Kiwiyarns Knits

A blog about New Zealand yarns, knitting and life

Wool vs. Synthetics


I was having an interesting discussion about wool the other day.  The person I was talking to is not a knitter, and I suspect the last time he wore wool was when he was a kid and it was probably the old-fashioned itchy kind that no longer exists.

I was doing my usual rave about how wonderful wool is to knit with, and then he said “Why?”

A small stunned silence, then I said something like “Because it’s better.  It’s breathable, it’s got superior thermal qualities than synthetics, and these days, you can even get wool that doesn’t scratch, and it’s machine washable!  It’s cool in summer, and warm in winter.  It is waterproof to a degree, and even if you get wet in it, you still won’t be cold.”

I clumsily tried to explain how I preferred wool over synthetic because it never felt sticky or clammy.  I explained that wool wicks moisture away from the skin when you’re hot, but traps heat against the skin when it was cold, and that the supposedly ‘technologically advanced’ synthetic materials were merely an imitation of what existed in nature anyway.  As a knitter, I found wool to be very good to knit with as its natural stretchiness was gentle on the wrists and made knitting much more comfortable than knitting with other fibres such as cotton or silk.

“How can you say wool keeps you cool in summer?” he challenged.  “Well, you don’t see sheep dying from heat exhaustion or taking off their coats in summer do you?” I retorted.

This person was not convinced, muttering nasty intimations of how I was hoodwinked by marketing spiel.  I’m still not sure whether he was “taking the piss” or if he was quite serious in his dogged misunderstanding of what wool can do.  “I see you have much to learn about the world of woolly wonder!” I concluded, probably somewhat huffily, after a very lengthy conversation which covered many other aspects of wool from its use in sports clothing and rugged outdoor wear to its ability to insulate premature babies at the correct temperature.

It made me realise that even though us wool lovers are converts to the superiority of natural fibres and the benefits of wearing wool (or other natural fibres) over synthetics, there is a whole generation out there who have grown up with polypropylene and acrylic “fleece” and “thermals” and other synthetic fibres and who don’t understand why wool is better, preferring the convenience of being able to throw their garment into the washing machine over the other healthy benefits of using a natural animal fibre.

Given this blog is mostly read by people who love wool, I’m already talking to the converted.  But, in case you happen to have a similar conversation with a similar unfortunate character, then here are some tips and resources I’ve put together to quell any future arguments.

I’ve thought through a short list of what I suspect are the most attractive qualities to today’s consumer below.  Obviously there are many more virtues to wool.  The details are contained in the links I have provided below.

Wool’s unique properties mean that as a fabric, it:

  • is less likely to make you stink when sweaty
  • keeps you cool when it’s hot and warm when it’s cool
  • won’t look wrinkled after long use
  • is stretchy and comfortable to wear
  • stays looking clean for much longer than synthetics
  • has natural flame-retardant qualities
  • is easy care when treated to be machine-washable
  • is completely itch free when it’s ultrafine merino
  • comes in so many different spins and textures that in addition to all the great properties of this fibre, it’s an extremely versatile medium to work with.

The Wool Revolution has the best, quick explanation of What Makes Wool So Special?

Another short fact sheet, from the Canesis Network.

For the scientifically minded, the Biotechnology Learning Hub has a very cool interactive resource that clearly explains the wool fibre structure and its properties.

And finally, if you’re keen to know more, CSIRO recently prepared a very interesting and thoughtful presentation on the natural advantages and future of wool as a consumer.  The naughty child in me found this paragraph on wool’s absorbent qualities to be particularly amusing “This buffering is also useful to help control the microclimate around the back and buttocks in an office environment.  Moisture released from those parts of the body in contact with a chair cannot readily escape to the surroundings and this can lead to a feeling of clamminess…”  hehe.  Childishness aside, I found the presentation to be very informative both from a scientific and practical level.

Yes, marketing has a lot to answer for, and in the case of wool, I believe that marketing of synthetics and the current focus on consumerism and “cheap” can be held greatly responsible for the decline in the use of wool and misperception about its lack of usefulness in today’s modern lifestyle.

We seem to have got ourselves into an unfortunate chicken-and-egg scenario when it comes to the research and development into wool.  Declining demand and prices for wool have choked funding for essential R&D to keep it competitive against strong synthetic marketing and development.  We’re such a gullible species at times.  Here nature has provided us with the most advanced fibres in raw form to play with, and we insist on trying to recreate this genius using unenvironmentally friendly methods and non-renewable resources. For what?  Sigh.

But wool hasn’t lasted as a resource for humanity for thousands of years for nothing. Eventually, we may even come to our senses and thank the sensible people who are still using wool for keeping alive a sustainable, renewable, healthy and totally awesome fibre that will continue to be used for millenia to come.

Long live wool.


Author: kiwiyarns

Welcome to my blog where I talk about knitting in New Zealand and the beautiful yarns you can find here.

18 thoughts on “Wool vs. Synthetics

  1. Perhaps you need to knit a swatch of synthetic material and a swatch of wool. Let the person feel the swatches and decide which is better.

  2. I am very jealous of people who can wear wool without the itchies, and will even go as far as knitting myself a nice fitted vest in merino which I can at least wear over a non-scratchy layer (one day).

  3. Oh my goodness!!! Were you super indignant when he busted out the “wool sucks” arguement??!!! Did you get a bit red in the face during that argument, did your voice get a bit high and out of control???!!! he he he he he … sounds like my “why be vegetarian” conversations with meat eaters… my philosophy is now, who cares, let them miss out!!! :O) you sold me though, I like wool better then acrylic!!!

    • Most likely. And if you were watching, you’d probably have seen little hackles rising on the back of my neck… I suspect he rather enjoyed getting my feathers ruffled.

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  5. Awesome awesome post. Its so great that people are starting to appreciate the naturals again… I just downloaded the links you had on this post and there is so much interesting reading there! Thanks again, I hope you don’t mind but I linked to your post in my blog. happy knitting 🙂

  6. Something I find interesting on Ravelry is when you look at patterns other members have created and there’s one that doesn’t look so good, when you check the yarn it is usually acrylic – doesn’t block well, hold it’s shape etc.
    Another argument is that it has kept humankind warm for millenia. Long live wool!

  7. A good post! Very timely, too, considering that the worldwide Campaign for Wool was launched in Britain last year – and

    • Thanks. 🙂 I’m so glad that the Prince of Wales has got behind wool and has managed to convince so many to join the movement. I really hope it has some lasting effect. That would be awesome.

  8. Well said and I totally agree, I don’t like working with acrylic but in some instances it is necessary…like my hats for Calgary, I wasn’t going to waste my lovely wool on something that no one was going to wear :-0

  9. Wool is nice when it isn’t cruelly produced – there is a lot of unkindness and cruelty in the wool industry. Either knitters know and don’t care – or turn a blind eye and don’t ask questions. Merino specifically is a cruel wool – sheep breed to have more skin than can comfortably cover their body mass, leading to problems from their excessively wrinkled skin. The answer apparently is just to cut off the offending spare flesh. Mulesing is banned in parts of the world because it is barbaric. However for knitters demanding the softest wool, it is a price they don’t mind sheep paying on their behalf. Merino breeds are not ‘natural’ This is a very biased piece of writing. You are obviously not wanting to listen to any argument and I find how you spoke to your ‘friend’ as off hand and a bit rude – you are obviously determined that you are right and anyone that disagrees is wrong. When all is said and done, by the time you take into account the pesticides, the dye, the mulesing, the antibiotics etc it isn’t any more natural than acrylic. They are both man made if you ask me – they are both manipulated from a raw, natural product. Snobbery in knitting is not a good thing! Wool people are obviously superior though. Or perhaps you just think you are? The tone of this post is not very nice – by all means celebrate the best of wool but there is the hidden ‘dark’ side too. If only we were better educated then we would all like wool? Conversely, I think it would turn a lot of people off. Acrylic has its uses as do other natural fibres, it saves the exploitation of animals for one. New wool is often from dead lambs that the industry has no use for – does anyone think why a new born lamb would have no use for it’s coat? The answer is that it is dead. But hey it’s all natural, so it’s OK. There are also people for whom wool is most uncomfortable and impossible for them to wear or use without allergy problems. So while in theory, wool is good, in practice it is an often sinister trade with all too little merit to it.

    • Hello there. Thank you for taking the time to write in. Firstly, I apologise that you feel offended by my post. It was not intended to come across as yarn snobbery. And my friend is actually a reader of this blog – it was a bit of an ‘in’ joke. Obviously this didn’t come across well to those who don’t know me!

      I acknowledge that merino is a contentious issue. In New Zealand, we thankfully don’t practise mulesing.

      There is a case for all fibre, and you raise some good points.

  10. Having seen many sheep farms in New Zealand, I’d have to say the sheep have a very good life. Many farms are organic and the wool is very natural. Louise has some good points about some farming practices, but not in New Zealand.