Wool has a long list of benefits. Its fibers are naturally crimped, so tiny air pockets are created when the fibers are stacked together. This is what makes wool fabrics warm, breathable and naturally elastic. Additionally, wool fabrics have a high regain. This means that the fiber’s natural structure is able to absorb a large amount of moisture (up to 35-percent) before feeling damp. This moisture-retaining ability also means wool fabrics are odor-resistant and static-resistant. Counterintuitively, while wool naturally retains moisture, many wools also possess a natural layer of lanolin which makes them somewhat water-repellent and stain-resistant.
Humans have been wearing wool as far back as 6000 BC, but breeding animals for their wool for even longer. And though wool offers many benefits, not every type is the same. The versatile fiber comes from a variety of animals, each of which imparts a unique set of characteristics. So, it’s unsurprising that there are more than a few options. Though there are dozens of varieties of wools, these are the 10 you should know.
Lambswool comes from the first shearing of a young sheep (lamb) which is shorn around seven months. It’s sometimes referred to as virgin wool, though that term also refers to wool that hasn’t yet been processed. The shearing of the lamb at this stage yields extremely smooth, soft and fine wool which also has hypoallergenic properties.
Merino wool comes from the merino breed of sheep which have their origins in Spain, though much of today’s merino wool is exported from Australia. Merino wool is known for its fine fibers which offer a supremely soft hand and make it a great material for garments like base layers that have direct contact with the wearer’s skin.
Merino wool also has a lower yield compared to other wools because of the scouring process which is required in order to remove the fatty greases inherent to the material. Scouring washes the wool in chemicals to remove the natural lanolin layer, but the process yields only about half of the initial wool. This laborious process makes merino wool pricier than other wools.
Shetland sheep, from the Shetland Islands of Scotland, produce this type of wool. It’s thicker and coarser than other wools like merino — a direct result of the cold climate of the region.
Mohair comes from the Angora goat and is distinct from other wools for several reasons. The guard hairs from the topcoat of the goat are often included with the undercoat in the shearing process. Though the fibers are thicker, the mild climate in which Angora goats are grown means it’s not as coarse as other wools — its longer length gives the fiber its smoothness and results in a uniquely fuzzy fabric.
Cashmere is shorn from the undercoat of cashmere (Kashmir) goats when they enter the molting season. Because cashmere is shorn from the undercoat, the yield per goat is small, requiring two cashmere goats to produce a single sweater. The wool produced by these special goats results in an extremely fine fiber with about the same thickness of ultrafine merino and a considerable jump in price.
Not to be confused with the Angora goat from which mohair wool is made, Angora wool comes from Angora rabbits and is the lightest, finest and warmest of the natural fibers. Angora fibers, like alpaca, are hollow and smooth giving it unrivaled warmth and loft. The fibers are extremely soft, but also very delicate. For this reason, angora is often mixed with other fibers to increase its durability.
The extreme fineness of angora makes it prone to matting and felting — another reason why it’s mixed with other fibers — but also requires angora breeders to comb the rabbits every day. This intensive process and low yield add up to a hefty price.
Most camel hair comes from Bactrian camels, which are bred in frigid regions like Mongolia, China and Russia, and is collected when the camel molts in spring. Camel hair is hollow like mohair and is finer and longer than sheep’s wool. The result is a fiber that’s lighter and more lustrous than sheep’s wool and about as soft as cashmere. Though camel hair takes dye well, it is often kept in its natural color, a light, golden brown, and is used synonymously to refer to the color itself.
Alpacas are native to South America and produce hairs that are hollow. This unique property not only makes alpaca lightweight but also adds greater insulation. It is both lighter and warmer than sheep’s wool. Compared to cashmere, alpaca is similarly soft, but notably stronger. Alpaca hair is naturally hypoallergenic as well, making it ideal for those with sensitive skin.
The rarest wool comes from the vicuña, an animal related to the alpaca and llama, originating in the Andes. The vicuña was sacred to the ancient Incas, who prized the wool for its softness and warmth and reserved it for royalty. The wool is finer than cashmere and extremely warm. Because it’s sensitive to chemicals, it’s often left in a natural state, without involving dyes.
The Peruvian government goes to great lengths to preserve the vicuña population ever since their numbers dropped to just 5,000 in 1960. Because of this, the harvesting and exportation of vicuña wool is heavily regulated. Vicuñas must be caught in the wild and can only be shorn every two years and no more than five times in their lifetime. The long and strict production process makes it the most expensive and rarest wool in the world, costing up to $3,000 per yard.
Qiviut is wool that comes from the undercoat of the arctic muskox, which is bred in Canada and Alaska. During the muskox’s molting season, the undercoat is shed and breeders either collect the wool through combing or plucking the wool from the ground. Qiviut is finer than superfine sheep’s wool, is softer, stronger and approximately eight times warmer. It also does not shrink in water.