Limited supply and exceptional characteristics have made wool the world's premier textile fibre
Sheep (Ovis aries) were first domesticated 10 000 years ago. They currently number about 1 billion head, in 200 breeds, worldwide. Sheep are shorn of their wool usually once a year. After scouring to remove grease and dirt, wool is carded and combed, then spun into yarn for fabrics or knitted garments. Merino sheep produce up to 18 kg of greasy wool a year.
Wool has natural crimpiness and scale patterns that make it easy to spin. Fabrics made from wool have greater bulk than other textiles, provide better insulation and are resilient, elastic and durable. Fibre diameter ranges from 16 microns in superfine merino wool (similar to cashmere) to more than 40 microns in coarse hairy wools.
CNR-ISMAC, Biella, Italy
The world's leading animal fibre, wool is produced in about 100 countries on half a million farms. Major producers are Australia, Argentina, China, the Islamic Republic of Iran, New Zealand, Russia, the United Kingdom and Uruguay. Depending on the country and region, wool producers range from small farmers (above, in Peru) to large scale commercial grazing operations.
Production and trade
Annual wool production is around 2.1 million tonnes. Australia produces one fifth, while China, New Zealand, Iran, Argentina and the UK each produce more than 50 000 tonnes. An estimated 50% of wool, both raw and partially processed, is exported to major textile centres in other countries to be spun and woven. China is the No. 1 importer of raw wool (310 000 tonnes in 2007), followed by Italy. The retail value of sales of wool products is around US$80 billion a year.
Uses of wool
Wool is a multifunctional fibre with a range of diameters that make it suitable for clothing, household fabrics and technical textiles.
Its ability to absorb and release moisture makes woollen garments comfortable as well as warm. Two thirds of wool is used in the manufacture of garments, including sweaters, dresses, coats, suits and "active sportswear". Blended with other natural or synthetic fibres, wool adds drape and crease resistance.
Slightly less than a third of wool goes into the manufacture of blankets anti-static and noise-absorbing carpets, and durable upholstery (wool's inherent resistance to flame and heat makes it one of the safest of all household textiles).
Second Nature UK
Industrial uses of wool include sheets of bonded coarse wool used for thermal and acoustic insulation in home construction, as well pads for soaking up oil spills.