So the question remains: Assuming the wearer doesn’t have allergies to wool as described in my previous post, why is some wool sometimes itchy to some people? There is more than one explanation.
Though not allergic to wool, anyone who feels the “prick” or “scratch” from wool is feeling the end of a wool fiber that is sticking out of the yarn. Who feels the itch and to what extent depends on the person (a thin-skinned toddler or an adult?), the diameter of the wool, how the wool is spun, temperature (wear a sweater in the heat and you may feel some itch!) and how wet is the wearer’s skin (the more moisture, the more the wearer will feel an itch).
Microns: The diameter of a wool fiber is measured in microns – short for micrometer. (A micron is 0.001 mm, or about 0.000039 inches – or 1 billionth of a meter.) While the micron range of a wool varies depending on breed, it is also affected by the sheep’s age, nutrition and health. The lower the number, the finer the fiber.
According to The Naturalist, “a wool that averages 24 microns or more is likely to [have] at least 5% of fibers over 30 microns, and therefore trigger a prickly sensation. And about a third of wool with average fiber of 21 microns will still have enough 30 micron fibers to make it scratchy.”
Qiviut – spun from the underwool of the Arctic Musk Ox – is very fine and soft; it ranges from 11 to 13 microns. Wool from the Merino sheep usually ranges from 13 (though can go as low as 10) to 25 microns. The wool from a Cashmere goat is in the 14 to 18 micron range. Yak fiber has a micron count from 15 to 19 microns. While mohair averages in the low 20 micron range, it gets thicker as the animal ages which means the yarn spun from it will be harsher. In 2010 we saw a new world record with a 10 micron fleece from New South Wales (Wikipedia). (For more information about sheep and their wool, check out sheep101.info.)
Woolen or worsted spun yarn: Wool fibers are both prepared and spun in different ways depending on whether the spinner wants a woolen or a worsted yarn.
- Worsted yarn: The fibers are combed to remove short fibers leaving the remaining fibers parallel and similar in length. The worsted yarns tend to be harder, stronger and smoother.
- Woolen yarn: Fibers are uneven in length so they do not lay parallel. The yarns tend to be softer, fuzzier, retain more hair in the yarn, and have more stretch.
For more information about fiber, here are a few sources you might find useful: Bette Hochberg’s classic Fibre Facts (1983); In Sheep’s Clothing (1995) by Nola and Jane Fournier; and The Field Guide to Fleece: 100 Sheep Breeds and How to Use Their Fibers (2013) by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius.
What to Do With Itchy Wool:
FIRST: People who regularly work with wool have a couple of methods to “soften” scratchy wool. Try washing your wool skeins or the finished garment in a basin of cool water with – in no particular order – (1) plain white vinegar, (2) hair conditioner, or (3) glycerin.
SECOND: If you find a garment itchy, there are several things you can do:
- Wear another layer under it!
- A woman could wear a camisole and a shirt under the sweater.
- A man could wear a t-shirt and a shirt under the sweater.
- Line your wool slacks or wear leggings or tights underneath them.
- If you find that the neck and cuffs of a wool sweater irritate your skin, knit a cotton or silk facing on the reverse side of the neck and cuffs or line the neck and cuffs with fabric.
- Knit a boatneck neck into your wool sweater so there is no high or tight neckline that might rub your skin.
Something to keep in mind: The person who laments (boasts?) to you that her/his skin is simply too delicate to wear wool is most likely NOT allergic. More reasonable assumptions you could make is s/he might be wearing wool that is:
- high-micron (coarse),
- loosely spun (so a lot of fiber ends stick out),
- not well cleaned (thus retaining a lot of organic materials), and/or
- treated with nasty chemicals (used in preparation, dying and/or cleaning).
Or maybe the person is sweating as she/he talks to you. 🙂