Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Woolly Works

The second instalment on fabrics and their properties is an exploration of Wool.  As you will all know Wool is a natural fibre that grows on Sheep which live anywhere there is grass to eat.  My fiancé and I holiday in the Yorkshire Dales and they are EVERYWHERE, it’s funny when we have a bit of a stand-off when they are in the middle of the road!

Wool fibres range in length from 3.8cm right up to 50cm.  The shortest and finest fibres come from the Merino Sheep that are farmed mostly in Australia, South Africa and South America.  The wool from these sheep is the softest and most highly prized to make clothes; those of you who make your own felt will know just how soft they are.  Wool is an amazing material, it has astonishing properties and is incredibly versatile.
  • Short soft fibres 3.8cm-10cm long are made into the highest quality cloth and yarns for woven and knitted cloth.
  • Medium length fibres 7.5cm-20cm long are mixed with other fibres, both natural and synthetic, to make cheaper cloth and yarns.  These are derived from mostly British cross breeds such as Blue Faced Leicester and Jacob sheep.
  • Long fibres 15cm-50cm long are very course, strong and resilient and are therefore not suitable for clothing, they are called Carpet Types and are used for carpet.

The major useful properties of Wool are
  • Strength, Wool is incredibly hard wearing and retains its finish for many years if looked after properly.
  • Stretch, because of the natural ‘crimp’ in Wool fibres it is incredibly stretchy, in fact far more than any other natural fibre as it will stretch up to 30% depending on the spin and weave/knit.
  • Warmth, Wool is incredibly warm because of that ‘crimp’, it traps warm air and insulates against the cold more effectively than almost any other fibre.
  • Versatility, Wool is the most versatile fibre I have ever worked with.  It can be woven, knitted and felted into a huge variety of cloth from the finest Challis right up to heavy duty boiled Wool for coats, and other materials.  When old Wool clothing has reached the end of its life it can then be shredded and mixed with courser Wool fibres to make ‘Shoddy’ Wool which is used in blankets and insulating materials for the home and furniture industries.
  • Easy to manipulate, Wool fibres actually need very little to become the most basic of fabrics, felt, but once woven it can be easily shaped using steam and appropriate moulding tools.
  • Flame retardant, Wool does not catch light, it will smoulder after prolonged exposure to flame, this makes it very useful to the emergency services and for insulating our homes.

Natural Wool fleece, processed fleece and hand-made felt

In the photo you can see the difference in coarseness between the two dyed lots of Merino Wool and the two little bundles of fleece I found on holiday last year.  The felt is made out of a collection of Yorkshire fleece from the year before which I collected and made into felt.

All natural colours

All these yarns were spun by the West Yorkshire Spinners from fibres locally farmed and are un-dyed, they show the wide variety of naturally occurring colours from the palest cream to dark chocolate brown

Soft and smooth to chunky and thick

These three fabrics are all of the highest quality English cloth.  They grey pinstriped Worsted suiting is mixed with Cashmere to create a super smooth cloth with a beautiful ‘handle’ or ‘fall’ (these terms refer to how the fabric falls and how well it handles when it is being made up into clothes).  The navy Wool is a double woven (so that it has no right or wrong side) medium weight suiting.  And, the orange you might recognise if you have seen my orange coat, it is a heavy weight coating and I can vouch for its warmth believe me!!

Some of its more tricky properties are
  • Shrinkage, Wool can easily shrink when exposed to detergents, friction and steam, which is why when caring for wool garments you must follow the directions for cleaning.  This occurs because when exposed to the above the scales along the fibres are fluffed up and the fibres ‘knit’ together.
  • Susceptible to moth damage, little holes appear when the small moth larva eat the fabric, mothballs and treatments to wardrobes can prevent damage.
  • Weakened when wet, when washing knitted garments they must never be wrung out and have to be dried flat.
  • Often needs dry cleaning, this is the best way to clean most wool garments if you are not confident to clean it yourself.  You can brush most things off and surface clean gently to remove mud and easily removed marks, but to clean the whole garment, take it to the cleaners!

Before steam moulding

In this photo you can see that I have ‘eased’ this sleeve head, these sleeves are rather full and need to be eased a lot so they sit smoothly when set in to the garment, it is a fairly lose weave but needs a little help to look as beautiful as I want it to.

After steam moulding

I have used the end my sleeve board to mould the sleeve head of the sleeve using the steam from my iron, you will need a sleeve board and an iron that has a steam booster button and can steam upright to do this.  By steaming the cloth after easing you can shrink it so that there will be no wrinkles once the sleeve is set in.

This is the lovely smooth sleeve head once it is in the coat

Shrinking the eased sleeve head creates the perfect shoulder in any Wool jacket or coat.  Because there are lots of air spaces in between the fibres in Wool fabric it can be eased far more than any other fabric, and shrinking with steam gives you a huge amount of shaping potential in a garment.  This quality in Wool will also make a garment mould to the wearer over a number of years of regular use, this will only happen with pure Wool and not with Wool mixes.Some of the tools you might like to get are;

  1. Sleeve board, this is a small ironing board specifically for sleeves which is narrower at one end, the best are home made with wood as the wood retains the steam better for shaping, commercial ones are available but are not very durable.
  2. Ironing Roll, which is shaped a bit like a sausage and is stuffed with sawdust which retains the steam for moulding and shaping.
  3. Ironing Ham, same principle as the roll but shaped like a whole ham and is amazing for manipulating shoulders and bust areas.
  4. A great iron, this does NOT have to be expensive, in fact I usually spend no more than £15-£20, all it needs is a good sized water tank and a steam booster button as well as the facility to steam upright.
  5. Wooden rolling pin, this sounds a little weird but believe me, if you want nice flat seams you will want to use one, when steaming the seams open you apply the stream and then roll it with the rolling pin to ensure it retains the shape forever more.
Here is a list of some of the most common and well known Wool fabrics from down the centuries;
  • Blanket cloth
  • Boucle, a very soft fabric with a non-directional pile
  • Broadcloth, so named because it was much wider than most fabrics for making coats
  • Challis, soft and fine cloth traditionally used for making under garments, resembles muslin
  • Crepe, ‘bubbly’ cloth that is particularly good for dresses as it has a superbly soft fall and does not crease 
  • Flannel, used in suits for over 150 years
  • Harris Tweed, see my last post
  • Melton, this is woven and then boiled which makes it very easy to make with and does not fray
  • Worsted, this is the finest quality wool cloth and comes in a variety of weights
  • Wool jersey, this is a knitted cloth which has usually been pre-shrunk, but don’t assume that it has, if you want a more durable cloth that does not unravel when cutting it is advisable to pre-shrink by gently washing in a weak soft soap solution but do not wring it out – lay it flat on a bath towel and then roll it up like a Swiss roll to gently squeeze out the water.
This is of course not an exhaustive guide but you can extend your research by visiting the links in my previous posting called A Touch of Tweed for Harris Tweed and Moon Tweeds as they have lovely histories of their cloth. 
In my humble opinion Wool is the most versatile, wearable and amazing fibre because of its versatility and warmth.  However, there are some of you who are allergic to Wool or some of the by-products of the Wool industry, such as Lanolin.  Myself, I am allergic to Lanolin Alcohol which is derived from Lanolin and used as a finishing chemical for many woven Wool fabrics – bit of a pain for a tailor!  If you are allergic to Wool you might be able to wear other similar natural fibres such as Alpaca, which is fairly widely available and is now produced and spun in this country as well as elsewhere in the world.

Keep an eye out for the next fabric tutorial which will be on Silk, enjoy.

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