The dark side of animal materials part 1: Wool

In a time in which small environmental footprints and ethical work conditions are being demanded from manufacturers, more and more designers and material clients believe we should also be aware of animal well-being when it comes to material resources. In this series, we discuss issues you might not (want to) know about these great materials, but should when selecting materials. Today: wool.

Sheep’s wool
As a material, sheep’s wool is amazing. It’s highly durable, fire- and water resistant, thermally and sound insulating, recyclable, anti-bacterial, renewable and biodegradable. Wool has been used by humans since 10.000 BC.

Inherently, there is nothing wrong with wool. Sheep are shorn and can the rest of the time be left alone to do what sheep do best. Wild sheep shed their winter coat naturally, but domesticated sheep have been bred to have an unnaturally thick coat that never stops growing, so they need to be shorn. A thick coat is also too warm (ever worn a woolly jumper in the middle of summer?) and can attract insects, which can lead to irritation and infections. A skilled shearer takes about two minutes to shear a sheep, leaving max. a few nicks similar to shaving cuts. When treated well, sheep shouldn’t be too bothered by it.

However, in wool farming, animal welfare is often not the main concern, but rather the highest possible yield. The farmers are paid by weight, which means the more wool, the more money. And to get more wool, the shearing process is sped up. The animals can be starved to keep them weak, beaten and dragged around by their tails. They are also often castrated or treated without anaesthetics, and sprayed with insecticide.

Merino wool
One of the most famous types of sheep is the merino sheep. Thanks to its many skin creases, a sheep can produce about five kilograms of wool per year. Merino wool is popular because it has a fine texture that doesn’t itch when used in clothing. However, the backside of the sheep can get dirty from urine and faeces, which attracts insects that lay eggs in the skin creases. This is painful for the sheep and can even lead to its death. To prevent this from happening, many Australian farmers, who produce 80 per cent of the world’s merino supply, use mulesing on the sheep. This is a process in which some skin is cut off so that no excrement is left in the wool. Mulesing often happens at the same time as castration and cutting off tails, which also happens without anaesthetics.

Cashmere & mohair wool
Cashmere and mohair are types or wool that don’t come from sheep, but from goats, respectively the cashmere goat and the angora goat (no relation to the angora rabbit, see below). Both are prized for their especially soft feel.

The cashmere goat is named for Kashmir, an area in India, Pakistan and China where the goat originates. Its fur consists of two layers, an outer one and an insulating one. The cashmere fibre comes only from in the soft insulating layer. Traditionally, the wool is obtained by collecting it when the goat sheds it naturally, or by combing. In this process, the animals are often treated roughly. Because of the increased demand for cashmere, the herds are becoming bigger, eating the meadows bare. In non-Asian countries, the goats are shorn. Animals with a less than perfect fur are often killed.

Mohair is a soft fibre that is prized for its silky shine. Unlike sheep’s wool, the material’s scales are underdeveloped, which means it doesn’t felt. Mohair grows in a single coat, which means the material does not have to be separated, as is the case with cashmere. The coat is shorn twice a year.

Angora wool
Angora wool comes from the angora rabbit, which has an especially long coat because of a genetic mutation. The fur keeps growing and needs to be trimmed every once in a while. Angora hair falls out go relatively easily. If left to its own devices, the rabbit will ingest too much hair, which will get stuck in their intestines, a condition that will kill them eventually. Therefore, an angora rabbit cannot survive in the wild.

The soft wool is used often in the clothing industry. Ninety per cent of angora wool comes from China, and only the female rabbits are used, as the males do not produce as much fur and are therefore often killed just after birth. The rabbits in these farms are not shorn or combed, but plucked alive every three months for two to five years.

Cruelty free wool
Following horrific footage from animal rights organisation PETA of a few farms in South Africa, some of the world’s biggest fashion retailers vowed to stop selling clothes made with mohair wool. In 2013, the same thing happened with angora wool.

Of course, going wool free is one solution, but wool has certain qualities that other materials can’t replicate. In addition, plastic materials are not a sustainable alternative either, nor animal friendly on the long term.

So where can we get cruelty free wool? There are several labels out there to guarantee the humane treatment of animals for wool production. The International Wool Textile Organisation (IWTO) has produced a list of specifications for wool sheep welfare, stating that sheep should be free from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain, injury and disease, from fear and distress and they should be free “to express normal patterns of behaviour”.

If you want to use wool, it’s best to choose an organic source. The animals are not treated with pesticides or mulesing. In addition, the wool itself is washed with natural soap, rather than toxic chemicals and is often dyed with vegetable dyes. Certifications to look for include Animal Welfare Approved (US) or Responsible Wool Standard (global). For angora, mohair and cashmere wool, look for a cruelty free label, guaranteeing that the wool is either shorn humanely, or obtained by gently brushing the animals.

If you who want a plastic free as well as an animal free alternative for wool, students from Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá in Colombia developed Woocoa, a natural, plant-based alternative to wool. The material is made from coconut fibre, hemp and fungi.

Coconut fibre is abundantly available as agricultural waste, while hemp is a fast growing and sustainable plant. However, the two together don’t feel like wool. The students found they could use oyster mushroom enzymes to degrade lignin, organic polymers that make plant cells hard and rough. This makes the coconut fibre and hemp much softer and feel more wool-like. It also removed their natural colours, so that the material can be dyed more easily. The material won the PETA Prize for animal free wool during the Biodesign Challenge 2018.

Photos: Ogiyoshisan / Jan-Mallander / Jean Beaufort