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The Mystery that is Wool

Hello all!  I'm not currently an active member of the SCA (moving every few months is not conducive to joining groups), but I do intend to join once I have something remotely resembling a permanent home-base, and in the meantime I'm indulging in my interest in period clothing construction, much to the chagrin of my roommates.

I understand that period materials are important for making period garments (with their ability to stretch with the grain and so forth), and one thing I hear constantly when I discuss materials online is that you really do have to use wool when wool would be used, and even if it's in the nineties all day, a lightweight wool can keep you cool, so there's no excuse for not using it.  The problem is that I'm a life-long Floridian, and I have no experience with wool except for owning a 100% wool beret, so I know I'm not allergic to it.  Our thrift stores (I've seen many people online say to look in thrift stores for cheap wool) are completely devoid of wool in any form, and what exists in our fabric stores is all suit-colored and blended with rayon at over twenty dollars a yard.

I guess my questions start with this: is the above thing about wool keeping you cool actually true?  How do wool-weights work?  What's a decent price for wool?  What common wool adjectives (worsted, grabardine, twill, etc.) can help point me towards suitable fabrics?  Where on earth do you get said fabrics online?  Is there anything really weird about sewing with wool that I would need to know?  Actually, pretty much anything that exists to know about wool except that it usually comes from sheep is probably going to be news to me.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 7th, 2012 03:29 pm (UTC)
There's a nice guide to online fabric stores for SCA & re-enactment purposes at the Armour Archive:


(I *think* you can read this thread without making a login, but I could be wrong.)
Mar. 7th, 2012 03:33 pm (UTC)
In my experience, as a native New Englander, wool isn't hard to work with. I prefer washable wool and I wash it first. I either dry in the dryer on low, if it is applicable, or let it line dry. If your wool isn't machine washable hand wash it in the sink and line dry. It will through a lot of lint into your machine so you may need to clean your machine more often. A summer weight wool isn't any more uncomfortable than a cotton or cotton/linen blend.

Try Denver Fabrics, The Fabric store, Jo Ann's fabric. Search on wool, summer weight.
Mar. 8th, 2012 09:46 pm (UTC)
What makes a wool washable or not? I've seen almost no wool sold online that isn't dry clean only.
Mar. 9th, 2012 01:39 am (UTC)
Most wools will stand up to hand washing, or machine washing on a gentle or hand wash cycle, then line dry. I own several wool sweaters that say dry clean only that I wash. It does fell the fabric a bit, but that actually makes it easier to sew. I just assume (yes I know) that unless it's cashmere, it's washable.
Mar. 9th, 2012 05:33 pm (UTC)
Basically, they are covering themselves. In some cases the wool cannot be machine washed, sometimes it can but will change its character (e.g. make it more fulled), often it won't do much except SHRINK LOTS.

I generally ignore the 'dry clean only' unless it was really expensive or I really don't want to alter it in any way (and have no way of buying more).

The important thing is that wool *will* shrink, no matter what. What you want to do is make it do that before you turn it into a garment. So, for me that means wash it at 40 degrees C (maybe 30 degrees C if I'm being especially careful). I then never, ever wash that fabric at anything more than its prewash temp. minus 10 degrees. That usually removes any risk of further shrinking.

For me, I like the fulling that you get from doing a machine prewash - it makes it more like broadcloth, which is great for 14th/15th C stuff. It also makes it warmer and more waterproof.

Having said that, for wool clothes I've sewn, I follow this rule. 1. Try to avoid getting it dirty (including always wearing linen undies to absorb sweat). 2. If you spill something or get mud on (particlarly mud) let it dry and try to brush it off. 3. If brushing doesn't help, handwash it. 4. If it's still there, try the machine.
For smells, I generally just air my wool clothes on a line for at least a full day rather than actually washing them - not only does the breeze help remove the smells, the sunlight does too.
That way, despite being prepared for machine washing, my wool clothes actually rarely see it, thus lasting longer.

Mar. 10th, 2012 07:53 am (UTC)
About how much does wool shrink? I know cotton has a formula, but I don't know about wool; I'd guess it could easily be enough to affect how many yards I'd need.
Mar. 10th, 2012 10:34 am (UTC)
I'm not sure there is a formula. I read on a blog the other day of a costumer trying to dye wool, repeatedly not getting the ideal colour and after the 3rd or 4th attempt at dying had about 7' x 40-something" instead of 12' x 56". However, that was dye washes (so, very hot) and, I think, cashmere.

Wool shrinkage probably differs depending on a whole ream of things including:
- amount of finishing/fulling done by the manufacturer
- type of wool (e.g. 'normal', cashmere, merino)
- if it's a blend
- weave (tabby, twill, etc.)
- temperature of the wash
- amount of washes at top temperature

Personally, I just follow my rule. Prewash at 40 C, once, on a regular 'coloureds' cycle (usually). Sew up clothes. Try very hard to avoid having to ever machine wash (using above methods) but if I ever had to, wash at no higher than 30 C (probably first try a cold wash, then try a 30 C wool wash).

Mar. 7th, 2012 04:12 pm (UTC)
The phrase to learn to look for is "tropical weight wool" for those of us who live in warmer climes. I live in AZ and I wear wool all year round.

Sewing with wool is nice and if you fell the wool (wash and dry it as intrepid_smstrs states then the edges don't tend to shred like a linen or wool will. I.E. you won't have strands of the warp/weft unraveling from the edge. This makes hemming nice and easy.

Fabric Definitions gives a good understand of what the words mean but not really helpful on what you might want to use for any individual garment. So, for me, I'd like to know the time period you are looking so I can give you an idea (if I'm familiar with the period) what wool would work well for what type of garment. Twills give good diagonal stretch etc.

Yes, wool can be expensive but if you plan on wearing said garment for a time the price / yard argument really isn't an argument any more. I usually get things from $8-$24/ yard depending on what I need.

I've gotten wool at those listed above, B. Black and Sons, Woolrich, period fabric. com and many more.
Mar. 7th, 2012 05:19 pm (UTC)
I'm most interested in late 14th early 15th century French attire, skilled-labor class. I've made a fitted cotte from cotton flannel before (historical heresy, I know) to try to approximate wool as best I can, which worked all right but not ideally.
Mar. 7th, 2012 05:30 pm (UTC)
Wool in that century will really make the garment fit and function correctly. Wool Cotes are glorious. I think a good gaberdine, plain weave (depending on density) or twill would be good.
Mar. 7th, 2012 04:45 pm (UTC)
I get my wool almost exclusively online, and try to wait out for sales. I've found some lovely solids that way, in the realm of $5-8 a yard (any more my cheap brain wins out over my heart and I pass it by)

I live in Utah, which has triple digit heat but a tendency towards cold nights in the summer, so I tend to use wool whenever I can, augmented with simple linen layers that I can take off or add on as the need arises. I can't really say how wool fares in humidity, though I've heard of people doing so at Pennsic.

In my experience I find tabbys and twills are quite nice. I'm not sure crepe is a period weave, but I couldn't resist a sale (4.50/yard for a gorgeous royal blue) and after felling it in the wash a few times it just looked like a nice thick wool.

The only disappointment I've ever had was in a gabardine I bought recently. I was *convinced* it was a poly suiting rather than the wool I ordered, but the bleach test didn't lie. That's when I learned that gabardine is sort of a superwash fabric treated to not act so much like wool (I think, I could be off on it). I wouldn't recommend it, though in my case I'm still able to find a use for it (It's a lovely poison green color so I'm thinking it'll be a simple bliaut/elf dress type thing for the Hobbit opening night that I can still mostly wear to the SCA).

I tend to find availability of wool is pretty simple stuff -- the best patterning you'll find will probably be plaid, which still works for a myriad of times and places, but otherwise, you'll want to do something to trim it up, like buy a yard or two in a contrasting color and do some guards or other kind of embellishment.
Mar. 7th, 2012 07:22 pm (UTC)
I agree with the gabardine comment. I am currently working with some which is summer weight, and it does not look like wool. It really looks like a lightweight synthetic of some sort, which is a shame. However, it is nice and light and cool.
Mar. 7th, 2012 06:17 pm (UTC)
Wool is awesome because it will help wick away sweat and help sweat evaporate from you. Also, unlike cotton or linen, it doesn't feel wet until it is *very* sodden, making you more comfortable when sweaty. The perfect combination is linen undies and wool over the top.

Another good property of wool is it is the only natural fibre that has a really good SPF (i.e. like sunscreen - it stops UV). On a sunny day you may well get burnt *through* your cotton/linen clothes but are less likely through wool.

I agree with everyone else - for seriously hot weather you want "tropical weight" wool, which will be as cool or cooler than wearing cotton or linen and far cooler than wearing anything synthetic. There is, of course, also the fact that once the temperature (and/or humidity) hits a certain level you're going to be uncomfortable whatever you wear and wool (at least good, light-weight wool) is not going to be significantly worse than anything else.

For my wool, I almost always do a pre-wash at 40 degrees centigrade (that is, before cutting the fabric). This shrinks the fabric (making it more fulled - an attribute of many 14th C wools), lessens the likelihood of subsequent shrinkage (if washed at 30 degrees C and lower forever after) plus lessens the likelihood of dye running.

DO NOT TUMBLE DRY WOOL. Ever. Never mind what it could or could not do to your fabric, it will create masses of static electricity and is a very good way to set your tumble dryer on fire. If you want a house to come back to, don't put wool in the dryer.

Instead, you should preferably line dry the wool. If you can't do that, dry it on racks or over radiators inside your house. (Yes, this will be an absolute pain if you live in a flat...)

As far as sewing goes, wool is generally an absolute dream to sew. It doesn't generally shift/slip during sewing; it won't crease badly like linen; with the fulling it is far easier to make neat, invisible stitching (particularly hems). The fulling also makes seam treatments nearly always unnecessary and single-turn hems a possibility. As far as the 14th and 15th Century clothes go, it is impossible to get the fitting correct without wool - linen or cotton will give an approximation but just don't have the stretch - with wool all those annoying niggly creases will vanish.

So, personally, I think if you can afford it and if you want clothes you can keep wearing over and over, wool is the only real option for outerwear.

Mar. 7th, 2012 07:18 pm (UTC)
I also live in a hot summer area in central California, and most of my wools come from online sources, including eBay where you can find some unusual wools for cheap sometimes (the black wool I'm wearing in my icon was found this way - wool/cashmere at $7/yd, normally much higher for cashmere). If you really want to know all there is to know about wools, get the book "All About Wool" from amazon or where you can. It not only explains about modern wool types, it has swatches of them as well so you can feel as well as read about wool differences. It will also tell you what sorts of wools are good for what sorts of garments (generally speaking as in fitted, tailored, loose, etc).

Worsted is the smooth suit type, as the hairs are long and combed in parallel before being spun. This will be cooler for you to wear. Tropical or light weight is what I suggest you look for. It mostly comes in darker suit colors, but you can find them in other colors from time to time.

Woolen is going to be wool that is carded so the hairs will go in all sorts of directions before it is spun. It will have air bubbles that will trap air giving more loft to the woven wool, and means it will be warmer in general. Think of fluffy flannel or coat weight wool. Unless you can tolerate the heat well, stay away from coat weight wool for the heat.

Some sources I use that haven't seen mentioned are
http://www.wmboothdraper.com/ (great resource for fabrics)
http://www.tudortailor.com/woolshop.shtml (UK store, but period colored fabrics)
http://www.dorrmillstore.com/ (it says rug hooking but the samples I got were not thick and it does come in a variety of pretty colors)

And while you didn't mention linen, I highly recommend all linen garments for the hot summers as well. I wear an all linen dress with a linen smock for the hot days, putting on a wool gown over it when needed (either to go into court or when it cools down a little). I much more comfortable that way, but I overheat very quickly anymore.
Mar. 9th, 2012 08:42 am (UTC)
I'm probably going to do my next historical sewing project in linen since my first cote (which I will wear until I can replace it) was fully lined cotton flannel, which had me toasty warm in the middle of winter, i.e. I need something very cooling. However, pretty much everywhere has been telling me just how inaccurate using linen for outer garments is, so I'd still like to know about wool for when I get the time, funds, and skill (I'm pretty decent with sewing in general, but my period techniques are less than exercised) to work something truly authentic.

Edited at 2012-03-09 08:43 am (UTC)
Mar. 10th, 2012 05:02 am (UTC)
I will agree that linen was not used for the outer garment. However, in my area it is as much a health necessity for me to wear linen when possible, or I don't do some events because of the heat.

Yes, wool is cool to wear, or warm, depending on type, but not as cool as linen. My icon image I'm wearing a black wool/cashmere blend gown and it is wonderful. I definitely suggest making a wool garment for the authenticity, and because wool garments are very comfortable to wear, and wonderful to hand sew with, or machine sew, and to iron/steam into shape if needed. You will enjoy wool.
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