Am I Really Allergic To Wool?

sheep cartoon for wool sensitivity post

When I owned a yarn retail business, one of the most common complaints I heard from customers, was that they couldn’t wear anything wool, because they were “allergic”. I am going to set the record straight, because wool doesn’t deserve a bad rap. In my posts, “My Love Affair With Wool” and “It’s All About The Yarn – Getting To Know Fibers”, I talk about wool’s unique properties. Suffice it to say that it is the most popular fiber amongst knitters.

A true wool allergy is rare, and usually exhibits as a rash on the face, arms, and hands. The rash can occur immediately after contact, or appear a couple of days later. Medical experts believe the allergen is from the alcohols that make up lanolin, the oil in sheep’s wool. If you have a true allergy to wool, any creams or makeup containing lanolin will cause the same allergic reaction, as when exposed to the fiber.

Wool sensitivity is different from a wool allergy. Most people who think they are allergic just have sensitive skin, and are uncomfortable wearing wool. What causes this sensitivity?

  1. The Prickly Factor – This is really an irritation by any kind of coarse fiber. The surface of a wool fiber is covered with scales that vary in size, and determine the fineness and coarseness of wool. Fine, soft wool has as many as 2000 scales/inch, whereas coarse wool has as few as 700 scales/inch. The large scales of coarse fibers are what cause skin irritation, or that “itchy” feel. The most luxurious, fine, soft wool fibers come from breeds such as Merino sheep. Icelandic breeds produce a coarse, scratchy fiber. Because a wool is coarse and scratchy doesn’t make it “bad”, rather it is highly durable and suitable for a variety of projects. “Superwash” is a finishing process that alters the scale structure so that wool can be machine washed, and makes the yarn feel softer. Blends of wool with other fibers may be an option, by experimenting with varying percentages of wool. Other hair fibers like alpaca and cashmere may be more comfortable for those that suffer with irritation. Why not try layering, or wearing a shirt or T-shirt under a coarse wool garment.
  2. Dyes, Cleaning Chemicals, Cat Dander, and Dust Mites – Sometimes the irritation is caused by one of these allergens, rather than the wool itself. Black dyes that contain PPD (paraphenylenediamine) can be an irritant. Cleaning chemicals like those used in dry cleaning, and home laundering washing powders and liquids can also cause skin irritations. Dirty wool knits, and those containing cat dander and dust mites can also be problematic. Make sure your garments are regularly cleaned with mild soap and avoid fabric softeners. There are some fabulous wool cleaners on the market (SOAK, Eucalan, and The Laundress Wool and Cashmere Shampoo). Another tip is to wash all knits prior to your first wear. I always wash my finished projects before wearing. There are very few instances where it is necessary to send knits to the dry cleaners. Most knit garments including cashmere can be safely washed at home.

More often wool is just a mild irritant, and by following some simple suggestions, you can still enjoy it’s amazing properties. So indulge is some Merino wool, and whatever you make with it will reward you for years to come.

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