How Wool Works: Understanding the Birth of Fleece

So different, yet each of these types of fleece comes from a sheep's productive little follicles. Photo by Jill Brooke.

Too much information? Not really. But I learned things in Judith Mackenzie’s new video that made me squirm.

The whole thing is fascinating, but the part that was truly a revelation for me was her chalkboard talk on how wool fibers grow, and how they come to be scaly. I’ve known about hair follicles forever, but never really thought about them much. Judith describes each follicle (or follicule, to use her French nomenclature) as a wee protein factory, pumping out liquid keratin–which hardens on exposure to air. As the keratin is pushed up the little tube that leads to the skin surface, it folds back on itself, forming scales. The size and frequency of the scales is determined by the size of the follicle, the size of the tube leading from it to the skin’s surface, and the relationship between them.

Hence you can have scaly fibers emerging from large follicles with relatively small tubes, or smoother, silky fibers (think Lincoln longwool) resulting from small follicles and wide tube. Ponder the myriad forms that wool fibers can be–smooth, rough, crimpy, wavy–and imagine all those little custom-designed keratin factories pumping away.

But what about me?

And that’s where I started getting itchy. I have somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 follicles embedded in my scalp, and so do you. They work to produce my hair pretty much the same way that a sheep produces its wool. Just think about it. My hairs are scaly, and so are yours–you have only to rub them the wrong way and you can feel that resistant texture. Chug, chug, pump, pump. Little follicles at work. Look around a crowded room. It’s happening everywhere. Thank you, Judith.

But wait, there’s more.

Have I made this video sound creepy and weird? It’s not. It is packed with information to give you a deeper understanding of wool, its properties, its potential, its contribution to the history of mankind. I can’t even begin to count all the things I learned, and I’ve been in this business for more than forty years. I didn’t know that the more primitive breeds often have up to five reasonably distinctive coats. Or that the finest Shetland shawls are spun from the neck fleece. (Well, actually I did know that once upon a time, but had forgotten.) Or that at the skeletal level, you can’t tell a sheep from a goat.  Or that Lincoln sheep would do well with semiannual shearings, as the great length their fleece can attain isn’t really very useful.

I don’t know anyone who knows wool better than Judith Mackenzie, her knowledge having been gleaned from decades of working in the industry, and even more decades with her hands in the fiber, sitting at a spinning wheel. Lucky for us that she is happy to tell all, and does it so well.



imageplaceholder Linda Ligon
Founder, Interweave

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