I used to think I didn't like wool. I pictured a scratchy and stiff wool sweater against my bare skin, and shuddered. That's before I found out two things: 1) there are many kinds of wool, some very soft and pliable and 2) wool is amazing!
Wool is a breathable fabric, providing light insulation for warmth in the winter and to help keep you cool in warmer temperatures. It can absorb up to 30% of it's weight in moisture without feeling wet (ever sweated in a cotton t-shirt? blech). I've worn a wool sweater I made for myself on rainy days, and dashing into the store and back out through the rain results in no heaviness, no chill from damp, just comfortable warmth.
If you've bought synthetic exercise clothes, after a while you've learned about the dreaded stink problem. The synthetic fibers hold onto sweaty odors even after washing. Wool does the opposite. Because of the nature of the crimp in the fibers, dirt stays on the surface and odors don't penetrate. Never use strong soaps or bleach on wool, because that will make the fibers stiff and you lose some of wool's magic. Gentle detergents will wash away any dirt and keep some of the oils that make wool so soft and water repellent.
Wool is also naturally fire retardant. Wool is renewable and doesn't require killing an animal. Wool is naturally resistant to mold and mildew. It also doesn't collect static, which means less dust and allergens in the fabric.
Wool felts, which is pretty cool if that's your plan, very sad if it isn't. Felting means that the fibers cling to each other in fear (paraphasing EZ), making for a thick and firm fabric much smaller than the original unfelted item. Here's a pair of felted slippers I made:
When one is knitting, wool is the bomb. It has a little stretch to it, and is comfortable to your hands. After knitting with 100% cotton or linen (no stretch at all!), you appreciate the softness and comfort of wool even more! And acrylic yarn feels all plasticy, a bit like the plastic coated rope used to make clothesline. It is fine in its place, but for anything next to the skin, I'd prefer at least some wool content.
What about a wool allergy? From my reading online (i.e. not a wool allergy expert here), it sounds like the lanolin in the wool can cause an allergy, which is fairly rare. Those people would also be allergic to lotions and makeup with lanolin in them. Many people who say they have a wool allergy have had an itchy sweater experience instead. Maybe some fine merino would be in order? Some people do develop a rash and hives and all that, so I don't mean to discount a real problem, but again, it's fairly rare.
If you are just unsure about wool, give it a try. It's great for sports, outdoors activities, and keeping warm, but also for luxurious softness and high style. It takes dyes well, and rich, amazing, vibrant colors exist. Here's a picture of a wool sock yarn I just bought:
And there are superwash wools out there. They are coated with some magic material that allows them to be thrown in the washer and dryer. Pretty cool stuff, which I like for baby and kids knits, because it's just easier. One thing I've learned with superwash, though, is that the object will grow a bit because the fibers don't grab each other as much, so after wearing your hat or socks or whatever, you might find it's loose on you. It will tighten back up after washing and drying, but this quality is unique to superwash wools only. Just a little tip if you are handwashing and lying flat to dry: your hat might fit a melon after a while!
Regular wool that isn't superwash can be washed by hand, which isn't too big a deal. I use Soak or Eucalin, which comes in nice scents. Just fill a bowl with lukewarm water, add a cap of the wash, wet the item and let it soak for 20 minutes, then rinse once in the same temperature water (no agitation or wringing). I lay it out flat to dry, or shape it over a bowl or styrofoam head (doesn't everyone have one of those?). Washing doesn't need to happen very often for hats or outerwear, as dirt doesn't penetrate. I will let things hang outside to air out occasionally, and that is always nice.
So, yes, wool is a pleasure to knit, a pleasure to wear, lovely, and practical. If you look at my Etsy shop, you will see that I often use at least some wool content in the things I make. And oh, don't get me started on Alpaca: yum!
Any thoughts or questions about wool? Feel free to share in the comments!