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The Benefits of Wool — A Tale of Smells and Temperate Body Climates

Written by Benjamin Antoni Andersen Published on March 23, 2021 in Essentials Designer and instigator of Red Hat Factory, constantly hungry for mountainous adventures.

When we designed the first model of our line, there was never a question around our chosen material. Wool was the one and true answer. Curly sheep hair is inseparable from Norwegian culture and the roots of the brand — but how, and why has it become so?

Norwegian children wear wool. It’s a thing. Parents buy it, sell it, hand knit it, and promote it. There’s nothing like a mom-made wool sweater, or even a pair of cold-resistant inner wool-trousers to get you through the -20℃ winters.

It is ingrained in Norwegian culture to such a degree that I never questioned its benefits before I was about a year into running Red Hat Factory. One day I realized that as a wool-peddler I should probably know a bit more about the specifics of why it’s considered so great.

Wool sweater, hand knit.
My dad, in ’97 wearing a wool-sweater my mom knit around ’83. I have now inherited the sweater.

Even when wool’s wet, it stays warm

I’ve heard it said time and time again, from the age when my mother forced my child-legs into a pair of light blue hand-knit wool trousers and sent me out playing in the snow.

Those pants itched like crazy — an issue longe since solved, more about that in the next section — but they sure kept me warm.

Wool trousers, wool sweater.
Me in a wool sweater, and a pair of deep red, full blown wool pants. These two ladies, from my horde of sisters, are also wearing wool of course.

A practical, and maybe slightly nasty example from adult life, is this. When I’ve been having a fever, and woken up shivering in a cold pool of my own sweat, a standard set of a thin woolen long sleeved shirt + woolen long johns solves the issue. I can sleep through the night, and wake up in a nice temperate pool of my own sweat instead.

Yeah, I told you it was nasty. But that’s life for you.

So, why does wool stay warm even when wet?

You can get into a deep wormhole when researching this, but put super simply, wool is a complex structure, designed to keep sheep at an even temperature in a wide range of weather conditions. Without even touching on the science I don’t understand, it seems wool absorbs your sweat into itself, leading it away from your body, and then allows it to vaporize at a leisure inside of the wool, not touching your skin.

On the flip side, wool is also relatively water resistant from the outside. How does that work? Don’t ask me. Ask Google.

“I basically live inside a set of wool shirt and long johns the entire winter, and could not imagine anything that feels more natural.”

As you understand, I haven’t the faintest grasp on the inner workings of this, but I have a lifetime of experience enjoying the benefits. I basically live inside a set of wool shirt and long johns the entire winter, and could not imagine anything that feels more natural. And, as it turns out, from this picture my mom pulled out of the album — I have done so all my life.

Me showing off a pair of chubby wool-clad legs. Wool long johns were always in fashion.

No woolly itch today

One of our friends and Red Hat Factory beanie-owners said something akin to “I basically live inside of this beanie. It’s the first wool beanie I’ve had that doesn’t itch.”

The thick Norwegian wool I was wearing when I grew up was itchy — and that was the talk of the town among us children. “Hey, ma is forcing me into these itchy woolly hell-pants again.” But those days are long gone.

“Hey, ma is forcing me into these itchy woolly hell-pants again.”

Where does the itch come from, and how has humanity combated this great evil?

Wool clad football player.
Itch or no itch, that’s the question.

The thickness of wool grains is measured in microns (1‰ of a mm), and the infamous itchiness threshold is at 27 micron. While Norwegian sheep naturally produce a rougher grain, to withstand the wild mountain weather, there are ways to grind the wool to a finer grain size — so even Norwegian wool doesn’t have to itch anymore.

Another way to go, is to use wool from more temperate climates. We use wool from South America, where the climate naturally softens up he wool on the sheep, and it is below the itchiness treshold all-by-its-natural.

“Breaking News: Wool Sweater Brutally Murders a Family of Bacteria”

That was the headline of every single day of my life, living inside a full wool attire.

If you’ve used wool a lot, you’ve probably either heard or noticed that you don’t have to wash it that much. A bit of Googling shows that it consistency nails the top scores on low-odor tests. Many venture as far as to name it anti-bacterial.

We’ve already established, I am not a scientific genius, so I won’t venture into any advanced vocabulary, but fall back on my experience. The wool sweaters I wear on the outside, I rarely wash at all, and they never smell. The inner layer of wool — the long johns and long sleeve wool shirt — I wash more, but still much more seldom than other fabrics, and yes it’s absolutely true, they take a longer time to gain stinkage.

Wool sweater, retro.
This wool-covered boy don’t stink.

So, why does wool smell less?

Lanolin, also called wool grease, -wax, -oil, or -fat, is a grease that sheep produce, and that is mixed into the wool. The grease apparently protects the sheep from infections, and is used in a lot of skin creams and such. Sounds pretty rad to me, and makes me think wool just straight off kills bacteria — but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

“And there, deep inside of the wool, the bacteria are kept safely away from each other, so they can’t make more smelly bac-babies.”

One article I read said it’s not that lanolin actually kills bacteria, but the odor-killing abilities of wool actually come from the way it transports sweat away from your body, including all the nasty things that inhabit the sweat. And there, deep inside of the wool, the bacteria are kept safely away from each other and your skin, so they can’t make more smelly bac-babies.

So maybe, you should wash your wool occasionally — but not that often.

Written by Benjamin Antoni Andersen Published on March 23, 2021 in Essentials Designer and instigator of Red Hat Factory, constantly hungry for mountainous adventures.

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