine, flexible, easy spun wool fibers have almost invisible medullas.
“The cortex layer is responsible for the natural crimp in wool fibers. It gives wool fabric elasticity and the ability to shed wrinkles.
“The outermost layer of the wool fiber, the epidermis, is formed from scales that, under a high-powered microscope, look slightly like hooks. The epidermis helps make wool waterproof and resistant to abrasion. When the yarn is spun, the hooklike scales interlock with one another to create a strong yarn. These scales cause wool to feel ‘scratchy’ and irritate some people’s skin. Processes remove the scales from wool fibers before spinning. Woolens treated in this manner are not scratchy, and are washable.” (Ingham and Covey, The Costume Technician’s Handbook, page 64)

“Wool or woolen is a staple fiber, meaning it is of relatively short length. Short staple wool is carded before spinning and creates fluffier yarn and fabric. Longer staple wool is called ‘worsted.’ Worsted fibers are combed to lay them parallel before spinning, creating a smoother yarn and thus a smoother fabric. Natural colors of wool range from creamy white to beige to brown to black. Wool dyes well because it is absorbent upon prolonged exposure to moisture. Overlapping scales that cover the fiber (seen under magnification) give wool its felting ability, because they interlock and entangle the fibers with the application of heat, moisture, and agitation. This is important in the fulling process, which shrinks and felts the wool to a desired degree. The scales also trap air, which makes wool warm to wear. Wool does not burn well; thus, in this period of open fires, it was often used for kitchen aprons and for children’s clothes.” (Bassett, Textiles for Regency Clothing 1800-1850, pages 12-13)

“Versatile in weight, texture, weave, and color. Unique properties of wool permit constructions not possible in any other fiber. Tailors well because of ability to be molded into shape. Used for coatings, suitings, crepe, tweeds, knits, gabardine, flannel, jersey.” (Butterick, Vogue Sewing, page 51)

“Wool is one of the most versatile fabrics known to dressmakers. Usually quite colorfast and fade-resistant, wool adapts well to draping and pleating. Due to its insulating qualities, wool can actually keep you more comfortable in warm weather than a synthetic fabric. Wool can absorb a large percentage of moisture without feeling wet, and unlike cotton, it retains its insulation benefits even when damp.
“Wool is somewhat elastic, extremely hard-wearing, and naturally resistant to soil and stains. It releases odors more easily than cotton or silk. In most cases, a wool garment will not require frequent laundering. A good airing after use, with spot cleaning and brushing to remove dust as needed, will keep wool garments in excellent shape for years.” (Clark, The Dressmaker’s Guide, 2nd ed., page 54)

For more information about an individual fiber, fabric, or other material, select it on the right side menu for “Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials.” This will bring up all entries which have that tag, including (in most cases) a Glossary post which will offer a definition of that fiber, fabric, or material, and sometimes also offer useful links to outside sources on working with it. For more general information, visit the core entry for the Glossary: Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials. For a directory of all textile glossary posts, go to the Glossary Table of Contents.

Glossary Entries for Wool Fabrics:

Online Resources:

Print Resources: See the article Glossary: Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials for a list of print resources.

Updated January 10, 2012

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