Weaving and wool go hand-in-hand.
In fact, tapestry would not be as we know it today without the use of wool as a common material used in weaving. So what is it about wool that has made such a huge part of the history of weaving itself? How can we use it today to its full potential?
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Wool as a fiber
So what exactly is wool?
Wool can actually be used to describe many different types of protein fibers from different animals. For example, the fleece from sheep, alpaca, goats, rabbits, and other animals are all called wool.
That being said, when you see “wool” listed as the contents of your yarn or fabric then it is going to be a type of sheep’s wool. Otherwise, it will usually have the animal title preceding it. So unless I say otherwise, wool = sheep’s wool.
Wool fibers are made primarily of a protein called keratin. This is very similar to our own hair. Just like our hair, wool has cuticles that go along the length of the fiber that you can actually feel. These cuticles are responsible for one of the main attributes of wool – the ability to felt.
While felting in and of itself is an artform, it also applies to your weavings and how they behave. We will go more into that a bit later when we talk about pros and cons.
History of weaving with wool
Sheep were first domesticated in about 5000 BCE, but it was not until around 4000 BCE that they began to be utilized for not just their meat, but also their wool and milk. It took 1000 years for the fleece of these domesticated sheep to shift from mostly hair that was unsuitable for creating yarn to mostly wool. Prior to this, most weaving materials were made of cellulose fibers such as linen and hemp.
Since wool naturally comes in different colors (whites, greys, browns, and blacks) and because it easily takes dye, it became a prominent material for creating patterned textiles. These textiles were often weft-faced and became tunics and tapestries.
This dye affinity meant that the domestication of sheep changed the future of textiles. Suddenly there were more color options to work with and more imagery could be created.
A quick refresher on tapestry:
Tapestry is a weft-faced weaving that features discontinuous weft. Most often (although not always) these weavings heavily feature imagery.
How it is harvested and prepared
An important thing to understand about wool is that it is a renewable material. This makes it a sustainable option for weaving that you do not have to feel guilty about using. While those that are vegan may abstain from wool since it comes from an animal, wool is collected without causing harm to the sheep. In fact, domesticated sheep have evolved to need shearing in order to live a more comfortable life.
There are many different types of sheep that produce different types of wool. Some sheep even have a mixture of wool and hair.
After shearing, the fleece needs to be cleaned before it can be turned into yarn. Cleaning the wool is important to rid it of multiple things you will not want in the final product you use for weaving. The wool is cleaned of large debris such as grass, dirt, dust, and feces.
Most often the fleece is also cleaned to remove the waxes and oils (such as lanolin) from the fibers. Sometimes these waxes are kept on for spinning, but they should always be cleaned off when it comes time to purchase yarn for weaving.
After it is cleaned the wool is carded to make sure all of the fibers are going in the same direction to prepare it for spinning or for weaving. If you are not doing your own spinning or cleaning up raw fiber, then you may not need hand carders. If you do need them, though, then these Ashford hand carders are the ones I am using.
Families of wool yarn
There are hundreds of different breeds of sheep from all over the world. We do not have time or really need to go over all of them here. There are some names, though, that you may come across in your yarn purchases that would be good to know.
If you want to learn more about different breeds of sheep then I highly recommend The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius.
There are many different breeds of sheep but not all of them are great for producing fibers for weaving and other fiber arts. There are some breeds known as hair sheep that produce little to no actual wool. Wool yarns can be categorized by the weight and texture of the fibers. One of the most common types of wool that you will see is Merino.
This common family of sheep originated as a crossbreed of Spanish and Moroccan ewes (female sheep) to African rams. Despite its reputation for fine soft fibers, in the Merino family, there are actually many different breeds of sheep that range from having fine to courser wool textures. Since it has become a household name, you can assume that the Merino you can find in everything from socks to sweaters to base layers is of the finer variety. Prior to being dyed, most Merino wool is white or off-white, but can sometimes be found in grey, brown, or black.
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Northern European Short-Tailed
One of the most well-known breeds of sheep from the Northern European short-tailed family is the Icelandic sheep. These sheep are not surprisingly originally from Iceland and were developed almost entirely in isolation – keeping them pure. In 1985 and 1990 they were brought over to North America.
Icelandic sheep are double-coated where the outercoat is called tog and the undercoat is called thel. These terms are sometimes applied to other types of non-sheep wool as well. These two types of wool are sometimes spun together and sometimes separate. If separate then thel is best to use for anything that needs to be really soft, while tog is best to use for applications that require a strong yarn.
Shetland yarn is another popular breed that is known for its wide range of natural colors. Much like the Icelandic sheep, Shetland sheep are double-coated. The two types of wool that you can expect are “kindly” and “beaver” with the former being very fine and soft and the latter often characterized as scratchy.
Shetland sheep will naturally shed both their over and undercoats, but this happens over a few weeks of time. Instead, like most sheep raised for their wool they are sheared to get all of their fleece at once.
Leicester (pronounced Lester) sheep are a member of the English Longwool family. As their name implies, this family of sheep is known for their long wool. These sheep mainly come from the UK but originated from Rome.
These sheep can be shorn twice a year for shorter gains, or once a year for longer wool. Within the Leicester family, there are 3 main breeds: Leicester Longwool, Border Leicester, and Bluefaced Leicester. I will not be going into all the differences here, but just know that not all Leicesters are the same.
Among these different breeds you can find all colors, but mostly white. The Longwools locks can be crimped or curled.
The Cormo sheep do not fall into any particular family but are still notable. Cormos originated in Australia as a cross between Corriedale rams and Merino ewes. They continue to be bred very precisely to keep the wool consistent in look, feel, and yield. They were brought to the United States starting in 1976.
The wool from Cormo sheep has a well-defined crimp and stretches well and is good for both fluffy and lacy applications.
Wool – what it is good for?
Absolutely a lot of things … (get it?)
Anyway, wool is an amazing fiber.
Like most natural fibers wool is biodegradable. As long as it is 100% wool and it has not been treated than when your woven fabrics or scraps are no longer usable you can be happy knowing that they will not be adding to the landfill. If sustainability is important to you then this is just one of the attributes that you will want to be looking for when choosing your fibers.
Wool is flame resistant
Did you know that wool is used by firefighters and other professions where fire could be a professional hazard? Wool is naturally high in both water and nitrogen which makes it much slower to burn than other fibers. When it does ignite (with very high heat) the structure makes it so the fire does not spread and only smolders. Wool is actually considered self-extinguishing as any burning stops when removed from active flames.
It also does not melt or drip which makes it a great option for home textiles or anything that will be against the skin.
If you have ever looked for performance wear then you may have heard that wool is great for keeping you cool and dry. In fact, wool can actually absorb up to 33% of its weight in moisture without feeling damp. This makes it a great option for anything that you might wear if you are planning to be sweaty.
Wool will absorb both perspiration and moisture from the air. These things will keep you cool in warmer weather and warm in cooler weather by balancing everything out.
Mold and mildew resistant
We previously talked about the anatomy of wool and the fact that it has cuticles all along each fiber. These cuticles are perfect for when you need a yarn with a little extra “tooth” to it. You will not have to worry about your warp or weft sliding around! Some weavers use wool as their warp for tapestry for this very reason. The wool warp grips to the weft and keeps it in place. That is not to say that using a cotton or linen warp will mean the weft will be moving around during weaving, but if you are noticing some slip then you can always try wool!
Every fiber has its drawbacks
While wool is a great fiber for a lot of different applications there are some that you may want to leave for other types of yarn.
One of the biggest things to keep in mind with wool is that it is a favorite of moths.
Moths are attracted to protein fibers and if you have ever had a favorite woolen sweater mysteriously have holes appear in it, you know exactly what I am talking about. This may not be enough reason to not use it at all (do not let the moths win!), but it is something to think about when storing your wool yarns and finished weavings.
Another possible drawback of using wool is that it can be prone to felting. Depending on what you are going for you may or may not want your wool to felt.
Felting may be advantageous for certain applications or for filling out gaps from weaving. Felting, though, is not always the goal when making woven fabrics. If you are wanting to make sure your wool weavings do not felt then you will need to be very careful when washing. There is also a chemical finish you can get on your yarn to keep it from felting called superwash.
Weaving with roving
First, what is roving?
Roving is an unspun fiber that has been cleaned and carded so that it is all going in the same direction.
It is basically a long fluffy “snake” of wool that you would normally spin into yarn, but can also be woven as is!
Weaving with roving seems to have become more popular as of late and that is probably because the payoff is huge. Roving created large fluffy areas of texture on the surface of your weavings and can be really beautiful to weave on their own or mixed with more traditional yarns to really make them pop out!
You can weave plain weave, soumak, overshot, and more with roving. So if you are looking for a way to add some extra interest to your weaving then try this out!
Favorite Wool Yarns
The types of wool yarn that I personally use in my studio range from those that are great for tapestry to those that are great for wearable fabrics.
These are the wool yarns that I keep buying!
Robson, Deborah, and Carol Ekarius. Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook: More than 200 Fibers from Animal to Spun Yarn. Storey Publishing, 2011.
Larson, Kate. The Practical Spinner’s Guide – Wool. Interweave Press, 2015.
Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. Women’s Work: The First 20000 Years: Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times. W.W. Norton, 1994.