The comfort of wool clothing, particularly when worn close to the skin is a crucial factor when we consider buying garments. A poor experience with “scratchy” wool can put us off for life! But exactly WHAT makes some wool feel this way and how can we find wool that definitely doesn’t have the itch factor?
Itch or ‘prickle’, occurs when the ends of some wool fibres push against the wearer’s skin, resulting in nerve endings in the skin being stimulated. This can cause skin irritation and scratching which leads to the release of histamines in your skin, inflammation and yet more itch, scratch etc!
Many people who experience this think they have an allergy to wool but it is extremely rare for anyone to suffer a true allergic reaction to wool. This should be verified by a doctor. Most people are feeling a normal physical reaction to specific coarse fibres poking their skin.
Whether fibres in garments push against the skin depends on many things including:
1.The thickness or diameter of the wool fibres in the garment. In general, 30 microns is the cut off point. Below that individual fibres are not detectable by human skin. Average British wool ranges between 32 and 37 microns. Lambs wools will be finer but not necessarily fine enough since the proportion of 30+ fibres might still be quite high. Most British wool goes for carpets and that which does go into clothing, unless sourced from specific finer woolled breeds, is best suited to outerwear or heavier jumpers etc which don’t touch your skin.
2.The yarn/fabric construction and finish. Woollen spun or Worsted spun yarn for example where worsted will produce a flatter, smoother yarn and ensure that any coarser fibres are lying flat and not sticking out to dig into the skin.
So how do we choose a non-itchy jumper?
Finer, thinner wool fibres bend more easily than thicker fibres. Instead of pushing against the skin, they simply bend and buckle when the fibre comes in contact with skin. So finer is definitely better if you want to avoid the itch.
The more fibres sticking out, the more likely the fabric will cause discomfort. The length of protruding fibres also affects comfort. Longer fibres have more opportunity to bend when pressed against skin, whereas shorter fibres are more likely to push into the skin causing an itchy sensation.
So, to avoid the itch when wearing wool that comes into contact with skin, go for garments containing guaranteed fine wool of less than 30 microns and with a minimum fibre length of…? What? How are you as a shopper meant to find all this out when it’s not shown on a label? Will a shop assistant know? Not likely!! The best and safest way is, as usual, to buy the very best quality you can afford. Obviously buy Merino for guaranteed fineness, but remember that NOT ALL wool sold as Merino is particularly fine and nor is it well spun and knitted so you can still get prickle and itch even with the name Merino on a label. A good Merino (or Bowmont!) will have a Prickle Factor (actually called Comfort Factor) of 95-99% meaning that 99% of fibres are less than 30 microns. Cashmere of course is 100% by contrast. My finest Bowmont is 99.8%. A cracking good sheep!!
Quality Quality Quality is key. Buy a really good, expensive well known knitwear brand (pref British!) and rely on them to know the technicalities. They will have sourced the fine wool with the right fibre length to have spun and knitted into their garments and should certainly be pleased and able to answer any questions you ask if you get in touch with their customer service depts.
Pringle, Johnstones of Elgin, Smedleys etc are obvious choices. Yes of course these are very expensive but we really should, as Vivienne Westwood said at London Fashion Week this week, “Buy Less, Choose Well, Make It Last”.