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Survival Equipment

Five wool clothing tips to keep you from itching

Five wool clothing tips to keep you from itching

Can’t wear wool because it makes you itch? Here are some things to consider before you give up on the natural fiber.

by Leon Pantenburg

Leon Pantenburg in Confederate uniform

Me, circa early 1980s, as a Confederate soldier.

The wool uniform made me consider deserting.

The temperatures were in the high 90s, the humidity had to be close to that, and it would have been miserable even if I hadn’t been wearing the all-wool Confederate uniform. I was one of several hundred Civil War re-enactors participating in the Champion Hill battle near Jackson, Mississippi.

The thick wool uniform was like wearing a sweatsuit. In addition, it was itchy. Luckily, that wasn’t my only experience with wool clothing. When it comes to winter wear, wool is my go-to choice.

But people frequently comment they can’t wear wool because it’s itchy, or uncomfortable or they think they’re allergic to it. Well, some people are, but in other cases, the wool itches for different reasons.

And its worth figuring this out, because wool garments are a great investment. Since wool fibers resist piling, snagging, and breaking, wool garments typically outlast synthetic sweaters. My old reliable Land’s End red sweater has had regular use for about 25 years, and is still going strong.

My red wool sweater has served me well for a couple decades.

My wool sweater has served me well.

Furthermore, since wool fibers are naturally elastic, wool garments don’t wrinkle, bag, or sag as other fabrics.

When it comes to homesteading or anything related to natural fibers, I consult my sister, Karla Moore. She cleans, cards, and spins wool from the sheared fleece, and knits it into custom, artisan hats, mittens, scarfs etc.

Here are five tips for buying and wearing wool so you don’t itch:

Wear a base layer: I generally wear a long-sleeved polypropylene undershirt under everything in the winter. The polypropylene wicks away moisture from your skin and keeps you dry. A long-sleeved cotton tee shirt is a bad choice – cotton absorbs and holds moisture, leaving you cold and clammy.

Choose hot water cleaned wool: This can be tough to find, unless you know the maker. According to Karla, the initial cleaning may determine if the sweater ends up being itchy or not.

“Commercial wool washing is done differently than the hand-washed cleaning, and manufacturers probably use chemicals to process it,” she said. “Wool, just after it is shorn off the sheep, will probably be dirty and it may have hay and other ‘organic’ things in it. Sometimes it takes a lot of work to get the fleece clean.”

Lanolin, the natural oil in wool, is what make it water and fire resistant, Karla added, so don’t wash the wool too much or some of the water and fire resistant quality will be removed.

Try organic: Chemicals in commercial wool products may make you itch. The harsher detergents and other additives also make the fibers a lot rougher.

“You could be allergic to the cleaning chemicals in the garment, or the coarser, rougher wool,” Karla said. “I’ve gotten some commercial wool garments I couldn’t wear.”

The more processed the wool is, she added, the more likely it is to be harsh and rough. The traditional way to clean wool is with boiling water, she said, but this needs to be done in moderation.

“Boiling water takes the lanolin out of the wool,” Karla said,  “so the more the wool is washed, the less water repellent it will be.”

Hand spun wool yarn

Karla spun this yarn from an Iowa State Fair champion fleece.

Check out how the yarn is spun: A loose, fluffy yarn tends to trap air and heat, Karla said,  and will usually be less itchy. Tighter spun yarn and weaves have more potential to be itchy.

What kind of sheep did the wool come from? Basically, all the consumer needs to know is that the finer the wool fiber, the less potential there is for itchiness.

Fine wool sheep produce wool fibers with a very small fiber diameter, usually 20 microns or less, according to Sheep101.info. Most sheep of this type are Merino or trace their ancestry to the Merino.
The Rambouillet, related to the Merino, is the most common breed of sheep in the U.S., especially the western states where the majority of sheep in the U.S. can still be found.

At the other end of the spectrum is the coarsest grade of wool (usually over 38 microns) is used in the manufacture of carpets, according to Sheep101.info.  Carpet wool breeds are usually double-coated, with a coarse long outer coat for protection against the elements.

Hair Sheep: Some breeds lack wool and are covered with hair instead. Some hair sheep have pure hair coats, whereas others have coats that contain a mixture of hair and wool fibers that shed naturally.

Hair sheep account for about 10 percent of the world’s sheep population and are the fastest growing segment of the American sheep industry. In fact, the Katahdin, Sheepinfo101 claims,an American breed of hair sheep, now leads all US sheep breeds in registration numbers and transfers.

The Dechstein 100 percent wool mittens, sweater and socks are durable, effective choices for cold weather wear.

The Dechstein 100 percent wool mittens, sweater and socks are durable, effective choices for cold weather wear.

When choosing the fabrics for your outdoor winter clothing, why not just use synthetics?

Synthetics are great fabrics in many situations. They are typically cheaper and more lightweight than wool, and probably more widely available.

But many of the synthetics are petroleum based. This means the carbon footprint is extreme, there is a long complicated manufacturing process, and the synthetics are not self sustaining.

Sheep, on the other hand, convert grass, weeds and shrubs into fiber for clothing. A sheep can help control brush and weeds, be sheared many times, and there is virtually no air pollution associated with raising wool.

And wool garments are a great investment. Since wool fibers resist piling, snagging, and breaking, wool garments typically outlast synthetic sweaters. Furthermore, since wool fibers are naturally elastic, wool garments don’t wrinkle, bag, or sag as other fabrics might.

The bottom line is that you’ll have to pick what winter clothing fiber works best for you. But don’t give up on wool until you consider all these suggestions.

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1 Comment

  1. Duncan

    07/31/2016 at 09:53

    For me personally it is the opposite, yes I might itch at the end of the day a little bit from the wool, but it’s better than the itchy rash that Nylon, “Polys” and acrylics give me within hours of wearing them on my head or feet. A better choice than polypropylene long underwear is to invest in a GOOD quality wool set such as Rambler’s Way. Why? Because a few other major benefits of wool were left out of article such as: Because of the lanolin it’s also naturally anti-microbial the benefit to this-you’ll smell less but more importantly it keeps you warmer longer. Dirt is the enemy of insulation. I personally can wear my wool long underwear 7-10 days before I notice a difference. My polypropylene long underwear would have to be change out three or four types in that same time. Also I can wear my wool garments around a sparky campfire without much worry. After having a unnoticed ember burn a quarter size hole in a nylon rain jacket I only wear my waxed tin cloth with wool liner around fires. My last personal opinion wool is warmer. I have a medium to heavy set of Filson wool pants unless it drops below 0 degrees I can’t wear them without getting too hot. Normally the wool long underwear is enough even at 15-20 degrees with canvas or rayon BDU style pants. If I want full wool I wear summer weight wool pants (Older surplus class B uniform pants are a good source for these.) Your opening statement is a bit off, as millions of sheep and soldiers can’t be wrong, Wool can be comfortable in the summer it all comes down to quality, quantity (weight) and fit.

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Survival Equipment

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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