It’s started to happen. When Mitchell and I walk the dog in the morning, we encounter frozen-over puddles; the dirt track along the river is icy hard instead of muddy. We see our breaths as we walk. It’s even snowed a couple of times, though it hasn’t stuck.
But I know what it all adds up to: time to break out the wool. Because in my book, wool is the one thing that will keep me warm (and therefore happy) all winter long.
But I can’t wear wool!
I know, I know. Wool is so old-fashioned. So itchy. So uncomfortable.
Who would voluntarily subject themselves to its discomforts when you can find lovely, soft, fluffy polyester fleece jackets in practically every store at this time of year? Seriously, isn’t fleece the new high-tech, non-itch wool alternative?
Well, yeah. If your idea of “warm” is wearing what amounts to a plastic bag.
Ever wonder how they make polyester fleece?
No? Well, never mind. I’m going to tell you anyway.
They react terephthalic acid, a petroleum derivative, with ethylene glycol, another petroleum derivative that you might know better as antifreeze. Then they do a bunch of chemistry stuff with it, cook it down into a hot plastic syrup (yum yum!),and force it through teeny-tiny holes so that it extrudes as long filaments, which they eventually turn into fleece.
One of polyester fleece’s big selling points is that because of the way the fibre is woven, the loops create teeny-tiny air pockets, which trap some of your body heat and keep you warm(ish).
Theoretically, at least.
A few winters ago I was huddled on the couch, bundled in my polyester
fleece jacket and a polyester fleece blanket, shivering and shaking like
a chihuahua on crack. (Not that I’ve ever seen one of those, because I don’t live in Etobicoke. But work with me here.)
I decided more layers might do the trick, so I dug through my dresser (and then Mitchell’s) and found an old, decrepit woollen sweater.
Slipped it on, and even before I could crawl back under all that fleece, something weird happened: warmth—glorious warmth!—started seeping into my bones. What was this magic?
Why wool keeps you warm
This was the moment when I realized: we humans might think we’re so bloody clever, with our petroleum-based fancy-shmancy high-tech clothing, but when it comes to really getting the job done right, nature really does know best.
Here’s the thing about wool: unlike polyester, each tiny wool fibre has a hollow core—the better to insulate you with, my dear.
Wool has some other amazing properties, too: unlike petroleum-based synthetics, which melt when exposed to too much heat, wool is relatively fire-resistant; and when it gets wet, it is actually exothermic: it releases heat. So when your feet get wet in wool socks, they stay warm.
Okay, more than you wanted to know.
But what about the itch factor? Over the years I’ve heard so many people complain that they just can’t tolerate having wool near their skin, because the itch drives them bananas. I get that. But I would counter that they’re wearing the wrong kind of wool.
Itchiness: It’s all about size
In general, the itch factor in wool is directly proportional to the diameter of each fibre.
Let’s put it this way: I don’t know anyone, ever, who’s told me they can’t tolerate the feeling of cashmere on their skin. (Cashmere comes from goats, so it’s technically a hair, not a wool, but why quibble? It’s close enough for government purposes.)
The reason for the lack of itch: each tiny cashmere fibre has such a minuscule diameter that its ends don’t stick up and create that icky prickly feeling. It’s ultra-soft; in fact, it makes polyester fleece feel like steel wool.
And some wools—most notably merino, but others come close—almost rival cashmere in the softness sweepstakes.
Wool diameter is measured in microns (µm), and just for reference, cashmere cannot exceed 19µm. Merino ranges from ultra-fine (11.5–15 µm) through fine (18.6–19.5 µm), medium (19.6–22.9 µm), and strong (23–24.5 µm). Seriously, this stuff is soft.
Of course, softness isn’t necessarily the most important quality in wool—sometimes I’m much more interested in sheer brute warmth, which can call for a rougher grade, but I won’t be wearing that next to my skin.
However, for wool newbies, it can be reassuring to know that it’s possible to be both warm and comfortable…at the same time.
So as the mercury plummets (and in Britain, at least, fuel prices skyrocket), it’s definitely worth giving wool a second look.
I haven’t even started to delve into the glories of handknitted garments; I figure you can only take so much proselytizing in one go. Next time, however, you might not be so lucky.
If you liked this, you might also like…
- Shawls in the cold – upsizing cashmere stoles (asnehcashmere.wordpress.com)
- Thrum mittens: Canada’s secret weapon (AftertheKidsLeave.com)
- Everything you ever wanted to know about hexipuffs (Afterthekidsleave.com)