I often hear the comment “I can’t wear wool”, both from lovely readers of this blog, and when I’m in conversation with people. It makes me very thankful that I can! However, if wearing wool causes you to break out in red welts and rashes, then you probably have sensitive skin that is intolerant to the friction of the wool fibres in the garment, and I can understand one’s reluctance to come in contact with it.
The reason your skin is intolerant to the wool has got a lot to do with its micron count. I have explained this before in another post, so please bear with me if you know this already – micron count relates to the thickness of the individual fibres in the wool. The lower the micron count, the finer the fibre, and the less likely it is to irritate the skin.
Most New Zealand wool yarns (ie “100% wool” with no attribution to breed) are usually of a mid-micron range between 27 – 32 microns, which is just about the point that sensitive skins start to feel scratch, even though the yarn is fairly soft to touch. (The level that scientists have established that most people feel ‘scratch’ is 30 microns).
So, what are the alternatives to wool if you are a knitter? Is the only option acrylic?
Not all is lost. Merino (and other fine yarns) to the rescue! Merino is not a new breed. It has been valued for its fine, soft wool for centuries. But it is only in recent years that it has reportedly become the most populous breed of sheep on this planet (which also means that merino yarn is now more accessible than ever).
Merino’s micron count usually varies between 18 – 24 microns. As merino is well under 30 microns, people who can’t normally wear wool often find they can wear merino. It is extremely suitable for very sensitive skins and babies. In the finer counts, it is so soft you’d think you were wearing cotton.
At this point, if you’re a keen knitter, you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you stuff you already know. I just thought I’d set it out, as some people still don’t, it seems. I personally know of a woman who went into a yarn store, wanting to buy yarn, and complaining that she couldn’t wear wool because it make her break out in a rash. After being shown practically all the non-wools in the shop, she was shown Touch Yarns’ 100% merino – of which she happily and promptly bought a basketful!
There are plenty of other soft New Zealand yarns out there, I just happen to mention this as an actual example of what happens when someone meets a good quality merino yarn!
As I’ve mentioned above, the friction of coarser wool fibres on the skin causes very sensitive skins break out in a rash. But once you find a fibre that’s fine enough not to rub you the wrong way (quite literally), you’ll find that this problem disappears. Very fine wools like Merino and Polwarth can often be the answer.
Some other breeds like the Finnsheep, Corriedale and Gotland Pelt also enjoy well-deserved reputations for softness, although they do not have that cottony feel of Merino, or of breeds that have Merino in their bloodlines (such as Halfbred and Polwarth). Other breeds with beautifully soft fleece and a common Merino ancestor (but which I don’t think you can get in New Zealand) include Rambouillet and Cormo.
Factors that affect fleece quality include sex of the animal (wethers, who do not have any lamb-bearing responsibilities, often have the best fleece for example), age, condition and climate. I understand the English sheep breed Bluefaced Leicester is also fast becoming the new ‘merino’ although I haven’t got myself a sample of this yarn to appreciate yet…
An allergy to wool
According to medical sources, a true allergy to wool is very rare. An interesting article I came across points out that if a person thinks that they have an allergy to wool, it could very well be either animal dander or dust in the wool, rather than the fibre itself. This makes sense to me.
Another very interesting article by Rosemary Brock also notes that the chemicals used in the processing of wool can irritate the skin and make a person think it’s wool that is the problem, when in fact it’s the chemical residues. In this case, one could try an organic merino yarn (to cover all bases – both scratch and chemical) before giving wool up completely.
I think Allergy Relief Expert sums it up quite well in stating that if you have a wool allergy, you are likely to be allergic to lanolin, rather than wool itself. In any event, you have an allergy, and I guess nothing can be done but to choose something non-wool!
Cost of wool
On rare occasions, someone will comment about the expense of knitting. Wool does not have to be expensive. In New Zealand, you can buy a 100% wool yarn starting from $3 for 50g. If you want merino, it will cost a bit more.
The trick is to look for independent producers who do not have the overheads of a retail store. I have quite a few of these listed in my sidebar under “My Favourite NZ Yarn Producers”. I have also discussed the cost of knitting before. That post is here.
So, let’s say you are one of the very unfortunate individuals who really cannot wear wool. Here we come to the interesting bit. In addition to the trusty acrylic, nylon and polyester yarns in the market, there are many, many other alternatives to wool.
Just visit a good yarn store near you or an online one (WEBS is a good one), and you’ll be shown an astonishing range of other fibres.
Indeed, if you want to get a good feel for what’s out there, just have a look at WEBS’ online store – there are an astonishing 16 categories of non-wool fibres to choose from, including Silk, Alpaca, Mohair, Cashmere, Angora, Cotton, Linen, Soy, Bamboo, Rayon, Tencel, Nylon, Acrylic and Microfiber. This isn’t the full gamut – there are more, including ones like milk, corn, nettles, hemp, llama, yak, and even sugar cane fiber. What you might buy just depends on budget and preference.
Given I normally ignore a yarn if it isn’t wool, I decided (in the interests of research!) to visit a couple of local yarn stores to get a feel for what’s out there. It’s a little early in the season for the summer yarns, but I did find some of the new season’s offerings – very gorgeous, irresistible organic cottons, bamboo cotton, bamboo wool, and linen/cotton mixes. There was a plethora of acrylic, of course (Spotlight is great if you want acrylic).
Those allergic to wool can also often tolerate other natural animal fibres that do not contain lanolin, such as alpaca, which is beautifully soft and an absolute joy to knit with.
So… if you’re allergic to wool/intolerant to wool’s itch you can still enjoy many alternatives, and even some wool! I think the main point to knitting is that you enjoy the process and the result. Whether it’s wool or some other fibre that you’re working with is your own personal choice, and should never interfere with your enjoyment or love of knitting.