That pretty purple stuff in the picture above is very, very scratchy. Don’t be fooled by the fluffiness or the great lustrous sheen. Its rough stuff and that’s a shame because the fiber took up the dye really well. In the close up you can see some slight variations in color so the finished yarn (if I ever spin it) will have that nice, heathered look. But the fiber is so itchy it should have come with a warning label. I am certainly too wimpy to have that particular fiber next to my skin and I’ve got a good wool tolerance.
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Some People Have A Low (or Non-existent) Wool Tolerance
Are you wimpy when it comes to wool? Let’s talk about that for a bit before we get to the fiber itself. All mammals have fiber on their bodies and that fiber is always made from protein. The stuff growing on your head and in your armpits is made of the same stuff as what grows on a sheep. So why are you have trouble?
It could be that what is on the fiber is what’s bugging you. Sheep produce lanolin, an oil, and no matter how much you wash wool it always has some lanolin on it. If you do manage to get all the lanolin off, wool gets brittle and breaks. In fact to soften up a yarn, some people will ADD lanolin.
When you wear wool do you get more than the itches? Do your eyes swell up? Can you tolerate alpaca but not wool? (Alpaca does not have lanolin, btw.) Then maybe you are allergic to lanolin rather than the wool itself.
It could be that you have thin skin. We are all born with thin skin. Think about how soft a baby’s butt is. Now think about how easily that baby’s butt gets diaper rash. The thinner your skin the more things will make you break out into a rash. As we age our skin (usually) gets thicker and tougher and better able to tolerate stuff. When I was a teenager I couldn’t have any wool against my skin. Now I can. If your reading this and your young, maybe you will grow out of that wool sensitivity. I did.
But maybe your already all grown up and still wimpy about the wool. Maybe you have a pre-existing skin condition. Psoriasis and eczema do not do well with wool or many other animal fibers I’m sorry to say. You may have a mild case of these skin conditions that you keep under control with good diet and regular skin care but certain fibers will prickle and irritate and set you off. Is that is the case, you have my deepest sympathies.
But maybe, just maybe, you simply need a softer fiber. Maybe there is one out there that you can tolerate wearing. Let’s see if we can find one.
All Fiber IS Not Created Equal
Just to be clear, wool is from a sheep. I hate terms like “alpaca wool” and “camel wool”. I stick with “alpaca fiber” or “alpaca fleece” and leave the wool on the Ovis aries (that’s the scientific name for sheep) where it belongs.
Most of the time the itchiness/softness of a fiber is directly related to the thickness of that fiber. The length of the hair determines how easy it is to spin and sometimes how readily the fiber will felt and pill but its the thickness that determines softness. Coarse is bad. Fine is good.
The thickness of animal hair is measured in microns (µ), which is a millionth of a meter. To figure out a fiber’s thickness, you need an optical fiber diameter analyzer. I certainly don’t have one of those but a good fiber supply source will have their fiber tested and provide the thickness size of what they sell. If you don’t have that but you do know the breed of animal that the fiber/yarn came from, you can get a pretty good idea of how thick the fiber is.
I pulled several varieties from my fiber stash and arranged them in order from itchiest to softest. I did the highly scientific rub-it-up-against-your-neck test. Then I looked up each breed for its typical range of fiber thickness. The first three are all varieties of sheep. Huacaya is a type of alpaca. Last, and softest are camel and yak but note that what I have is down. Nearly all the camel/yak sold to spinners, knitters, and crocheters is down from the undercoat. The top coats of those animals can be pretty coarse.
I’ve read that most people can’t tolerate anything larger than 28µ against their skin. Nearly all merino wool on the market is 24µ or less which explains why its the go-to breed for good quality wool. By way of comparison, Lincoln wool, which can have an astounding fiber length of up to 15 inches, has a fiber thickness of 33 to 41µ and many people can’t even bear to hold that fiber in their hands to spin it.
As a yarn-obsessed consumer with a credit card, you want the finest, lowest micron fiber you can get. That’s what will be softest. Shop smart and look for:
Superfine Merino. If all merino is less than 24µ how fine is the “superfine”? Usually that’s 15-18µ and its very nice stuff. If you are looking for fiber to spin, The Woolery sells Superfine Merino Top that is 15µ. Imaginknit sells an limited availability yarn by Malabrigo called Superfine Merino and its 14.5µ.
Get the first shearing. Fiber/yarn from yearlings will be finer and softer than anything from an adult animal. All mammal’s hair coarsens as they age. So look for “baby alpaca” and “lambswool” or even “virgin wool”. That’s fiber that came from a baby.
Try a new animal. Angora is typically 12-16µ. Those bunnies grow some soooooft hair. Cashmere/Kashmir goats are always less than 18µ. And then there is camel or yak or qiviut. Qiviut can be as fine as 10-12µ and I guess that’s why its sold at $40 – $50 per ounce.
Sometimes a superwash wool will be a little softer. Wool is made “superwash” by running it through an acid bath. That acid treatment doesn’t make the fiber any thinner or finer of course. But it does smooth off the scales on the outer surface of the hair. Take another look at the electron microscope picture from above. After an acid bath, those scales are smoothed down and that keeps the wool from felting together. It can also make the fiber a little softer against your skin. You may have read that washing wool in vinegar will make it softer. This is why. Vinegar is a weak acid.
Speaking of giving your yarn a bath…
You can treat yarn to make it softer. It will never be as soft as that yak down or that superfine merino but it can get better. Try soaking it in conditioner. We use conditioner to soften our hair and it will work on wool/alpaca/mohair, etc just as well. But don’t be skimpy with it. Long-haired people like me go through conditioner like crazy. Take the same approach when you condition a sweater. Use several tablespoons. And just like with your own hair, don’t rinse it all out. Leave some in there.
Don’t try and tough out a prickly, itchy yarn. You’ll just end up hating that piece of knitwear/crochet wear. Start looking for some alternatives! And if I’ve enabled you to go and buy and add to your stash then my work here is done.