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‘I can’t wear wool, I can only wear merino”

“I can’t wear wool, I can only wear merino”

You’d be surprised how often I hear this sort of statement. I always really, really want to ask the person making the statement what manner of material they think merino is. But I am usually too polite to do this and just say something like “Oh that’s a shame”.

I do understand. I really do. I totally get it that if you live in a centrally heated house, and are going to wear your sweater, like the magazine and pattern models do, next to your bare torso, you’ll need it to be knitted with something that doesn’t constantly prickle you. I get that. I was a child in the 1970s so I know the torment of 100% wool polo neck sweaters from those days.

But the reason why I think “oh that’s a shame” when someone tells me they can only wear merino, is that I believe they are missing out. We have such a rich heritage of wool in Britain, bourn out of a temperate climate and varied landscape (72 different breeds of sheep!), that it’s a pity they can only wear a product almost entirely imported from the Southern Hemisphere.

Whilst there are a very small number of Merino sheep in the UK, the odds are, any merino you currently have in your wardrobe, comes from Australia (circa 80% of global production comes from this country), South Africa (c10%), South America (c7% of which the majority is from Argentina) and New Zealand (c3%). British merino doesn’t even feature in global merino production statistics. In short, British Merino is a very rare thing indeed.

So, what of our rich wool producing heritage? Why does it matter that we have a temperate climate and varied landscape? Simply put, sheep breeds are specially adapted to survive in the varied climatic conditions found throughout the UK; the hardy hill sheep is a very different animal to the pampered lowland sheep. I’m intending to write a blog post explaining the stratified system of sheep farming and how efficient it is in terms of land management and when I do you’ll find it here. Those climate and landscape adaptations are reflected in the wool the animal produces, with some wools being much warmer than others; Ryeland, for example, is particularly toasty. Some wool, like Dorset Horn, has springiness so is good for hats and socks where a degree of natural elasticity is a boon. Some, like Blue Faced Leicester and Wensleydale have a beautiful lustrous, almost silk like, quality to their wool and drape beautifully. Some, like Shetland, have a natural toothiness (where the fibres cling together), which makes it excellent for colour work. Some, like Jacob, are incredibly hard wearing, without being rough, meaning you’ll get years of use from any garment knitted in such a fibre. Jacob is excellent for things that are not going to be treated kindly, like Dad and Brother hats (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I’m referring to my relatives here. Your male relative may well be much more concerned for their apparel than mine).

Wool craft, at its most elemental, is about taking a natural resource, and turning it into a useful garment. Choosing a wool with appropriate qualities for the garment in question is as essential an element to its success as picking the correct weight of yarn and achieving the correct tension, but this aspect is so often overlooked. If, for example, you choose Merino for your socks, without the addition of nylon, you are going to find them fairly short lived. But Blue Faced Leicester is still smooth enough to be worn by most people against the skin and when it is spun with a high twist, it will cope with wear very well, without needing nylon. And for tougher socks, like walking boot socks, or welly boot socks, why not consider a Dorset Horn or Jacob.

Once you understand this, the idea that you would only ever consider using one type of wool for all garments seems nonsensical.

* * *

So, if you’ve only ever knitted with merino, but want to explore further and enhance your knitting experience, what do you do?

My advice is always to first try Blue Faced Leicester. This is the softest of our British breed wools and isn’t a huge challenge if you’re used to Merino. If you are ok with that, then next, maybe try a Cheviot, or a Ryeland wool.

When you are at a wool show, don’t be overly guided by how the wool feels in the skein. How the wool feels when it’s in the skein is almost irrelevant (unless your thing is just to adorn yourself with the skeins, and then who am I to judge?). The important thing is how it feels when it’s been worked, so ask to feel a sample of the knitted or crocheted fabric. Hold the sample against your skin to warm it up. Even if there is an initial sensation, it usually passes after a minute or two once the fibre has warmed. And believe me, yarn dyers would much rather you rubbed your make up all over the sample than all over a skein, if you are wanting to test irritability!

Don’t get too fixated on knitting a garment with a new to you breed or dyer. Maybe just buy a single skein and knit a swatch. Then wash, block and wear the swatch (under your bra strap or in the waist band of your skirt, on your hip, or under your jumper on your wrist), then wash block and wear again. It’s only after repeated washing and wearing that you’ll know how your skin reacts to the wool. Louise Scollay at Knit British has an excellent regular Wool Exploration section on her podcast and this is an abbreviated version of the method she suggests. Check out the Wool Exploration episode from 30th December 2018 for a detailed explanation.

Once you know how the wool works for you and how it feels texture wise after washing and wearing, you’ll know what sort of garment it is suited to, and can then invest in a suitable pattern and quantity of yarn.

Finally, you might also like to check out The Woolist for more information of all the different breed woods. Zoe’s story really is rather wonderful and her online database of sheep and fleece is an amazing resource. You also really need one of her sheep breed tea towels in your kitchen.

And with that, I’m off to do some swatching!