What is ‘Wool’?
Wool is a natural fibre obtained by shearing the coat of a sheep. While many of us associate wool with sheep, other mammals — including alpacas, camels and goats — also produce fibres that can be twisted into yarn and then textiles. Alpaca wool comes in 22 natural colours, the most of any wool-producing animal.
Wool fibres are made of alpha-keratin, which is found in all mammalian (including human) hair as well as horns and claws. In its natural state, wool fleece contains lanolin, however this is washed out during the spinning and dyeing process so that your regular wool jumper fibres do not contain lanolin or other foreign particles from the fleece, like grass seeds.
Wool fibres stick together easily. The cells of their tough outer layer, or cuticle, have evolved to overlap like tiny shingles, creating spots for one fibre to catch on another as they are twisted.
If you could look close-up at a strand of wool, you would see it has a natural crimp, or ripple. That crimped structure gives the wool a natural elasticity that makes it strong. It comes from a helix, like a spring, deep inside each fibre. You could bend the wool fibres back and forth more than 20,000 times without them breaking or tearing.
As a result, wool can stretch comfortably with the wearer, and then return to its natural shape. Wool carpets have a natural bounce when you walk on them. They might flatten if something heavy is on them but, once it is removed, will bounce back. Wool, therefore, maintains its appearance over time, adding value to the product and its lifespan.
The fleece of just one sheep can be spun to produce a strand the length of approximately 200 kilometres.
Here at Interknit Branberry, we use predominately Australian Merino Wool.
What Does Merino mean?
In our context, Merino is a breed of sheep. There are approximately 1 billion sheep worldwide and about 900 different breeds. Of these breeds, approximately 10% are hair sheep and do not have a wool coat.
Merino wool is preferred for clothing as it has the finest wool fibres of all breeds of sheep. Merino wool fibres start measuring from 16 microns in diameter compared to up to 40 microns for their meat bred relatives. A micron is a unit of measurement for determining the ‘thickness’ of things too small to measure in millimetres, and too small to see with the naked human eye. We use 18 micron Australian Merino Wool at Interknit Branberry for our fashion, blanket and homeware items.
While Australia and New Zealand domesticated the modern Merino, it isn’t native to either country and was originally bred in Portugal and Spain. Today, Australia has a flock of around 70 million Merino sheep living free-range over a variety of Australia’s climate conditions, making it one of the most recognisable sheep breeds in our country.
Is Wool Organic?
By definition all wool is organic. It certainly isn’t inorganic. However, some companies are marketing organic wool where the word ‘organic’ refers to the process of spinning and dyeing the yarn with a deliberate decision to use more environmentally friendly products. In this sense the word ‘organic’ has been reduced to a marketing term for the process as opposed to a scientific classification for the product.
Is Wool an Ethical Fibre?
There’s possibly a PhD student out there that can write a thesis on this one question. For our purposes, we’ll focus on Australian Merino Wool.
For a fibre to be considered ethical, it should demonstrate that it is ‘right’ in most moral senses, or at least not ‘wrong’. Ethical fashion can be described as “fashion that aims to reduce the negative impact on people, animals, and the planet.”
Working backwards from the finished garment, we can guarantee that Interknit Branberry have manufactured the garment ethically. This means the staff who made the garment have worked in a safe environment; under safe conditions and for what is considered by their workers union to be fair pay.
There are worldwide certifications that hold organisations that export their product to high moral standards in different areas. The wool we re-import is certified Oeko-tex 100.
STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® certified products have been tested for harmful substances to protect your health. This label certifies that every component of the product, from the fabric to the thread and accessories, has been rigorously tested against a list of up to 350 toxic chemicals.
The woollen and spinning mills we work with are also certified to have no child labour in their supply chain and since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 we can also now check that our supply chain complies with international standards to make sure this type of disaster never happens again.
While the environmental footprint created by exporting raw product and reimporting spun yarn is less than ideal, it is also unavoidable in today’s economic scenario.
Moving now to the source of the wool, our sheep, we’ll find that the environmental footprint of a woollen garment is one of the lowest in the market. It is renewable as the sheep will grow a new fleece each year and it is 100% biodegradable, shown to breakdown completely in soil in as little as two months even after treatment and dye processing.
It would be fair to say that Australian Wool growers for the most part treat their sheep very well. When conditions haven’t been ideal, farmers will purchase food and water for their animals. When conditions have been devastating, such as bushfires and floods, again it seems that most farmers will always do the right thing by their animals.
With a long history of wool growing in Australia, there’s also a long history of shearing sheep. Merino sheep have been selectively bred over decades to produce maximum fleece. If they are not shorn at least once per year, the sheep will suffer with the heat and weight of their overgrown fleece. There is a skill to shearing them, if done wrong there’s a risk of injury to the sheep, or shearer, or the fleece could be ruined. A professional shearer typically removes a fleece in one go, without significantly marking or cutting the sheep, in two to three minutes, depending on the size and condition of the sheep. In terms of pain and stress to the sheep, the process could be compared to a human receiving a closely cropped hair cut.
If we revisit the initial question of ethics, we’ve shown that a Merino wool garment reduces the negative impact on the people who make it; the animals who grow it and the environment it’s grown, processed and eventually left to biodegrade in. When compared to other fibres in the modern market, Merino wool is an ethical choice.
As always, the answers are never simple and straightforward. We focused particularly on Australian Merino Wool. The elements of Australian Merino wool that are less than ethical are the elements hardest to mitigate.
The introduction of non-native species to Australia has done immeasurable damage to our environment. Today we have quarantine regulations to stop future unintended damage, but one could rightfully argue that the Australian environment was never suited to cloven foot animals such as sheep, leading to issues such as erosion.
Sheep eat grass right down to the dirt, whereas native animals had a different grazing measure. This led to loss of native grasses and therefore loss of viable habitats for native fauna. The clearing of scrub to make grazing pastures can be linked to higher incidences of severe bush fires. We can’t go back in time and remove sheep from our landscape. If we could go back in time there’d be a myriad of introduced pests we’d remove first.
Another hard ethics choice is mulesing. Mulesing is a painful procedure that involves cutting crescent-shaped flaps of skin from around a lamb’s breech and tail using sharp shears designed specifically for this purpose. The resulting wound, when healed, creates an area of bare, stretched scar tissue. Mulesing is a widespread practice with farmed sheep and has been necessary to prevent deadly parasitic infections, like flystrike. At least in Victoria, Australia, the sheep must be given pain relief first. The industry is attacking the issue head on and progress has been made towards breeding merino sheep that won’t need to be mulesed, but we’re not there just yet.
Then we can talk about Merino sheep being selectively bred over many generations to have more skin folds, and therefore more surface area for growing wool per sheep. It’s good as a business decision, but was it an ethical choice to force this breed to be dependent on humans for their health via shearing?