Understanding the luxury fiber and its place in menswear.
Wool fabric has embedded itself in the apparel industry as a luxury fabric without equal.
Here we discuss how wool's resiliency, physical attractiveness, insulating ability, and comfort have earned its position as the finest of menswear fabrics.
When to wear wool and when to seek alternatives, how to care for woolen garments, and more.
Introduction to Wool Fabric
“Wool” is a generic term applied to the hair of animals, mostly sheep but also Angora and Cashmere goats, camels, llamas, and very occasionally even more exotic creatures.
It remains one of the most important fabrics in tailoring, although synthetics have begun to appear as a lower-cost alternative in the last century.
A large part of its reputation as a luxury fiber comes from both the cost of its manufacture (and the subsequent cost of 100% wool garments)
and the greater care required to keep woolen clothing in good shape.
Despite these drawbacks, wool has endured as a fabric because of its resiliency, physical attractiveness, insulating ability, comfort, and the stubborn position it has established in the minds of the fashion conscious.
All of these factors make wool a great choice for men and women's suits, especially where the weather is seasonal. A men's suit made of wool is more often than not superior to one made of man made fibers, although very high quality wool/man made fabric blends are available that rival 100% wool.
Types and Qualities of Wool
What Makes Quality Wool
Quality of wool depends on the fiber fineness, length, scale structure, color, and cleanliness. The most sought after wools are very thin in diameter (10 to 20 micrometers), long in length (at least 2 to 5 inches), and the fibers themselves are free from defects.
The majority of men's suits will be made from worsted wool, which refers to a specific manufacturing process that separates long, strong fibers from a bundle of wool and combs them all into the same direction before spinning them into yarn.
Here is also where the term raw wool comes into play; oftentimes wool is recycled, and although this may lower the cost it also increases the likeliness of damage to the wool's structure. Raw or virgin wool is the industry's way of saying it has never been used before.
Fineness of Wool
The fineness of wools used in suits are often categorized with a number, such that you might see a store offering suits made of a “90” wool as opposed to a “Super 120,” etc.
The number originally represented the number of 560-yard spools a spinner could produce from one pound of the pure wool, but there is no official regulation, and these numbers have become something of a guideline at best.
Generally speaking, the higher the number goes, the lighter and finer the cloth produced will be — 80s are perfectly good wools and make fine, sturdy clothing, while Super 100s are edging into more of a luxurious, smooth texture (the prefix “Super” is automatically applied to any wool with a three-digit fineness, making it largely useless terminology).
A Super 120 will be incredibly fine and smooth, and anything higher is generally considered to be too temperamental of a fabric for menswear — prone to wrinkling, difficult to clean, and harder to get a clean, well-fitted drape over the body with.Nonetheless, wools do exist on up into the Super 200s, for the truly decadent (and for those who don't anticipate much hard wear for their clothes)
Weight of Wool
The weight of wool is the other frequently-used metric, and the number always refers to the weight of a single yard of material.
The traditional “three-season” wool (which may or may not be comfortable for three seasons, depending on your location, but is generally considered wearable from fall through spring in temperate climates) usually weights between 10 and 12 oz., with heavy, winter-ready wools weighing in as heavy as 18 oz.
“Tropical” weaves can go significantly lower, until the wool is almost as comfortable as plain cotton in humid heat, but may cost more as a result of their expensive manufacture.
Properties of Wool
Wool appears “lofty” — it makes a thick, deep fabric. Even a small amount in a blend can give a fabric an appearance of body. Partly due to its long standing as the only available option before cheaper synthetics were invented, wool has become the “look” other fibers are measured by and compared to.
Not all woolen suits will look the same — everything from the animal the wool originally came from to the process for turning it into cloth to the cut of that cloth will affect the drape, luster, and hand of a garment's fabric — but any suit will inevitably (and mostly unconsciously) end up being compared to wool in the same cut and color.
Wool can absorb almost 20% of its weight in water before reaching saturation — the point at which absorbed water begins leaking back out of the fabric, i.e., onto your skin. Wool is the ideal fabric for wet weather, to the point that some raincoats are still made entirely out of wool, without a synthetic lining or sprayed coating.
Wool and Heat Conduction
Wool does not conduct heat easily, so it does an excellent job of keeping its wearer warm. The fabric traps still air close to the body, where it warms and becomes an added layer of insulation.
Even a thin wool jacket can be much warmer than a thicker garment made of another, more porous fabric.
This chiefly becomes a disadvantage in hot, humid climates, where wool's ability to trap heat and moisture can quickly make it turn sticky and smothering — “tropical” weights of wool, which use light fabric with larger, more porous gaps in the weave, are designed to combat heat, and can make wool quite comfortable even in sweltering climates.
Wool and Resiliency
One of the reasons tailors prefer wool as a material to work with is that it retains its shape better than most fabrics.
It resists wrinkling and tends to maintain its original cut even through heavy use — frequent wadding and balling will eventually bend and break the long fibers making up the fabric, but treated carefully, wool should keep its shape for decades.
Fathers can often give sons their old suits, if their bodies are similar; thirty years is nothing to good wool. This makes it an excellent traveling fabric, in addition to its other qualities, and a perennial favorite of the jet set.
Wool's Environmental Impact
Overall, wool leans towards being a green choice. Most modern facilities treat the animals humanely (longevity and a healthy coat is in their best interests), and the price commanded by wool encourages the consumer to take better care of the garment, extending its life and making it less likely to end up in a landfill.
As a protein-based fabric, wool is biodegradable. Some large farms do use substantial amount of energy, water, and chemicals to bring the fiber to the market, but weighed against the alternatives, wool remains an environmentally-sound clothing choice — and as more and more consumers express interest, wools that can be certified as organic, fair-trade, and carbon-neutral are beginning to appear on the market.
Caring for Wool
Wool and Heat
Wool is an animal fiber, and its strength is protein-based — this means that heat can actually break down the chemical bonds that hold the individual strands together! As a result, wool has to be treated very carefully around heat sources. The safest way to pull out wrinkles is with steam, not an iron.
The hot steam breaks down the hydrogen bonds, allowing the wool to relax and take on the desired shape, while ironing introduces a heat source that is too strong, and can cause irrevocable damage by denaturing the proteins (think of cooking an egg — you can't un-cook it).
Wool when Wet
Wool loses 1/3 of it fiber strength when soaked in water. Be very careful with wool when it's wet, and let it dry on a flat surface that doesn't create stress points that can leave permanent deformation. Obviously, the temptation to hasten wool's drying by introducing a strong heat source should be resisted — careful hanging overnight, or standing near a warm fire or oven at the very most, should be substituted for laying a wool garment on a radiator or other direct heat source.
Wool when Dry
Just to keep things interesting — while too much moisture is bad, some is needed or the wool garment will become brittle. A short visit to a desert or other dry climate shouldn't cause any lasting harm, but gentlemen living in a permanently arid climate will want to seek alternatives to wool in their wardrobe (or invest in a mechanism for keeping the closet slightly humid, which is unlikely to come cheap).
Since both water and heat can weaken wool and ruin its most-desirable properties, dry cleaning is the only safe option for woolen garments. Try to avoid having wool clothes dry-cleaned too often, as even that process is hard on the fabric — unless the suit is being worn very frequently, it should stay perfectly presentable through many airings before needing actual dry cleaning.
Chlorine bleach is an oxidizing agent, and wool is very sensitive to it, and to alkali's such as strong detergents — avoid any chemicals when fighting stains at home; clean the wool with water and very gentle pressure, and seek a tailor or dry cleaner's help if that proves insufficient.
Moths and their larvae are just one of many insects that attack wool. It's imperative that you invest in proper storage for your wool garments, or your investment will be literally eaten over the period of one summer. Mothballs are toxic, but there are many effective natural alternatives such as lavender and cedar.
Remember to have your wool items professionally cleaned before storing them, or you may seal them with the moth eggs still alive. In addition to protection from insects, your wool storage should offer ample room for each article of clothing (protecting it from being crushed and bent into the wrong shape if it goes unworn for a long period), and be safe from direct light (which will lighten dyes over time).
Conclusion on Wool Fabric
Whether wool is the right choice for your garments depends on your climate and your needs. Its status as the long-standing first-choice fabric of well-dressed gentlemen does not make it an automatic must-have, but its properties of resiliency, physical attractiveness, insulating ability, and comfort continue to make it a good choice for many men.