The Inside Scoop: Recycled Wool
An ancient fiber gets a modern, sustainable twist
Forget pumpkin spice, recycled wool is inspiring our autumnal celebrations this year. The versatile and eco-friendly material being incorporated into ever-more apparel, and for good reason: recycled wool performs oh-so-similarly to virgin wool, only with extra environmental boons.
Since the dawn of civilization, wool has played an important role in humankind—it was among the first fibers to clothe us, when we created crude garments woven from sheep’s fleece. We’ve come a long way since then, with technical t-shirts, insulated winter coats, performance running socks, and so much more all made from not just virgin but recycled and repurposed wool.
What makes wool both a good base- and outer-layer is also what makes wool so easy to recycle: it’s fiber composition. Both strong and crimped, wool fibers can withstand a lot of use and can be sewn (and resewn) in patterns that help retain heat.
Wool’s crimp is part of what makes them so resilient. The wavier the fiber, the finer it is and the more straight, the more coarse. As the Encyclopedia Britannica explains, the crimp plays a big role in why wool works so well as a base layer. “Because crimp encourages fibres to cling together, even loosely twisted yarns are strong [allowing] open-structured yarns and fabrics that trap and retain heat-insulating air.”
Another reason they make for great base layers: wool fibers are not very dense, meaning they’re primed for lightweight garment construction.
Wool is also highly absorbent, able to retain around 17 percent of its weight in moisture. Importantly, thanks to heat transfer via conduction, wool becomes warmer to the wearer as it absorbs moisture. “Because moisture absorption and release are gradual, wool is slow to feel damp and does not chill the wearer by too-rapid drying,” explains the Encyclopedia.
Recycled wool, a history
You could call wool the “OG” recycled fabric. Take a look back in history, and wool has been respun and reworn longer than any other material. Partly, that’s because wool has been around for a really long time. Prehistoric humans clothed themselves with sheepskin and eventually figured out how to make yarn and then weavings from the animal fibres. Archaeologists have found the oldest traces of wool fabric production inside the country of Iran.
Wool has probably played a hand in the sheep we know today. Way back when, during prehistoric times, sheep had thicker outer coats with longer hair fibers. But, over time, selective sheep breeding has effectively eliminated that trait, leaving the soft, fleecy undercoat of insulating fiber for the world to see.
According to Gabriel Arther, editor-in-chief of sustainable outdoor news source Suston Magazine, in the Prato province of Northeastern Italy, knowledge about creating new wool fabrics from old wool products has been around for centuries. In an article profiling the expertise of Anna Rodewald, a textile engineer from Greenroom Voice who studies recycled wool, Arthur writes, “In fact, the history of recycled wool in Prato dates back to the 12th century, and such recycling has been performed on an industrial scale since the 19th century.” (Polyester was only invented in 1941, and recycled polyester much, much later, lest you forget.)
Due to the strength of wool fibers, experimenting with reuse has been a profitable interest for the textile industry—but it’s also been a natural response for individuals experiencing circumstantial hardships, like post-war financial stress and resource scarcities. Much like people today might collect aluminum cans for a cash return, people in the 19th century would collect rags to sell back to manufacturers.
Now in the 21st century, with interest in sustainable marketplaces and minimizing footprints at an all-time high, this old staple is growing more popular than ever before.
From old wool to new wool: the process
Virgin wool is created by shearing fleece off animals. Typically the animals are alive, as it’s actually more difficult to remove fleece from pelts—to do so requires more chemicals, and when obtained that way, the wool is classified as an inferior “pulled wool.”
The sheared fleece is then sorted into bales and washed. A greasy layer called lanolin (a side product often sold to cosmetic producers) must be removed, which is most often done with the help of chemical catalysts. Recycled wool, thankfully, doesn’t have to go through this process again.
Once wool fibers are cleaned, they’re “carded,” which means they’re pulled into long strands and spun into yarn. The yarn, of course, is woven into fabric.
Now, to reuse wool, there are two popular approaches: a closed-loop system where garments are returned to natural fiber states and then respun into yarn for reweavings, or an open-loop system where garments become the basis for new industrial products, like insulation or mattress padding. In the latter case, the garments are typically shredded and repurposed. In the former case, the original fiber lengths are retained and then respun.
To retain original fiber lengths, there’s a mechanical process called “pulling,” wherein garments are raked down to a fluffy pile of fleece. Then fibers are sorted by colors and carded once more.
The pros, and the cons
For a variety of compounding reasons, recycled wool is better for the environment than virgin wool. Actual measurements and research into the exact ways in which the environmental impacts between wool and recycled wool compare, however, are still hard to find, Rodewald explains to Arther at Suston:
“To answer your question if recycled wool is more sustainable, of course it depends on what you compare it with. Historically, the ecological impact of recycled wool was not seen as important, and it was bought mainly because of its low price. For other materials, such as polyester, the recycled material was created based on the need for an improved footprint. In this case, large resources have been invested in research on how to ensure that the footprint is in fact improved. As this was not the intention for recycled wool in the first place, this could be one reason why there is still insufficient data for a lifecycle analysis.”
Still, some common sense applies, she says. Using recycled wool instead of virgin wool saves the need for chemicals in both the cleaning process and the dyeing process, both of which can take up a substantial amount of water, too.
Maintaining vast populations of sheep also takes a toll on the environment. While it’s possible to responsibly farm small herds, the mass breeding of sheep can cause soil degradation and can require a significant water supply.
Patagonia has been using recycled wool in its garments for years. Reducing the production of virgin wool is a worthwhile goal: “It requires vast amounts of land for grazing sheep, water to clean the fiber, chemicals to treat it and dyes to color the finished product,” their website states. “We use recycled wool to extend the life span of fiber that has already been produced. This allows us to make clothing with the same great qualities as virgin wool at a fraction of the environmental cost.”
Patagonia claims their CO2 emissions are reduced by 81% when using recycled wool versus virgin wool.
Smartwool has taken an innovative open-loop approach to recycling some of their wool. For a few years, they’ve been repurposing and upcycling fabric scraps to use in future products. In 2017, they saved enough scraps from their base layer production to fill all of their 2018 Smartloft wool jackets, which saved 2.75 tons of Merino wool from wasting away on the cutting room floor.
Caring for recycled wool apparel
For all wool, strong alkalies (like many soaps) and high temperatures can harm the fibers, so washing can require some care. In general: use very mild detergents at temperatures below 68 degrees, and for best results, minimize mechanical action. It’s truly best to hand wash.
Yes, wool can shrink. Using colder water will help prevent any distortion of the fibers, which is how the shrinkage occurs (when the fibers get hot they flex and change, and then will dry in new, often scrunched positions, causing an overall shrunken effect).
If you want to get rid of wrinkles, after traveling or washing, the Woolmark Company recommends hanging the garments in a steamy bathroom. Moisture from the steam will loosen and remove the wrinkles.
As sustainable practices gain traction and brands look for new ways to repurpose old materials, it’s likely more and more will turn to the ancient wisdom of wool.
Because new and recycled wool function in such similar ways, it’s possible that some brands are already using recycled wool blends without advertising it—as the practice grows more popular, we’re apt to encounter more and more opportunities to publicly support and observe what’s possible with recycled wool.
Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.