Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Wool products at Common Ground Fair
From sheep to socks, you can support Maine's agriculture by wearing wool clothing instead of the increasingly popular, fossil-fuel-derived fleece. English photo.

By Beedy Parker
Camden, Maine

So how about wool, anyway? Here is a wonderful natural fiber that grows on the backs of gentle animals, who, Shmoo-like,* provide meat and manure, and even milk and cheese. When sheep are rotated through pastures, they improve the land and keep the farm open – and yet, the use of wool for clothing and blankets seems to be disappearing, as are the sheep. People who raise sheep in New England and around the world receive less and less money for their fleeces and must depend solely on the meat market for income. What's been happening in the world of wool?

I went on a woods hike this fall with an environmentally minded group and was surprised to see that everyone else was wearing recycled plastic fleece jackets and pullovers, the same people who, five or 10 years ago, would have been wearing beautiful hand knit sweaters and woolen Maine hunting jackets. Even their mittens and scarfs and caps were mostly synthetic. Well, I guess the weather is wanner these days, and the advertising blitz has been successful, and that "fleece" really is sometimes made of recycled plastic soda bottles, which adds a measure of virtue to the apparel, but is this really what we want to wear?

Do we want to wear "oil," with its unfortunate "cradle-to-grave" trail of pollution? Synthetics made of oil attract their relatives, oily stains and synthetic odors and solvents, the outgassing of other plastics in our environment, and these pollutants sink in and stay. To 5 reveal the true nature of plastics, try this little fiber test (cautiously): Singe a few threads of different fabrics with a lighted match. The cotton (or any vegetable fiber) gives off a pleasant wood smoke odor. Wool smells like the burning hair that it is. Synthetic plastic fabrics melt into a sticky black puddle that gives off noxious fumes, a transformation into its original self, as shocking as the melting of the witch in "The Wizard of Oz." This stuff poisons people when it is mined, when it is refined and manufactured, when it outgasses in normal use, and when it is burned in municipal waste; whereas wool comes out of the land, via photosynthesis and protein synthesis, and when we're done with it, microbes can reintegrate it into the land.

Many things have changed in our lives since the days when wool was the dominant fiber in cold weather countries. We now spend most of our time indoors and in temperature controlled cars; we hardly need coats. We don't walk much and our health suffers accordingly. In the past we trusted our wool jackets and socks that breathed when we sweat; that could shed all but a long soaking rain, and even then, would dry from the inside out from body heat and would continue to keep us warm. It was the survival stuff of the Northern winter! Now we don't seem to need it any more and we have forgotten the simple ways of taking care of it: airing out, brushing (coats and jackets), spot cleaning with soap and water, and a gentle soaking to wash. When sweaters get thrown in the washing machine, they come out shrunk and felted. (Then I buy them at rummage sales and make wonderful slippers out of them.) People now tend to send wool clothing to the dry cleaners, which is expensive and brings home the toxic vapors of the chemicals used in cleaning. And most of us have learned that we shouldn't expose ourselves to the chemicals in moth balls, because they affect people as well as moths. In the days before cheap, sweatshop clothing, we didn't have so many clothes and wore them more, but when you have too many unused woolens, they're vulnerable to the moth that loves still, dark places. With wool, It's often use it or lose it. Just to jog our memories, here's how to wash wool: Soak for several hours in warm water with mild soap or mild detergent (a bathtub is good for blankets and coats), giving it a swoosh now and then to urge the water through the cloth; rinse gently in warm water till the soap feel is gone; press the water out by hand and hang the item to dry – and dry as flat as possible – on a rack (or a clothesline for blankets). Avoid drastic temperature changes and rough handling while the wool is wet. (It's the shock of agitation and change that creates felt.) Remember that woolens don't need to be washed all the time. Once a season is often enough (honors) and even less for blankets. In the interim, spot clean, shake out, brush and air as needed.

Wool fabrics used to come in many textures and fiber blends: the sturdy, cool Palm Beach fabric of military summer wear, British "Vyella" cotton and wool blends in beautiful prints for shirts and dresses, the linsey-woolsey linen blends of yore, the softness of lambs' wool and silkiness of cashmere. Warm, woven wool blankets become long lasting family heirlooms. Some weaves were light and airy, some tough, hardened and very durable; some were even machine washable. Some people think of wool as itchy and uncomfortable, because woolen underwear was commonly worn in the winter by country people, but now we can afford to wear cotton underwear and shirts next to our skin, with wool on the outside if we are sensitive.

To me, the saddest part of the decline of wool, besides the loss of income and open pasture to our farms, is the loss of a fabric that can be understood and even made, by a child, from fleece to sweater. Compare this to the synthetic, which is a remote and even dangerous mystery, wrapped in patent secrecy. It's like comparing a bicycle where you can see how the peddles, gears and wheels work and feel the centrifugal force that holds the bike steady, as opposed to the increasingly "black box" design of our computerized cars, where you just buy it and drive it. The sheep's fleece can be sheared, washed, carded, spun and knit or woven, all by hand, most of which are pleasant and tranquil activities, encouraging thought and conversation. So consider adding a few wool items to your wardrobe. Think about taking up knitting again (socks are easier than you think). And start saving up for a beautiful Maine-grown blanket. Maybe we can bring back the fleece on our green pastures.

* "Shmoos" were lovable creatures in the "Li'l Abner" comic strip (in the late 1940s) who turned into delicious food, clothing and building material when people looked at them with desire.

MOF&G Cover Spring 2002