Wool Allergies

Recently on one of textile mailing lists (The Spinlist), there has been some discussion about wool and allergies. It generated a lot of thoughts that I wanted to address.

I've known many people who thought they were allergic to wool and what they were allergic to was either the wool processing or the type of wool. The simplest test is to take a couple of locks of wool, wash them thoroughly, and rub them against your inner wrist. If you have an allergy, you will probably be quickly aware of a reaction. If you don't get a reaction, then perhaps something else is going on. I'm going to talk about three issues that may cause people to believe they're allergic to wool.

The first of these is the type of wool used. Commercial yarns (and some handspun) is often made from a type of wool that is inappropriate for the end use. Yes, there are some amazingly nice Lincoln fleeces out there, but for the most part, that breed's fleece is more appropriate for outer wear as opposed to a scarf you'd wrap around your neck. Now, I'm not saying that that's true of all Lincoln fleeces. I've owned some hogget Lincoln that would be wonderful for almost use. And I'm not even picking on the Lincoln breed. Feel free to substitute any of the coarser breeds; like Border Leicester or Scottish Blackface. The fact is, that you need to pick a finer wool to have it be more comfortable against the skin.

For a nice sweater to wear directly over you skin, pick a fine breed like Rambouillet, Cormo, or Merino. Or one of my favorite breeds: Polwarth. This is a dual-purpose breed that was developed in Australia in the 1800's and is 75 per cent Merino and 25 per cent Lincoln. It is both fine enough and long enough to meet most of my needs for fine spinning or items that might be worn next to the skin.

Probably the biggest advantage that a hand spinner has is that instead of taking whatever kind of wool you have, you can pick a breed that's appropriate for your needs.

The second issue is how the wool is prepared prior to spinning. When you buy a wool item at your local store, the wool has been carbonized. This is how the mills remove the vegetable matter in fleeces. The definition I have in my Terms & Definitions list, defines carbonizing as:

The process of treating wool with chemicals, usually acids, to destroy and remove the burrs without seriously damaging the wool. The usual chemical used is sulphuric acid. Wool so treated is known as carbonized wool.

This may come as a shock, but at the large commercial wool mills, whole, tied fleeces are tossed into the giant wool washing leviathans. The growers went to the paper cords as they dissolve in the acid baths which cuts down on the labor costs of removing them at the mills. These are harsh chemicals and I think for many people may cause their allergic reaction.

If you know you're sensitive, wash your wool in as pure of a soap as you can. I'd recommend Ivory Flakes or any of the pure laundry soaps -- but I've also washed my wool in Orvis paste, Dawn Lemon, original blue Dawn, and Palmolive dish soap.

While I haven't done so, I have friends who swear by adding a conditioner to the final rinse either when preparing the wool for spinning or as part of the blocking of the finished item. Some people us laundry conditioners and others use hair conditioners.

Another issue is that dyes (both synthetic and vegetable) may affect the how people react. Both synthetic and vegetable dyes leave a residue (color) and depending on your sensitivity, you might need to avoid them. There is often a highly-mistaken belief that some that is "natural dyed" won't cause a reaction. Depends on what you're allergic to.

An important issue to consider is how the wool was prepared for spinning and how it will be spun. Wool combing is a lengthy process, but one that I find well worth while. One of the complaints about it is the amount of waste fiber. This is also part of its strength. The combing process removes the shorter, weaker fibers. These are the fibers that often stick out of the finished yarn and poke you; invariably around the neck or along your inner arm.

Depending on your sensitivity, you might want to be cautious about the commercially prepared fibers for spinning. I've known of a couple of people who reacted strongly to the oils used by various mills.

Another item to consider is how the yarn is spun. You will need to determine if a woolen- or worsted-spun yarn better meets your needs.

And finally we come to twist. The amount of twist you have in your finished yarn can make all the difference in your finished project. You want enough twist for the garment to wear well -- but not so much twist as to cause it to kink up.

Sadly (for many) we come back to the fact that you really need to sample to help decide which combination will best suit your needs for this particular item.

If you have comments, please send email to: Rosemary Brock.

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