For many of us, the prickle of wool is among the textural memories of childhood: tights warm from being laid on a radiator, the scouring of a cheap jumper or the rub of school trousers on an unexpectedly warm day. But over the past 20 years, rough winter woollies have mostly gone the way of the Atari 2600.
After polyester was invented in 1941, the wool industry faced increasingly stiff – yet soft – competition from this and other synthetic fibres. Wool manufacturers tried to unravel why its popularity was declining. In the 1980s and 1990s, researchers discovered that it was the thicker, stiffer threads protruding from the surface of clothing that agitated pain receptors on the skin.
These coarser fibres also had less flex, which accentuated the itchy feeling. Harsher threads were more abundant in cheaper fabrics, and these were often used to produce mass-market items such as school uniforms.
The wool industry took action and Australia, which dominates world wool production, was at the forefront. Machines developed in the early 1990s – such as the Laserscan, an Aussie machine now used across the world – were able to measure the diameter of fibres more accurately than any previous method. Fibres of 30 microns or more were found to be the most itchy. As a result, fine and superfine wool – 18.5 microns and smaller – became increasingly sought after (and pricey).
As demand for the rough stuff plummeted, breeders began shifting their sheep stock over to naturally finer variants such as the Merino (the man who first bred an Australian Merino featured on the country’s two-dollar note, until it was replaced by a coin). Merinos are small – so less valuable in meaty terms – but changing demand put a new spin on such calculations. The price of superfine wool of the kind grown by Merinos has increased by more than 30% over the last two decades, while the cost of the coarser material has been declining.
Natural conditions have helped: climate change has led to a significant decline in the rainfall of southern Australia over the past 30 years, and sheep wool is naturally finer when conditions are dry.
The production of superfine fleece has tripled since 1991 and now accounts for nearly a third of Australia’s total clip each year. Some 90% of the world’s fine threads – particularly those destined to be worn next to the skin, in the form of everything from wedding dresses to bras – are sourced from Australia. So these days, most of us find wearing wool shear joy.•