Woolly thinking: part 1

Wool snood at French Connection containing 0% wool and 100% Acrylic.

We’ve had some WOVEMBER feedback suggesting that we are being overly dogmatic in our insistence that the word wool should pertain to sheep’s wool only. These comments are useful to read, and very interesting since they suggest how wide the application and understanding of the word wool is today. The word wool is, it seems, itself rather woolly in definition. And, in fact, it is wool’s very breadth of meaning, diversity of application, and generic connotations that have produced a situation in which pretty much anything in the world of online retail can be described as wool, such as the 100% Acrylic snood from French Connection shown above, or this 100% cotton shirt from Urban Outfitters below.


Paul Smith flannel wool shirt at Urban Outfitters, 0% wool, 100% cotton.

Whatever our particular understanding is of the the word wool, I’m sure we’d all agree that these two products –one of which is manufactured entirely from plant, and the other from man-made fibres — do not contain any. And though, as we will see, the meanings of wool can be quite broad, the irony is that both of these completely non-wool items are drawing on the very specific associations of the word wool with what is cosy and Wintery in order to sell themselves.

These associations seem to carry particular weight in the marketing of children’s clothes. While UK family retailers such as Debenhams and BHS do reasonably well at describing the fabric content of adult garments accurately, their children’s department contain numerous examples of wool products that contain no wool at all.

British Home Stores 0% Wool girl’s “wool coat”


Debenhams 0% wool girl’s “wool coat”

The reason for this is obvious: for the parent-consumer, wool has powerful associations with what is warm and natural, and the idea that you should dress your child in a “wool coat” during the Winter months remains incredibly persuasive.

A similar situation exists in the world of women’s hosiery — which includes some of the worst examples I have found of 0% wool products adding value to themselves with misleading use of the word wool.


Manoush at ASOS: 0% wool tights


Miss Selfridge 0% wool tights


Orla Kiely 0% wool tights, described as ‘wool blend.’

The word wool when attached to the word tights, immediately suggests warmth, thickness, and quality: at least they do so to this consumer — and I freely confess to being misled myself by the final example. Since I know that the clothes in Orla Kiely’s ready-made collections use top-notch pure wool fabrics, I expected similar quality standards in her hosiery. I bought a pair of these ‘wool blend’ tights online, without examining the fabric composition, only to discover when they arrived that they contained no wool at all. (Orla, how could you? I think something inside of me died . . .) Anyway if I — whose obsession with what-is-wool and what-is-not approaches the pathological — can be hoodwinked by the words “wool blend tights”, then surely anybody can.

So if we are all agreed that acrylic, viscose, polyester, cotton, nylon, polyamide and elastane products are NOT wool and have nothing to do with wool, then what do we actually understand wool to be?

I’ve spent some time exploring the historical meanings and associations of wool this past week. It has made for interesting reading. The first definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary is as follows (the image will become readable if you click on it)

According to this definition, wool is the fleece of the sheep or other domesticated animals . But interestingly, the 20 instances of British usage from 725 to 1871 given by the OED in support of this definition, only refer to sheep.

As if to bear out the sheepy exclusivity suggested by the instances of given usage in the first definition, the OED’s second definition limits the application of the wool to sheep only.

While the third definition extends the meaning beyond fleece, to refer to the hair or pelts of other animals.

The dictionary goes on to illustrate how the word wool has later been applied to other materials that resemble the fleece of the sheep: cotton-wool, glass-wool, and so on. This may seem very confusing, but there is actually a simple rule of thumb at work here: the word wool when used on its own refers to the fleece of the sheep only but when used in a compound (camel-wool, cotton-wool) etc in can refer to the fibre produced by other animals, or indeed, to other fibrous substances not produced by animals at all.


Alpaca-wool? Or simply Alpaca?

But if wool is a word that clearly requires qualification with the use of a compound, why does the phrase “sheep-wool” or “sheep’s-wool” hardly ever appear in English usage from (according to my research) the fifteenth through the twentieth centuries? If the fleece of an alpaca or a rabbit can equally be referred to as “alpaca”, or “alpaca-wool” or “angora” or “angora-wool”, why is the sheep the only animal to whom this does not apply? Because — through centuries of common usage which themselves suggest the massive cultural and economic importance of this fibre — wool has principally meant sheep. In Western Europe at least, domesticated sheep were the first, and for a long time, the only wool-producing animals.


Do we refer to the fibre produced by this animal as Sheep-alpaca? Sheep-wool? Or is it just WOOL?

From a Western European perspective, and particularly in terms of the history of the English language, wool – the fibre of sheep – really is the UR TEXTILE. Over the thousand years prior to 1800 wool accounted for 70% or more of global textile production. From my own experience, this incredible figure is borne out by the swiftest of glances through any early modern trade sample book. The 1600s and 1700s saw a dizzying proliferation of different fabrics and fabric names, (most of which are completely lost to us today) and by far the majority of these fabrics are woollens and worsteds — cloths spun and woven from the fleece of sheep.


(A sheep waving the St George’s flag — suggesting the importance of wool to the national economy — appears on the gate of Halifax’s piece hall – the heart of Yorkshire’s West-Riding wool trade).

The rush to name different manufacturing processes and cloth-types during the rapidly industrialising 18th- and 19th centuries can make the understanding of historical textiles confusing for the layperson. My sense of things is that this proliferation of woolly names in itself accounts for some of the present-day confusion surrounding the sheepy associations of the word wool. (This will form the subject of another post). In any case, wool’s historic status over several centuries as the UR TEXTILE – the fibre to which all others were secondary – did not last much beyond 1800: by the mid 19th century, cotton was king, and accounted for more than 70% of global textile production.


(Lancashire cotton mill)

And by the early decades of the 20th century, wool again found itself under threat — this time from the new man-made fibres that sought not just to displace, but to imitate it.

So, to summarise: before 1800, wool so dominated world fabric production that it was the UR TEXTILE. While all other fibres required description with a qualifying compound that suggested their secondary status or likeness to the fleece of sheep (alpaca-wool, camel-wool, cotton-wool and so on) WOOL WAS WOOL and as such needed no explanation. But as different fibres came to dominate the increasingly complex world of global textile production; as fabric types and names proliferated; and as wool became increasingly marginalised, so its exclusive association with SHEEP was gradually lost. The general understanding of what wool really is is now so woolly that contemporary attempts at promotional branding have to reinforce the fibre’s sheepy connections.

In a world in which the fashion industry is so heavily focussed on the production of cheap, unsustainable fabrics ( viscose, modal, and Gok Wan’s favourite textile – pleather (shudder)), there is no doubt that wool is a marginal fibre. But the properties of real wool are so unique, and its reputation so very powerful, that products that that have no connection to sheep at all market themselves through purported – and entirely false – woolly connections.


(Dorothy Perkins wool dress composed of 0% wool and 100% polyester.)

The paradox of wool is that, precisely because of its historical dominance, it now lacks a definitive identity. While all other fibres once had to be defined in terms of their secondary status to wool, we now find ourselves in a world where fibres called alpaca or alpaca-wool could only come from one kind of animal, but wool – ie the wool-of-the-sheep – could apparently come from multiple different sources – some of which have nothing to do with animals at all.


Boohoo polyester coat, described with the mysterious and euphemistic term ‘poly wool’.

As we approach the middle of WOVEMBER, it strikes us that wool is at a crossroads. The word WOOL has to be properly reclaimed to suggest — as it once did — the fibre of sheep only. Otherwise wool production will be further damaged by its appropriation by, and association with, textiles to which it has no connection at all. And this is why a key claim of the WOVEMBER PETITION, is that “The word WOOL should refer to sheep’s wool only, and there should be a clarification of trading standards to distinguish between different animal fibres (angora, alpaca, cashmere, and so on) which also possess their own unique properties, qualities and cachet.”

More woolly thinking tomorrow.

Have you seen the WOVEMBER gallery recently? We think that the competition entries provide a beautiful woolly corrective to the 0% wool products in the HALL OF SHAME.

103 responses

  1. Thank you for making us all more conscious of what we’re buying. I shopped for a wool dress on Friday and was careful to read the fabric contents on the label. Got myself a beauty from Ann Taylor Loft – the dress was amusingly described as boiled wool (it was kind of ‘fulled’) and the content label read 100% wool :0)
    Keep up the good work :0)

  2. With you on this, my dander is up! Surely trading standards has something to say about this?
    As far as I am concerned wool is not a generic term, wool is the term for the fibre derived from a sheep, other animal fibres have their own names ie, mohair, angora, alpaca, cashmere, yak, bison, camel……
    For me it is logical to see it in terms of classifying things starting from general terms and breaking it down into detail ie.
    Fibre -animal fibre- wool
    – alpaca
    – camel
    – mohair
    – silk etc etc
    -plant fibre- cotton
    – flax
    – linen
    – hemp etc etc
    -synthetic fibre- nylon
    -polyester etc etc

  3. Thank you indeed. it is very useful information, last week I was wearing a new “wool” dress: 80% lambswool and 20% nylon and I almost felt ashamed. But then I said to myself, it’s not so bad, the nylon will keep it in shape. You’re right we don’t call it sheep’s wool, but then there’s lambswool, clearly an exception

  4. I am really impressed by your website and research. Il ove the photos in the gallery. I have just finished a 100 per cent wool cardigan in donegal tweed Bebbie Bliss and wore it for first time yesterday. i am looking at deco pattern which i have purchased but am slightly worried about starting a garment in the round as although i have been knitting for many years always with straight needles. I have noticed a lot of designer cardigans etc are all knit on circular needles. Is this an American trend? Love the piecehall photo Best wishes

  5. I think you know that I am in complete agreement with you on this subject. In similar vein, in my understanding a snood was used to keep one’s hair tidy, not to put around one’s neck. Should that not be called a cowl?

  6. When I was growing up in England some 50 or more years ago my Mother and I would go down to the wool shop and buy some ‘wool’ to knit jumpers, cardigans and you name it we knitted it. We always called the yarn that we used ‘wool’ no matter what it was made of. It is only in the past few years that I have started to call what I use for knitting, ‘yarn’, and that is mostly because of the resurgence in knitting of the past ten years or so and the use of what I think of as an American term, ‘yarn’, in magazines, online sites etc. I wonder if other people have found this too?

    • I agree, and I think this is still very much the case here- it must be a British thing. I still think of all knitting yarns as ‘wool’ and I’m 22! I supose it’s a linguistic hangover from when pretty much all knitting was done with wool yarn. I seem to have passed it on to my daughter as well- mummy knits with ‘woow’ (she’s only 16 months lol).

      • I was just talking to a visiting US knitter, and she was quite shocked by how we tend to describe all yarn as wool over here. Maybe we should start being more careful too…

    • I’m in Canada and the women in my family didn’t use the word wool unless it was actual wool from a sheep. the word yarn was used as a catch-all for cotton, nylon, mixed synthetics..

    • I had the same thought – I wonder if the ‘wool’ in the descriptions of the items is meant to imply that it is made from yarn rather than made from sheep’s wool. As an American, I was very confused the first time I read a book (a children’s book at that) that kept referring to wool, when the illustrations clearly showed a ball of yarn.

  7. The naming of the garments for sale above is clearly false advertising and I don’t think that is allowed in North America. It doesn’t mean that companies don’t get away with it but they can be made to change them if called on it.

  8. It’s one of those interesting things when looking at language use like this. From a trading standards-type point of view, I totally agree with you on the misuse of the term wool in garment sales. Having worked in fabric sales myself, as well as doing a lot of personal sewing, it’s something that has a definite right and wrong use for fibre content in sales descriptions. I know if I bought something described as a wool dress only to find it was pure synthetic I’d be seriously annoyed.

    Then there’s the distinction between ‘woolen’ and ‘wooly’. ‘Woolen’ would be taken to mean made out of wool, whereas ‘wooly’ could be applied to things like acrylic sweaters etc. I see this term as a comparative, in the same way we use the word ‘rubbery’ to describe, say, a poorly cooked piece of meat, for example- it doesn’t mean it’s actually made out of rubber. Though admittedly, in terms of knitting, I must admit to using the word ‘wool’ to refer to any yarn (as in my reply to the above comment). This particular usage is a dialect issue that seems to still occur in England.

    As for the ‘which animal?’ question, I fall strongly on the sheep only side of the argument. As you pointed out, there are separate terms for the fleece of many other animals, and terms like mohair and angora refer to the hair of a specific breed of animal without the need to add -wool or -hair to them, so in the same way wool used alone implicitly means the hair of sheep to me.

    …You’d never guess I studied English Language at uni would you lol. Three years of dialect/language variation and usage are hard to shake off!

    • I also wonder if this is one of those moments where language is shifting. I do agree that items advertised as wool ought to contain actual wool and not solely acrylic contents. From a practical standpoint for the manufacturers, they lose buyers who (like me) are extremely sensitive to wool and cannot wear it near their skin. But I wonder if the misleading advertisements are actually a reflection of a broader language trend rather than the initiators of the lack of clarity. It’s just a thought, not necessarily one I’m fully behind, but one I can’t fully ignore. Perhaps my linguistics courses are getting to my head a bit more than I thought…I am rather interested in how particular language changes happen, and this is definitely one that is interesting. I do wonder what the OED will say about wool a half century from now?

  9. Amazing research! Prior to reading your posts on wool content, I only objected to clothing being described as ‘wool’ or ‘woolly’ if it wasn’t 100% from an animal. So if it was 100% alpaca, and was described as ‘wool’ I didn’t and wouldn’t mind. It’s only when items are labelled ‘wool’ and then contain little or no wool (from a sheep, alpaca, rabbit, whatever animal) that I do mind very much. I learned years ago to read the labels before buying anything as I was caught out buying ‘woolly tights’ only to find they contained no wool whatsoever. At that time I was allergic to certain fibres, but now my allergy has passed and I simply prefer and appreciate the quality of wool and other natural-fibre clothing. But I certainly think shops shouldn’t be allowed to label items ‘wool’ when those items contain no wool or animal-based fleece whatsoever.

  10. Very interesting. In some Germanic languages ‘wol(le)’ was sometimes used in the Middle Ages to refer to cotton (‘Baumwolle’ in modern German). Here is a later example in Dutch from a 1543 herbarium:

    http://tinyurl.com/cm9n7my

    ‘vol edel wolle oft cottoen’, translation: full of noble wool or cotton. However, I suspect it was always clear from the context whether ‘wol(le)’ was shorthand for ‘boomwol(le)’ (Dutch) or ‘Baumwolle’ (German). As such, your conclusion that ‘all other fibres required description with a qualifying compound that suggested their secondary status or likeness to the fleece of sheep’ seems to be valid here as well.

  11. I agree with the petition to have “wool” only come from sheep. However, none of the garments shown replace sheep-wool with fiber from another animal: nobody is trying to sell alpaca or angora as wool because they could charge more if they label the garment with alpaca or angora. I think the threat comes from all the garments labeled “wool” that contain little to no animal fiber… There should be a law against this!

    On a second thought, I am amazed that people don’t read labels, or don’t care about fiber content. I’m a knitter, though, and I imagine a lot of people just don’t know much about fibers at all.

    • If you look at the “hall of shame” you’ll see some examples of garments describing themselves as “wool” or “wool mix” that contain 5% angora, and no other animal fibre.

  12. It never fails to annoy me, shops insisting the garment they want to sell me is ‘pure wool’ when not even 50% of the fiber content IS wool. I never buy anything without checking the labels, since I’m allergic to anything but natural fibers and will spend at least a week itching and even blistering if I succumb to temptation and wear something else, simply because it looks so pretty. Once worn, that garment will never see the light of day in my company again.

    Why is it that although we insist on knowing ever more about what we eat and drink, we care so little about what we wear? Several years ago, on New Year’s Eve, a bar/dancing in Volendam (the Netherlands) burned down and most of the young people there that survived the ordeal, have to cope with excessive scarring. The fire was able to spread so quickly and do so much damage due to the large synthetic content of the materials of the party clothes. Wool ( a very sensible thing to wear in winter) would have shielded the skin much better… Rather than to admit that, the authorities now insist that party gear is treated with a flame retardent liquid. Just what I would want, more chemicals near my skin!

  13. wool=sheep

    I agree

    how can anyone think otherwise?

    wool is from sheep

    alpaca, angora… are from other animals and that’s what they are: alpaca angora qiviut…

    some ads are very misleading

    good work Kate

    donna

  14. Yesterday I was at a coffee shop in my home town, Ithaca, NY, USA, and standing next to me was an elderly gentleman wearing a yellow Icelandic yoke patterned sweater that was clearly hand knit. Naturally we got to talking. He had bought it 33 years before in Ottawa, Canada. He let me look at the label. 100% Shetland wool, knit in Scotland. I almost ripped it off his back. It was in perfect condition, and I told him that if it had been made in cotton or acrylic, it would never had made it 33 years, and he knew that; his daughter does two color knitting. He also said if he were a real gentleman, he would take it off and give it to me! Ha ha.

    I think one of the comments is correct about using the word “wool” on North America on garments. Seems to me that when it says “wool” is it in the USA. All labels have the percent of this and that.

  15. Very interesting. In the USA, wool only refers to sheep. I knew that in Britain, wool was used as a generic term for yarn, but I did not realize clothes could be marketed as wool without containing wool. I have not seen that here, probably because we are a land of obsessive and highly regulated product labeling.

    We don’t have have cotton-wool or glass-wool, either; we have cotton balls and fiberglass. We do, however, have tights: wool tights, cotton tights, acrylic tights, nylon tights. The word “hose” seems dated, but when it is used, it refers to transparent, usually flesh toned, nylon stockings. Tights are opaque or patterned.

  16. Thank you for writing this magnificent post.

    I too have been very interested by the comments we have had concerning the use of the word “WOOL” on the Wovember site, and have been reading through several different books for clarification on the term.

    What I think is especially interesting – and this is really something I have come to thinking about from reading Leslie’s blog over at Devon Fine Fibres – is how defining all animal fibres as WOOL actually cheapens some of the more expensive-to-produce fibres like Cashmere and Mohair. As I understand it, goats behave and eat very differently to sheep, and the costs involved in keeping goats are often higher than those associated with keeping sheep (although it is not inexpensive to keep and breed sheep for WOOL by any means).

    I feel there must be some huge benefit to be gained all round by properly differentiating between all of the different animal fibres – angora; mohair; cashmere; etc. – and that the textile market could follow the example of local farmer’s markets and the proliferation in breed-specific terminology re: animal produce for eating in this regard… As for items which are produced 100% from plants or chemicals, I feel that calling them WOOL is utterly misleading and is done by companies entirely as you suggest because the pleasant associations of WOOL – its rich history and evocation of cosiness and rural idylls – make their Wintry wares easier to sell.

    Alan Butler’s book SHEEP details just how extensive the global production of SHEEP’s WOOL i.e. the UR TEXTILE was, and I think you are spot on in your analyses of the fact that through its historic ubiquity and dominance of the textile market, SHEEP’S WOOL needed no extra information to differentiate it, as all subsequent textiles did. However you are right that – with its declining usage in garments, (certainly in the UK less than 30% of our wool ends up in our clothes) actual WOOL once again needs to have a distinctive and specialist meaning.

    In the same way that textiles once had to differentiate themselves from SHEEP’S WOOL in order to define themselves in the global textile market, WOOL once again needs to have a specific meaning. I love that you have given this idea such a rich and well-researched historic context. Thank you, compadre!

  17. An excellent post – behind you all the way.

    (I have recently noticed some surprising honesty in a few retailers – I leap at a promising garment, fully expecting it to be incorrectly described as ‘wool’, to find it just called a ‘sweater’. Rats. Mind you, there’s always the bogus ‘Fair Isle’ to get worked up about…)

  18. When my Mum first taught me to knit, she went on & on about how wonderful non-wool yarn was. ‘The moths won’t eat it!’ ‘You can’t shrink it!’ And she called it wool, but mostly because there is no other word in Greek for yarn. The same word means hair (human), & wool, whether attached to the animal, spun into yarn or woven into fabric. It also means yarn of any fiber composition. I think many of her generation don’t mind no-wool woolens. This makes things rather difficult for those of us who do!

  19. Hi Kate,

    I absolutely agree with your views on what wool is about and other fabrics not. Keep up the good and important work!

    Joyce D Tao

  20. First I want to pick up on a small point – one of the pairs of woolly tights was more cotton than anything else -just what I have been looking for lately, but would not have picked up on from the headline on the label, so that could have cost them a sale. Isn’t that a good reason for things to be more correctly described – never mind that so many people don’t understand what most of their clothes are made of – some of us do, and inaccuracy is A Bad Thing.

    The other thing is, when I first remember my Mum knitting she bought her wool at Mrs. Brown’s wool shop at the end of the terrace. It was properly named: there were some other fibres in the shop, namely, cotton and rayon for fine crochet and embroidery, and cotton thread for dressmaking. MMF had not put in an appearance. I think it was coming in for handknitting at about the time my needles really got going. That would make it mid-sixties, when home made was the badge of shame in some quarters.

  21. Wonderful research and to me as always 100% wool is from a sheep. 100% alpaca is from Alpaca . . . Wool is wool and marketing items as wool when they are clear not made from WOOL is false advertising. Thankyou for your dedicated work!

  22. Thank you for this thoughtful exploration of the meaning of wool. It’s such a pleasure to have someone bring their sharp academic mind to fiber land!

  23. I have 2 thoughts:
    1. This seems more prevalent in the UK than in the US. Do you find that to be true?
    2. The corporations need to use the term WOOLY as an adjective to describe the texture. I think that’s what they’re trying but not achieving the objective. Would that be enough of a difference to you? It would to me.

    Thank you for your beautiful research as always!

  24. Blows me away that we stand for this nonsense and the ignorance that surrounds it. “Wool” is from the sheep, of course. I took the fabrics class this year at the college and was assigned “tweed”. I sent to the Tweed Shop in Tarbet, Scotland, for samples for the whole class ( I got extra marks). 100% wool tweed ( Harris Tweed Act 1993). I also purchased Marion Campbell’s “A Harris Way of Life” which is very interesting reading about the process of tweed making and life on the island of Harris. Their wool for knitting is dyed and spun in the outer hebrides and known as “Harris” wool. Similarly “Shetland” wool gets it’s name from it’s origins. We know this to be “wool” from a sheep in any event. Our teacher was very strict with the interpretations of each fabric and “brocade” was given a good going over as many saw this as any shiny patterned fabric. I usually read labels but what has been presented above as “wool” when in fact another fibre ( that may be what we ARE looking for) is ridiculous to say the least and I believe not only false advertising but against the law in several areas (that will need a wee bit of research). I did use the word wool for all yarn for many years as that was what I was brought up with. A picky Canadian friend set me straight when I said I was loving knitting in the new blend of cotton yarn but had to get more “wool” to finish lol! Guilty as charged. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I am much more wary of it now so will be watching my labels and talking “wool” where it applies. Always an education.

  25. I totally agree. The branding of non-wool as ‘wool’ is completely misleading and wrong. I myself fell victim to this before to be uttlerly irritated that I didn’t investigate more prior to the purchase.
    I love your examples…can you show us some true-wool examples too??? Seems they are only all too difficult to find actual wool these days.

  26. I completely support your campaign, and think it outrageous that retailers should get away with labeling something as “wool” when it contains 0% wool!

    However, I’m a little confused by the statement that “…before 1800, wool so dominated world fabric production that it was the UR TEXTILE…”

    Please bear with me since I’m not a textile historian, but my understanding is that the above statement would apply more to Europe than the whole world? I always assumed that cotton (which has been woven for 7000 years) would have been the dominant textile for South Asia, the Americas and Africa.

    I love knitting with wool, but have soft spot for cotton since it was such a massively emotive symbol for India’s independence movement.

    Good luck with WOWEMBER!

    • You could certainly criticise this post for being written from a western -European — and specifically British — perspective. It is too true that Western Europe, and Britain particularly — exploited and profited from its colonial cotton markets in India. But it is also true that, because mechanisation and industrialisation occurred much earlier in Western Europe than either India or South America, wool *did* dominate global industrial textile production before 1800 — indeed, the British became obsessed with trying to find new markets for woollen cloth in India and South America. This is not to dispute cotton’s incredible importance to the cultures you mention, or its massive global dominance by the mid 19th century.

  27. What I don’t get, in a sense, is this: if people were sold a cashmere item that, in fact, contained no cashmere, sooner or later there would be a huge outcry all the way to the advertising standards. It should be the same with wool while, of course, part of me thinks that cashmere having graduated to luxury yarn bestows it greater kudos. In other words, it’s something that doesn’t get messed with so often and so readily. Still… there are plenty of sites that sell cashmere mixes where the cashmere content is 10% or below, while good old Marks continues to market that disgusting 100% man-made piece of spun crap as CASHMERINO. Naturally, it contains neither cashmere nor merino. Wool is sheep, period.

  28. I’m reading all this “wooly” business with interest! I love wool. Always have, always will. I’m doing my part to support Wovember – I pulled out a piece of Harris Tweed that I’ve had stored in a cedar chest since the 1970s!!! It was very expensive and I was afraid to cut into it then. I’m determined to use it this November , once I get over my fear. Now, not only is it a very expensive piece of fabric, but it’s rare VINTAGE fabric….I can feel the heart palpitations! I also recently purchased some 100% wool yard goods from the Pendleton mill in Oregon and some alpaca yarn (it would never occur to me to call that “wool” – that’s a term I use for fiber/fabric from sheep only). Loving all this information! Keep it up. Kathy

  29. I’m with you 100%. The misuse of the word wool is indicative of a much larger problem of for-profit companies doing anything they can get away with to make a profit. Organic, pure, raw, natural have all been abused as well. Without a standard–a standard that actually means something–how do we know what we’re getting?

  30. I’ve been following your thinking on this topic and am astounded that yet again the labelling laws of many countries fail to protect a consumer from false advertising. I think, though, the problem has been around much longer than we’d like to think. I can remember making crafts out of “felt” as a child that was 100% polyester and didn’t know until I was an adult that felt should be made of wool. I also used to sell vegan handbags when I worked in retail that were made of “felt” and cringed every time I had to identify the contents for a customer. The store and the manufacturer both frowned on the phrase “felt-like material” to describe the stuff and preferred to call it “felt” full stop, but we were more than encouraged to relay that it was made entirely from recycled plastic bottles. I “felt” the whole thing was a sham but customers ate it up, believing that they were helping the environment (not – the manufacturer claimed one thing, did another) and that they were chic for being vegan (completely embracing the actual silk lining as well.) Unbelievable. We as consumers have to be much more aware and much more proselytizing than the advertisers and merchants who’ll do anything to get our money and confidence.

  31. Random thoughts:
    1. re: oleo of the rhythm changes variety (Rollins)
    2. Le mot juste neologism: “ur textile”. Perfect in every way.
    3. Orla, how could you…..
    4. Wool is a gift from sheep, full stop. How can the merely factual be overly dogmatic? :)
    5. Love these Wovember posts — more wooly thoughts, please!

    Signed with appreciation,
    An (overly) bookish girl who is always delighted to see a stack o’ reference texts and full OED citations.

    • ah, my “chuckle” in advance of thought #1 didn’t show up as I’d put it in brackets.

      Who knew there was codespeak for chuckling? At any rate: your Rollins reference made me smile.

  32. I think wool = sheep too. That being said, I am celebrating Wovember by knitting a cabled cardigan out of a lovely aran weight 80% wool/20%alpaca yarn from the deep stash :) It’s a big treat for me; it’s pretty hot most of the year where I live, so I don’t knit many such things.
    Thanks for these interesting posts!

  33. Great post! As a knitter and student of textile development and marketing, I am fascinated by natural fibers and sustainability. I can’t stand the imitation fibers that the everyday consumer seems to be easily fooled into thinking are wool! Great job with your research, this was a really interesting post.

  34. Honestly, in the U.S. sometimes the wool content of garments is actually played down. There seems to be a widespread belief here that “wool” means scratchy, old-fashioned, and too hot (seriously). So I see a lot of clothing ads that use terms “soft wool-blend” even when it is very close to all wool. And when it is all wool, there is always, always a statement that is is not scratchy. For example Land’s End marked a 100% wool dress “Pure merino feels soft, not scratchy.” While LLBean described a men’s wool sweater, “Knit from premium lambswool for softness and warmth.” Wool is not necessarily a selling point in the U.S. and may even need to be overcome in a product promotion.

    • It’s worth noting, too, that from my observations, US shopping sites don’t use the word “wool” in the names of clothing items the way Kate’s examples do. Just to makes sure, I did a quick scan of the sweaters section of a few shopping websites — J Crew, Loft, LL Bean — and yep, none of them use “wool” to name their products. (Mostly they use shorthand descriptors like “Striped open cardigan” or “Chunky cable cardigan,” but “wool” is never part of those descriptors.) The product descriptions also are careful to be very accurate when describing the fabric. Oddly, the titles for clothes do often mention cotton.

      Considering the linguistic differences between the US and UK that others have commented on, I wonder if perhaps UK retailers are trying to capitalize on the British connotations of wool — cozy, warm, natural, etc, as Kate discusses in the post — but these connotations just don’t exist in the US. Certainly I don’t immediately have that reaction, even though I love wool and am more aware of fibers since I started knitting several years ago. I think it must be a cultural difference.

      I love this blog, Kate, and will keep reading, of course, but I’ve been fairly bemused by the Wovember posts. I’ve never seen something called wool that isn’t, so I can’t really relate, though I do find this window into British culture interesting.

      • By the way, for what it’s worth: I’d never seen the Woolmark logo before and so had to smile when I read that it’s “one of the world’s most immediately familiar logos.” Is it really just me? Or was this a UK logo, or something from before my time? Off to Google…

      • I’ve seen the woolmark logo in Germany many times and also a time or two in Canada. So it is not a purely British thing.

  35. Ref the flag waving sheep at the Piece Hall – this image (stance, profile, flag, etc) is almost identical to Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) (Christian) iconography, although the Piece Hall sheep doesn’t have a halo; so there’s a nice interplay going on here. See for example, the Moravian Church’s seal, which shows an Agnus Dei: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moravian_Church

  36. The US has also gone through a lot of revisions in the textile industry particularly in the manufacture of children’s clothing. There is no cotton in children’s clothing – at least not if it is made in the US – because of the high burn rate – and there are a lot of hoops and jumps one has to go through legally to get one’s product into the stores because of new laws passed last January 2011. I am not in that area, but I did go to a meeting about it and saw a lot of unhappy people in the room ready to call their lawyers to find out what they had to do to comply with the new regulations (this was in LA). When there were a lot of hotel fires in the 70’s, the NHFA went after the mattress manufacturers to make fireproof mattresses, and the hotel fires dropped exponentially. The same is true for commercially used textiles. I don’t have all the facts at hand but I do know that a lot of man-made fabrics came on the scene in the mid 70’s-80’s for those reasons – they were less flammable, and helped keep children safe from at home fires. Now with the environmental rules taking hold, these products are using too much water to process, and so the pendulum is swinging the other way back towards more natural products, like real wool, cotton, linen, etc. or, some combination that looks like the real thing but has some of the man-made fibers to retain their benefits. It is hard to keep up. I read labels all the time, but generally purchase natural fabrics. I make my own clothes so it does not matter for me, but when I am in a store it is fascinating what they market as “cotton”, “linen” or “wool”.

    This has been a fascinating subject you have brought up, and I am now taking out my old textile books, something I thought I would never do, and comparing the qualities of all the fibers against one another to see how they all match up. Great research on your part. Have you had any sleep lately?

    Keep up the good work!

    • “There is no cotton in children’s clothing”- I have to say, this surprised me! With the exception of knitted cardigans etc, I don’t think my one-year-old has any clothing that ISN’T cotton. Certainly anything that’s worn next to the skin is always cotton. I have to ask- what tends to be used instead?

    • Interesting–I haven’t found this to be true at all. Admittedly, I don’t have children and have only bought it for friends’ children, but most of what I come across (apart from athletic gear) is cotton or at least a cotton blend. I live in the midwest/southern part of the US, so I wonder if it’s more particular to California?

      • It’s not. I grew up in California, and most of my clothes were “100% cotton,” according to the label (I remember trying to figure out how much they’d shrink and what size I should buy when doing my annual school shopping). Of course I was a kid in the 80s, and I left California in the early 2000s, so perhaps things have changed since then. But at least when I lived there, clothes were labeled as “100% cotton.”

        I do still live in the US and was surprised to hear that there’s no cotton in kids’ clothes. I do remember that certain items, like pajamas, couldn’t be made of certain materials because of the flammability issue, but as I recall cotton wasn’t the concern — it was artificial fibers that melted when they caught on fire and so caused much more skin damage than natural fibers. But as I said, I haven’t paid much attention to this for some time, so perhaps these are new regulations. Given the size of the cotton lobby in the US, it does seem a bit unlikely… I’d be curious to hear where the OP learned of the “no cotton in kids’ clothes” rule.

  37. I thought of Wovember as I’ve been reading Candide. Tthe section set in El Dorado refers to “red sheep” with valuable wool, and my footnotes suggest that Voltaire is talking about alpacas or llamas, but doesn’t know their names. This does to me speak to the way in which wool came to be applied to more than sheep’s wool – these new animals were unfamiliar, but their uses and certain aspects of their looks were familiar enough that a correlation could be made between sheep and other ungulates with long hair that could be used for garments. Once you’ve loosened the meaning of wool by applying it to other animal hairs, it seems like a pretty simple step to loosen it further and apply it to synthetic or plant based fabrics that have a fuzzy texture and insulating warmth. However, there is a difference between casual word use and the strict standards that should be in place in product labeling. There is also a difference between the symbolism of casual language and the symbolism of advertising language. One is meant to convey metaphorical information and the other is meant to manipulate. I think it’s pretty clear that the standards used in product labeling and advertising should not be casual.

  38. Using the word “Wool” as a selling point for items that don’t contain any wool (and especially for children) is quite interesting. There are many people in the world who don’t like wool because their childhood memories of wool include descriptions such as itchy and scratchy or they claim to be allergic to wool. Those who spend their days surrounded by wool of course know that this is not always the case, you just have to know your wool.
    Marketing must have decided that the natural / organic sales pitch over rides the childhood memories of shoppers. It would be interesting to see a survey of how shoppers view the word wool as a main descriptor. Do they instantly reject the product or does it entice them to look further?

  39. It just blows my mind that so many suppliers market items as wool when there is not a bit of wool in them. When I was growing up, I remember the wool symbol as being something I considered prestigious-“Pure Wool”. I didn’t even know it had been sold! Thank you for all your interesting articles.

  40. Probably because I’m a lawyer, so my mind leaps to litigation, but what are your consumer protection laws like in the UK? I should think that a few well-placed ‘misleading conduct’ suits would be of great assistance in limiting the use of the description ‘wool’ to things that actually contain wool. I know in Australia there have been some ‘public interest’ misleading conduct suits, to do with fair trade coffee. (http://andrewnorton.info/2007/04/29/does-the-fairness-of-fairtrade-coffee-matter/)

  41. With the prevalence of wool allergies (and people who don’t read fine-print) anyway, don’t you think marketers would make more sales by removing ”wool” from product descriptions? That alone should be impetus for them to begin a change! Label real wool-bearing clothing and remove wool from those that aren’t. It’s just common courtesy, if nothing else. Seems simple enough to me.

    Good luck!

  42. I had no idea that the Woolmark symbol had been bought by the Australian merino industry: how disappointing! I always found it very helpful. Could we not campaign for a replacement (maybe one embracing other animal fibres as well?).

    At least clothes retailers are obliged to include fibre content in clothes labelling in the UK. I’m an obsessive label-reader, and sadly most garments go straight back on the rail when their poly-horror content is revealed.

  43. Your writing and research is fantastic as usual Kate, the 0% wool garments are very menacing Lol, even though their styles are very nice.
    I think it is horrible when you see a child, or anyone for that matter in a garment, especially in winter, and it looks like it is supposed to be warm etc, but it is tailored from these awful synthetic fibres. And the person is usually fooled by the appearance themselves, and is cold when they venture out. Very silly. With children’s clothes there is the fire proof aspect of 100% wool also.
    The gallery of pics is beautiful..love those sheepy faces, and the other animals too.
    I love BFL sheepy faces, but we had some Texels here, and they have the most friendly nature, and the young lambs are so playful. They are beautiful creatures, and the garments fashioned from 100% wool are truly the most superb.

  44. I currently raise alpacas in the US although I’m from Aberdeen, Scotland, and was brought up with wool ie. from sheep. Alpaca breeders here are very careful not to call the fleece ‘wool’ but fiber. Alpaca fleece does indeed have many wool type or solid fibers but it also has partially or totally medulated (hollow) fibers. Yarn in the US is called just that, and the content is listed on the label. In many instances if there is wool in the yarn, the name of the sheep breed will be listed.

    I am horrified by the idea that maufacturers can call products ‘wool’ when they are not.

    Wool is from sheep, and the name should be reserved for that in my view.

  45. I find it rather ironic that when I was a child many people would shy away from anything made of “wool” thinking it to be potentially itchy and uncomfortable and now it is used as a marketing gimmick to promote anything but wool. I cannot view calling something wool that contains 0% wool as anything but deceptive advertising and an out and out lie. I know advertisers like to twist things a bit, like when they advertise vegetable oils as “cholesterol free.” Of course they are, cholesterol is only found in animal fats. But to call 100% polyester “wool” is just plain wrong on so many levels. Do we need to start sending dictionaries to every advertising agency? Perhaps we show them what a sheep is and how it differs from a plant or a test-tube concoction. Even my 2-year-old nephew knows the difference between a sheep and a flower.

  46. On a macro scale, you can see the rise of wool and cotton on Google’s ngram viewer here: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=wool%2Csheep%27s+wool%2Csheep+wool%2Ccotton&year_start=1600&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

    This is limited by books and documents in Google’s database in English, so may not be the most accurate portrayal, but it’s still an interesting graph that supports Kate’s point about wool being the UR TEXTILE. Also interesting if you add just “sheep” to the mix: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=wool%2Csheep%27s+wool%2Csheep+wool%2Ccotton%2Csheep&year_start=1600&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

  47. give it to em. i am quite depressed at the number people whose brains have been coopted and turned into shit custard by watching ads.
    to refresh your palate and to provide you with ammo and inspiro? may i commend prof. frankfurt’s clarion tome to your attention?

  48. So interesting!! I’m really impressed by how much research you have been doing!
    I think for me, the word wool has always been associated with whatever my mum, and later I, have been knitting with. I really don’t like the word yarn so would call anything wool. And, in the same way, would certainly be swayed towards buying something if it was labelled as wool perhaps without thinking to check the label for specifics.
    However! you have made me much more conscious and will certainly be checking the labels and may be able to bring myself to use the word yarn!

    Thanks for such interesting posts!

  49. Fantastic, thought-provoking and educational as usual! Wool has always meant wool- from- a- sheep to me, and I have been carefully reading fibre composition labels on clothing for years now. I hate the idea of paying $50 or more for acrylic garments, and will only ever knit with pure wool also. Keep on with the awareness raising – all of the examples you’ve cited should be reprimanded under the trade descriptions act…. how on earth can anyone advertise something as being what it clearly is not? So misleading….. thanks again for your truly wonderful blog x

  50. An interesting post and very well researched. What caught my fancy was remembering my own search to understand what ‘cloth’ was in terms of clothing from past centuries. Lo and behold, my research said it was a woven fabric made of wool fibers. When one fiber is so universally used that its name is now the defining term, along with fabric, it makes me think about just how fundamental it is to ‘cloth’ing.

  51. Can’t wait to hear what you have to say on the EU’s recently granting PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status to Shetland wool and what that means for Jamieson & Smith. It will be enlightening, I’m sure, as your posts invariably are!

  52. Read this with keen interest when first posted, and keep coming back to read the comments as they unfold. Now I am eagerly waiting for the next installement! Great research, and very interesting, good writing, Kate!

    I never would have thought to call any fiber wool unless from a sheep. Guess that’s due to being in the US, as it seems to be the trend in the posts here. If I mention purchasing more wool, I mean wool! Not acrylic or any plant or animal fiber, but sheep! And I would never spend the $$ on acrylic or man made fiber. I will say I love alpaca though! And several silk and wool blends of real wool and real silk. Wool simply has always meant fiber from sheep.

  53. I agree with you Kate. It’s not wool unless it grew on a sheep. I’m always careful to check the cleaning label to determine the fibre content. Interestingly, here in NZ we call that stuff we knit with ‘wool’, even if it’s acrylic, cotton etc. If it’s acrylic, we call it acrylic wool. There is no intention to mislead, it’s just what we call the stuff. In recent years I’ve made a successful attempt to call the stuff I knit with yarn, which I think is a better term to use to avoid confusion. As a spinner, I have also learned to call the stuff I spin ‘fibre’, rather than wool, unless of course it is wool, then I would tell people the fibre I’m spinning with is wool, and everyone in my spinning group understands it grew on a sheep. It seems much clearer that way. As for unspun Angora and Alpaca etc – I’d call it Angora fibre and Alpaca fibre etc. I think this avoids any confusion.
    Love your blog, keep up the good woolly work!

  54. This might already have been mentioned, but I wonder whether this is a European/UK/English phenomenon, this reckless use of the word “wool” to describe things that consist of no wool. I’m in Canada, and I don’t think I’ve ever noticed any use of the “wool” on its own to mean anything other than sheep’s wool. (Actually, I know I’ve never seen it used this way in Canada because this is exactly the sort of this that I would feel outraged about, too.)

    • Yes, I think it may be, or may have been, a British phenomenon to call the stuff you knit with wool. When I was growing up in England and Scotland in the seventies, I, like everyone I knew who knitted, called everything I knitted with wool, regardless of its content, and then when I moved to the States I thought it so strange that everyone here called it yarn. For some reason that annoyed me, and I perversely persisted in my use of “wool”–again regardless of content. Then I became a snob and abjured anything but sheep’s wool, at which point I naturally became adamant that “wool” be used only to designate the fibre from a sheep. It’s a wonder I have any knitting friends left.

  55. OK, so, I haven’t read the other comments, but I suspect that this is a British/UK thing. It’s rare in the US for things to be labeled “wool” if they’re not made of sheep’s wool. Perhaps labeling/marketing is different here. Wool connotes itchiness in the US and which not be a positive to US consumers/knitter. And of course, I consider the US to be strong purveyors of synthetic fibers, perhaps I’m wrong…

  56. Kate, it’s extremely refreshing to see this post. So many times I have encountered a blatant lie that I stopped counting. Now i always check and double check what fibres the fabric is made from. Gorgeous pieces but what a shame it’s mostly polyester.

  57. Ironically, especially with the hosiery, the retailers scare some of us away by using the word “wool”. I can’t wear wool next to the skin, unfortunately, and so would never look twice at a pair of wool-blend tights.

    But thanks for the reminer that one must always read “the ingredients” (there are several similar examples in the world of food).

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