What Things Are Made Of: Wool
I finished my last post on rabbits and realized that I failed to discuss Angora rabbits, or rabbits raised for their wool. So, let’s fix that oversight and discuss not just angora wool, but natural wool in general.
I hated wearing sweaters as a child. They made my skin itch. These days, for those of us with more sensitive skin, fleece and down are a godsend. Nevertheless, a sweater or wool blanket is often just the thing to ward off the cold or chill in the air. Certainly, without wool, many of our ancestors would not have survived the cold and wet climates they lived in.
Does your child have a favorite wool sweater? Does she know where the wool comes from? In this post, we provide suggestions for exploring a familiar material, one that is all around us but deserves closer attention.
A good, detailed observation is the basis of any investigation. But I also like to think of observations as a way to contemplate and hopefully appreciate all aspects of our daily lives. Help your child to notice things, perhaps, for the first time.
Do you have wool clothing in your closet that you can share with your child? A sweater, coat, hat, pair of socks or kilt?
What does it feel like? Remember, there are those scratchy woolen sweaters or bulky woolen socks. Do you have woven tweed you can share or luxurious cashmere? (Cashmere wool is from goats as is mohair wool, but these are both types of wool. Angora is also a type of wool that comes from the Angora rabbit).
Is there any wool felt (as opposed to felt made from synthetic fibers) available to examine? Felt can be made from wool, but because of its distinct name, the connection to wool may not be obvious. Felting takes those wool fibers, soaks them in water and “agitates” them (or placing the wool item in a washing machine or rubbing it vigorously on a textured surface). Once dried, the result is felt. (Here is some more information on making wool felt with children:
Use a magnifying glass to take a close look at these woolen textiles. Can your child see individual threads or yarn? Can he determine whether the yarn was knitted or woven together? What else can he see? Are there obvious patterns? In some cases, wool will appear fuzzy. In other cases, it will have a more refined look, or the yarn will be more tightly woven.
What color is the wool? This is kind of trick question, as the wool in clothing has probably been dyed. Wool in tweeds or plaids will be multiple colors. For now, discuss the color observed, and later once you begin to establish where wool comes from, you can revisit the issue of the color of wool.
Does wool have a taste? I wouldn’t really know, but if this is of interest, let your child try it out and find the language to describe what it is she perceives.
Does it smell? Growing up, most of the wool in our household smelled of mothballs; this is not a fond memory. A fond memory of wool was the smell of a sweater after sitting near a campfire. The wool absorbs the smell of the smoke of a wood fire. People often discuss the smell of wet wool. Have you washed a sweater or woolen item of clothing that your child can take a whiff of? Or perhaps you have walked in out of the rain wearing a woolen coat. Does wet wool have a particular smell?
You may have other items in your household made of wool. Pillow covers, blankets, wall hangings, upholstery fabric, carpets, or stuffed animals. Make a game of it. Can your child find these items once she has had a good look at wool? Alternatively, do not introduce all the woolen clothing in your closet at once, but over several days or weeks, revisit the topic with a new item.
Compare and Contrast
The obvious comparison is to examine natural wool in relation to other fabrics. By “natural” I mean not the synthetic wool fabric made from polyester that is commonly used in many “fleece jackets” nowadays. Often when we propose comparing and contrasting things, for example animals, we recommend using photographs or illustrated pictures. In the case of comparing fabrics or textiles, this can be very hands-on involving the senses of seeing and feeling.
Compare wool to leather products, cotton, and silk. These are interesting comparisons in that they are all organic, or these textiles are made from plant and animal materials. What are the similarities/differences in how they look or feel?
Here is an opportunity to discuss where wool comes from. Ask your child to determine if she knows. If not, can she guess? I suspect that she probably has an inkling of an idea, given the number of children’s books that include references to sheep and wool, but see if you can determine the depth of this knowledge. Then, ask where does leather come from (This could be a whole other post as leather is made from a variety of different animals, but you can choose one such as leather from a cow, or explore all the variations)? How about silk (silk worms) and cotton (this one is easy, a cotton plant)? How cool to know that fabrics are made from so many different materials.
Also, compare wool with synthetic materials such as rayon, polyester, nylon (a petroleum product), or rubber (on shoes like leather), or products manufactured from chemicals. (These comparisons are not absolute, or comparisons of organic with inorganic fabrics or material in clothing. Rubber has been used for over a 1000 years, and was originally made from latex which is material from plants, but most of the rubber we have in shoes and other products today is synthetic. Rayon is from plant material, but given the process of making it, the original plant is far from identifiable. Polyester blends may also include weaving the synthetic material with natural silk or cotton. The point is that some of the material in our clothing is closely linked to the original source, while synthetic materials have been chemically manipulated.)
Now some pictures may come in handy. Does wool come from different kinds of sheep? There are over 1000 different types worldwide, and 50 varieties in the United States, so the answer is “yes.” Find some photos of sheep and print them. Allow your child to sort and categorize those pictures. Color is the most obvious characteristic, as natural wool from sheep is white, but also brown, gray, black, or some combination. Other options for sorting such as the size of the animal may be of interest to your child. The ability to sort may depend on the quality of the photo.
Here is a link to some options or sheep: https://pixabay.com/en/photos/sheep/
Alternatively, cashmere and mohair are from goats, and angora from rabbits, so throw photos of goats and rabbits into the mix for more options in terms of categories for classifying.
Other comparisons to consider are the different processes for producing wool. A sheep is sheered (the woolen fleece is cut off), the wool is cleaned and either carded or combed (this video explains the difference:
Remember that the wool can be dyed at this point or left its natural color. That wool is then spun (the individual fibers are twisted together to make yarn), and the resulting yarn can be knitted or woven into fabric. Depending on your child’s interest level, you can discuss any or all of these different steps in producing the wool in our clothing.
Angora fur is sheared or plucked, and cashmere is sheered or combed off.
Wool can also come from alpaca llamas.
Find a globe and check out where wool comes from around the world. Can you and your child devise a way to understand these percentages? How about create a pie chart?
- Australia: 25% of global woolclip (475 million kg greasy, 2004/2005)
- China: 18%
- United States: 17%
- New Zealand: 11%
- Argentina: 3%
- Turkey: 2%
- Iran: 2%
- United Kingdom: 2%
- India: 2%
- Sudan: 2%
- South Africa: 1%
In the United States the biggest wool-producing states, are Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.
Until relatively recently, wool was the textile of choice for fishermen and mountain climbers, and peoples living in cold climates. Why? Because wool can absorb water, but the air pockets in the fabric can still keep us warm despite being drenched. Want to see for yourself if this is true?
Place a woolen sock and a cotton or synthetic sock in a bowl of water. Make sure that both socks are fully saturated with water. If the socks are approximately the same size, invite your child to hold one in each hand and compare their weights before and after they have been in the water. Which feels heavier (or if weighed is heavier? The wool sock should be heavier).
Now ask him to put those socks on his feet. Wait a bit, and ask which foot feels warmer. The foot in the woolen sock should feel warmer despite being wet; wool will retain body heat more effectively than the synthetic material.
Here is another test of the ability of different fabrics to insulate, keep warmth in, or maintain a particular temperature. Find several different types fabrics of approximately the same size. If you do not wish to cut up items of clothing, try a cotton towel, a polyester baby blanket, and a woolen sweater. Fill three glasses or canning jars with the same amount of water, place them in the microwave for 2 minutes (or some predetermined time), and remove them being careful if they are very hot. If you have a thermometer, measure the temperature of the water. The water in the jars should all be the same temperature. Measuring temperature with a thermometer would be the most precise test, but is not necessary. Next wrap each glass with the fabrics selected. If need be, you can use a rubber band to make sure the fabric stays tightly wrapped around the glass. Put a top on the glass or jar. Wait approximately 15 – 20 minutes. Make a prediction about which fabric will provide the most effective insulation, or keep the heat from leaving and cooling the water down.
After the waiting period, re-measure the temperature of the water with a thermometer, or stick a finger (if not too hot) in each glass trying to determine which is warmest and which is the coolest. Wool should provide the best insulation, given that the fibers in wool trap air. Thus, the water in the glass wrapped with wool should feel (or be measured as) warmer.
Throughout history, wool has been a desired fabric because of it is relatively water resistant meaning that water is not immediately absorbed. But if there is enough water, the wool will begin to absorb it. Devise an experiment with your child testing the water resistance of various fabrics. To observe “resistance,” consider placing fabrics or pieces of clothing on an incline or a ramp. Spray each fabric with a water bottle and watch what happens to those droplets (make sure that you spray the same amount on each counting the number of sprays). Are those droplets absorbed, do they all roll off, or is there some combination of absorption and resistance. Compare wool with cotton, linen, rayon and fleece. Some raincoats are made of plastics, and these will make a great comparison because nothing will be absorbed. Overall, wool should be water resistant when compared with other fabrics, with the exception of plastic, but only an experiment will provide the answer.
Can you find natural wool that you can purchase? Some farmers’ markets or craft stores may have natural yarns or wool fleece for sale. Perhaps you can find a source on-line. With your child, consider various ways to dye the wool and experiment looking for the best colors. You can use a variety of ingredients you already have at home, or food coloring, Kool-Aid, and leftover Easter egg dyes, but allow your child to generate ideas for other possibilities. Here are some initial instructions to get you started: http://www.dyeyouryarn.com/
Elaborate and Glossary
Explore why moths like wool. Wool is a natural fiber, and moth beetle larvae have a specific diet. The female moths lay their eggs in dark places, or in our closets with clothing made of natural fibers. Those eggs hatch and the beetle larvae need something to eat, and an assortment of delicious natural fabrics is nearby thanks to their mother who anticipated their appetite.
Are you of Scottish descent (or a fan of the Outlander series)? Explore the world of plaids or tartans.
Other cultures have woolen products or specific items of clothing made from wool that are unique. Can you think of some related to your heritage?
Visit a sheep-shearing contest in your area, or find someone who can demonstrate spinning or weaving wool.
Man’s use of wool as a fabric has a long history. Sheep were probably first domesticated as long as around 10,000 years ago. Long before wool as a fabric became important the wool fleece itself (natural hair still on the hide as immortalized in classical Greek mythology by the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece) would have served for clothing and other items. Ancient statuary from the Middle East suggests wooly sheep were prized as much as 6000 BC. The oldest wool garments date from 4000 to 3000 BC – around the same time wool was starting to be widely used in Europe.
Wool sheep came to the New World along with the earliest Europeans in the 1500’s. As the Spanish explorers spread through central and South America and what is now the American Southwest, sheep farming was quickly adopted by many indigenous Native American cultures. The wool from domesticated sheep was a new and valued resource that could easily be made into blankets and clothing.
Carding and Combing