Monday, April 27, 2009

2009 is the International Year of Natural Fibres

Never Fly in Nylon

We are often asked by various groups to give talks about weaving and spinning through time or some other fiber-related subject. Whether one of us is talking about the history of knitting, teaching a class on needle-felting, or sitting in a museum doing a demonstration, we always find a spot in the proceedings to talk about the value and benefits of natural fibers. Here are some of them, focusing on wool:

  • Wool does not burn. If you drop an open flame on wool the fabric will smoulder. It will really stink, but when you blow the flame out the charring stops. Many fire departments require cotton and wool clothing to be worn by their people. This is particularly important to remember when you are flying. Every airline that I know of uses wool and wool only for their carpets and seat fabrics. You will be much safer if you dress in natural fabrics, whether it is wool and leather or linen and cotton. Most synthetics either burst into flame or melt when exposed to fire. Whatever else you do, gals, never wear nylons on a plane.
  • Wool stays warm when wet. Those Irish fishermen on the North Sea do not wear Aran sweaters because it gives them a "rugged yet traditional" look. They wear them because wool is the only fabric that stays warm even when wet. Wool will hold up to 31% of its own weight in water before feeling damp. Cotton, by contrast, only holds 15% of its own weight before feeling wet.
  • Wool is hypoallergenic. Despite the reputation of being "itchy" (which is actually caused by the harsh treatment fleeces receive in some processing plants), wool is a boon to those with chemical sensitivities. It also resists bacteria, mold, and mildew, and it repels dust mites. Some allergic reactions to wool are actually caused by the aniline dyes, so if you have this sensitivity, try to get wool that has been dyed with natural substances or wool in its natural colors.
  • There is no chemical out-gassing with wool. If the wool dyed with natural dyes there will be no added petroleum-based chemicals to irritate those who are made ill by them.
  • Wool helps with temperature control. When used in bedding, wool wicks away the nearly one pint of sweat the average human produces during sleep. The Bedouin know this. Their wool tents are actually cooler in the summer than the canvas tents brought into the desert by other cultures. Personally, I wear wool socks all year round. They keep my feet warm in the winter and by wicking away sweat they keep my feet dry and cool in the summer.
  • Wool is easy to clean. Because of the scales that comprise the outer coating of wool fibers, dirt doesn't penetrate wool, making it easy to brush off. This same structure allows wool to resist stains as well.
  • Wool is resilient and resists wrinkles. Wool can be bent back on itself 20,000 times before the fibers begin to break. By contrast, cotton breaks at around 3,200 bends and rayon at only 75.
  • Wool dyes permanently. Again, because of its structure, wool accepts dye down into the shaft of the fiber and the color does not wash out. However, no red dye I have ever seen is completely permanent on any fabric or anything else.

In the interests of full disclosure, however, I must admit that wool has a few drawbacks.

  • Moths are attracted to the fabric. However, with proper care, moths will not be a problem. There are wool fabrics in museums that have been preserved for thousands of years. Store wool with cedar balls and/or lavender sachets and your wool garments or blankets will be fine.
  • Bleach destroys wool. A little bleach will remove most dyes. A lot of bleach will destroy the fibers.
  • Unless marked "superwash," wool will shrink in a dryer. This might be a good thing if you are intentionally "felting" or "fulling" a fabric item. It definitely is not a good thing when your spouse puts your favorite cashmere sweater in the dryer. Unless, of course you have a child that likes to play with dolls!
  • Strong alkalies will destroy wool over time. Be very careful with what you use to wash wool. I also recommend not using laundry aids that contain enzymes. The enzymes are designed to remove protein or oil-based stains. Wool is a protein fiber.
  • Excessive heat will harm wool. Always use steam when ironing.

Over-all, for me at least, I prefer to use natural fibers. When I am weaving I use a wool warp and weft because I love the feel of the wool, its looks, and its ability to withstand time. Give the natural fibers a try (beyond your favorite cotton t-shirt). You will not only be helping yourself by being more comfortable, you will be helping the people who grow, process, and create fabric from these ancient choices. Whether it is silk, wool, cashmere or the more humble cotton or hemp, in this International Year of Natural Fibres, it is time to step back and choose a more natural, recyclable, and renewable way to use fabric. You won't just feel good because you are making ecologically sound choices - you will feel good with the way you look, and the comfort these fabrics provide.

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