Wool is an incredible material. It’s the original performance textile, and has been keeping us warm and dry for thousands of years. Us humans may have evolved with soft, hairless bodies that are quite sensitive to the weather, but our big brains helped us find a way to mitigate that - do what the animals do.
You see, wool has many wonderful properties. Its crimped shape allows it to be lofty and hold pockets of air, which makes for a layer of insulation. It’s incredibly elastic for a natural material, which helps it retain its shape. It wicks away moisture, blends well with other fibers, is renewable and recyclable, and also happens to be quite beautiful when dyed and spun into yarn or thread.
But there are many types of wool, each with their own specialty. Sheep’s wool, like a good wine, will carry the signs of its age and terroir within it. A sheep’s age and diet, as well as the weather conditions around it, will affect the wool it produces. So while wool may be a generic term, there are many specific varieties that are worth understanding.
As the name might imply, lambswool comes from the first shearing of young sheep, typically under 7 months old. While the fibers are generally not as long as other types of wool (and longer fibers are better), the wool is exceptionally fine and has a very soft handfeel. On top of this, the wool is hypoallergenic. For these reasons, lambswool is a popular choice for clothing.
Unlike lambswool, merino wool comes from a specific type of sheep - the Merino sheep. While the species originates from Spain, most Merino wool today comes from Australia and New Zealand. Like lambswool, it is thinner and softer than regular wool. The longer staple length from more mature sheep makes it more durable because the fibers are less likely to break. These characteristics make merino one of the most popular specialty wools on the market, as it performs well across the board.
Some sheep don’t get to spend their lives sunbathing in Australia - Shetland wool comes from Shetland sheep, a breed known for toughing through the bitter winters of Scotland’s remote Shetland Islands. The harsh weather conditions mean that Shetland wool is not as fine or soft as Merino or lambswool, but it is incredibly tough and warm. A Shetland sweater won’t be nearly as soft against the skin as other wools, but those Scottish sheep worked hard to make sure you’ll build character (while staying toasty warm).
But wait - what about cashmere? Mohair? Alpaca? Camel? There are many other types of wools on the market, but most of them don’t come from sheep. Each of these varies significantly from sheep’s wool and are worth an article of their own. But in terms of availability, price, and popularity, sheep’s wool will always be king.