In this article, we’ll share everything you need to know about the best non-wool fabrics used for clothing.
There is something appealing and luxurious about pulling on your favorite sweater when the weather cools down. It’s comfortable and comforting.
When you hear “wool” your first thought is usually sheep wool. While it’s versatile and the most common knit or suit fabric, it isn’t necessarily the warmest or most luxurious.
There are a number of other animals, including goats and camels, whose coats also make great fabrics for both suits and sweaters.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the best alternatives to wool and examine the characteristics of each material.
The 6 Best Wool Alternatives
Here are some awesome wool alternatives that are good to know…
Camel Hair: Distinctive
Camel hair yarn comes from Bactrian (2-humped) camels. Most live in the Mongol Steppes, although they can also be found in Turkey, China, Siberia, Australia and New Zealand.
Bactrian camels are the result of cross breeding Camelus bactranus that could withstand extreme cold with Camelus dromedius from Syria, known for long lustrous hair.
These camels have a double coat: coarser guard hairs and a long, soft lustrous undercoat. The undercoat can be used to make both fabric and yarn while the coarser hairs are used for rugs, carpet backing and insulation material.
There are mentions of camel hair in the Bible, and it has enjoyed several resurgences in popularity throughout history; it was the favorite fabric of English polo players, and you can still find vintage polo coats.
Characteristic of Camel Hair
Camels have very fine hair – 16 microns for young animals and 20 microns for adults. Hair length is from 2.5-12.5 cm long.
While the composition is similar to sheep wool under a microscope, the scales are much less pronounced. They are hollow, so the air-filled matrices in the center allow for heat retention, making camel hair an excellent insulator.
Camel Hair Grades
There are three grades of camel hair:
High quality hairs come from the undercoat and are thin, fluffy and light tan in color. Clothing made from high quality camel hair is fine, soft and supple. It’s rarely dyed.
Medium quality camel hair also comes from the undercoat, but it consists of the longer and coarser hairs.
It can still be used for clothing, but because it has a rougher feel, it’s usually blended with sheep’s wool that has been dyed to match. Only 30% of the harvest is medium and high quality and suitable for apparel.
Low quality camel hair is made from the coarse guard coat. It’s rougher to touch and made from the thick, inflexible fibers. It is used to make carpets and rigid textiles, including interlinings and interfacings. Colors range from tan to brownish-black.
Camel Hair Availability
There are 1.4 million Bactrian camels in the world. 5 pounds of hair can be harvested per camel per year.
The limited supply, as well as the reliance on non-industrialized harvesting and processing practices makes camel hair one of the most expensive types of wool.
However, it’s luxurious, highly insulative, soft and can be made into very thin garments. It isn’t uncommon to see camel hair blended with cashmere.
Collecting & Processing
Camels shed their coats every spring. Clumps will fall off naturally to be collected either by a “trailer” (a man who follows behind the caravan collecting it), or it’s sheared. If camels are sheared, the area over the hump is left long because it increases disease resistance.
Once collected, the hair is cleaned to remove impurities, carded, spun into yarn, and washed once again. Because the best camel hair comes from Mongolia and is collected by nomadic tribes, very traditional tools and processes are still used.
This means that there are very few harsh or caustic additives. High and middle grade camel hair is rarely dyed, but if it is, natural dyes are used.
Alpacas are a domesticated member of the camel family native to the high Andes Mountains of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and northwestern Argentina.
They live in locations with wild temperature fluctuations on a daily basis (from -4°F to over 70°F) so it was necessary to develop a coat that was a good thermal regulator to keep them warm at night while allowing them to stay cool during the day.
They are related to llamas, which are larger and used as beasts of burden. Alpaca wool has been used for over 9,000 years, although the animals were domesticated 5,000 years ago. Incan royalty dressed in alpaca fabric.
Huacaya Alpaca & Suri Alpaca
There are two species of alpaca whose wool can be made to create clothing. Huacaya alpaca have soft, wavy hair. They are larger and fluffier or fuzzier looking.
Because their wool naturally crimps, it’s more elastic. When woven, it has a wavy appearance and is often used to create soft airy yarns for knitting.
The Suri alpaca appears shaggy. Their hair grows in long pencil-like locks. The strands are silky and lustrous and better suited for weaving rather than knitting. Approximately only 10% of all alpaca are Suri.
Alpaca Wool Characteristics
Alpaca fibers are 8-12” long, hollow and measure between 12-40 microns. As well as being a great insulator, it is among the lightest and strongest natural fibers known.
The most expensive wool comes from young animals whose hair has a smaller diameter. There are several grades of alpaca available:
- Premium baby alpaca (Baby Royal) – 1% of total harvested
- Baby Alpaca – 15% of total harvested
- Super Fine Alpaca – 30% of total harvested
- Course – 50% of total harvested
Alpaca wool is often blended with sheep wool and other natural or synthetic fibers to make socks, hats, sweaters and other clothing items.
Alpaca Wool Availability
There are over 3.8 million alpaca in Peru, accounting for 87% of the world population. They are also raised in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
Even though 4,500 tons of alpaca fiber is produced in Peru, this is only 1/3 of the amount of cashmere harvested.
Alpacas make good herd animals because they graze on the tender shoots of grasses and plants – leaving the roots so plants can easily regenerate.
Even high-quality alpaca hair is fairly affordable at $2-4 per ounce. Alpacas have more than 20 natural colors including white, fawn, brown, gray and black.
Collecting & Processing
Alpacas are sheared in the spring once the hair reaches the desired length. Most is done by hand with scissors so the animal isn’t harmed.
The coat comes away in a single large mat that is then carded, and spun into yarn. It’s washed with non-toxic agents after spinning to remove any impurities and then air-dried. Alpaca absorbs dye easily and is hand washable.
One of the great advantages of alpaca is that it lacks the greasy lanolin coating and prominent scales of sheep wool. The absence of lanolin means that people who have skin sensitivities will not react to alpaca the same way that wool will make them itch.
The lack of lanolin and significant scaling also means that fibers hang in glossy strands so it can be processed into yarn without complicated scouring. Also, clothing doesn’t hold on to dust so it stays cleaner, longer. Alpaca is softer and more durable than sheep wool.
In addition to being highly breathable, great at retaining body heat yet good at wicking moisture, alpaca has a few additional characteristics. It’s wrinkle and water-resistant, has low static electricity, doesn’t pill like cashmere or wool, and is naturally flame-resistant.
Vicuna: Elusive & Expensive
The smallest member of the camel family, vicunas, are related to alpacas and llamas. They are only 2½ -3’ tall and weigh 75-140 pounds.
They are shy animals living at an elevation of 12,000-16,000’ near the snowline of the Andes Mountain.
Historically, the only way to harvest their hair was to kill them. Their numbers were depleted to the point that they were placed on the endangered list.
Today, only live animals can be sheared and fabric made from vicuna has only recently become available again.
Vicuna Hair Characteristics
Vicuna fibers are very fine – only 6-12 microns in diameter (twice as fine as sheep wool and finer than cashmere). Colors included red-brown, light tan, and yellow-red.
The coat grows in two layers: a coarse long bristly overcoat, with a fine short dense undercoat. The undercoat is downy with tiny interlocking scales that trap air in an ultra-lightweight insulating pocket.
Because only 4 ounces of fine fiber and 8 ounces of less choice fiber can be sheared from each animal, there is a very limited supply. Its current price is more than $200 per pound for raw fiber.
A vicuna scarf from Loro Piana costs more than $4,000 (although you can find them for under $2,000) and sport coats start at $18,000.
However, in addition to its exclusivity, a vicuna garment provides soft luster, strength, great warmth and unparalleled luxury. Other producers of vicuna clothing include Kiton (sport coats starting at $21,000 ) and Zegna.
Like cashmere, mohair is produced from goat hair. The Angora goats originated in the mountains of Tibet, and its wool was known in England as early as the 8th century.
Today, South Africa produces 50% of all mohair.
Mohair is composed mostly of keratin, the protein found in hair, horns and the skin of all mammals. It has scales like wool, but they aren’t fully developed.
Because the scales are merely indicated and not fully formed, mohair won’t felt like wool will. You often find it blended with wool because mohair’s smoothness helps wool hold its shape and stick together during the spinning process as well as being stronger than wool fibers.
Mohair is not as fine as some other animal coats. It’s between 25-45 microns. The width increases as the goat ages.
Sheared twice a year, each goat produces a total of 11-17 pounds of hair. Angora goats have a single layer coat that grows in uniform locks. The natural grease and dirt are removed before processing.
Advantages of Mohair
Mohair is very soft, elastic, durable, resilient and it blends well with other fibers. It has the expected insulating, moisture wicking, flame-resistant and crease-resistant properties as other fibers.
What makes mohair outstanding is its high luster and sheen. It takes dye exceptionally well so many mohair yarns are in vivid, saturated colors. They reflect the light, giving mohair clothing its distinctive look.
Cashmere: The Standard of Luxury
Several different breeds of goat can be used to create cashmere: the Zalaa Ginst white goat, the Capra Hircus goat from the Tibetan plateau, or the Pashmina goat from the Himalayas in Mongolia.
All come from extremely harsh climates where temperatures can dip below -30°C.
While cashmere was once the epitome of a luxury fiber, today there is a wide range of price points and it’s blended with a wide variety of other fibers including wool, silk and even cotton.
A sweater can range from $30 to $2,000. Price is determined by the quality and quantity of cashmere used.
The best cashmere goods are produced by Italian and Scottish mills from Mongolian raw materials. Cashmere (and cashmere belnds) can also be used to create luxury suiting.
Cashmere Characteristics & Quality
Goats have a double layer of hair: thick, wiry guard hairs and a soft, fine undercoat that measures 13.6-19.2 microns.
Cashmere comes in several different grades or qualities:
Grade A is 14-16.5 microns thick & 42mm long. It is harvested only by combing which preserves the health of the animal.
Grade B is 19 microns and 34mm long. It’s harvested by shearing. Because the guard hairs are sheared at the same time, it requires more washing during finishing stages to achieve maximum softness.
Grade C is 19-30 microns and 28mm long. Due to the fibers being shorter and thicker, they are scratchier and more prone to pilling.
Sheep yield over 6½ pounds of wool yearly, while goats yield only 7 ounces. The hair of 2-6 goats is needed to make one sweater.
Compared to sheep wool, cashmere is 3 to 8 times more insulating while being lighter weight, softer and less itchy.
Longer fibers help the fabric maintain its structure and keep its integrity for a longer time. Cashmere is naturally elastic and resilient with rapid wrinkle recovery.
Cashmere goats come in a variety of colors: white, browns and blacks. The hair from white goats is the most desirable even though it is resistant or even repels many dyes.
Fibers are dyed first then aerated to keep from clumping. They are carded after the dye process and then graded. Cashmere must be treated very gently throughout processing.
In addition to the quality of individual hairs, cashmere quality is also determined by the weaving process. Single strands of yarn can be used, or it can be twisted together to form 2, 3, 4 or more ply yarn.
Single ply is the weakest and thinnest and is more prone to holes. Better quality sweaters have 2-4 ply construction.
Don’t be misled into thinking that 4 ply is always better than 2 ply. It’s merely thicker and warmer. True quality is still determined by the initial quality of the length and fineness of the cashmere fibers (grade).
Determining Cashmere Quality
There are several ways to test the quality of cashmere if you don’t see a grade label anywhere:
Touch the material. It should be soft and not scratchy. Beware fabric that immediately feels too soft. It might have been treated with chemical additives which will ultimately reduce the longevity of the garment.
Keep in mind that garments will naturally soften over time. If you gently stretch the garment, it should spring back into shape.
You can check for pilling by gently rubbing your hand over the fabric. If it starts to pill, you have an inferior quality garment. The pilling is caused by short, uneven length fibers.
Hold the garment up to the light to see if you can look through it. You are looking for a tighter knit/weave that indicates better quality that is less susceptible to holes.
Purchasing a cashmere garment is more confusing than other animal wools. Fiber quality and manufacture (ply or blending) must be considered. Many items are mislabeled and actually contain very little cashmere.
Ultimately, you want the longest and finest fibers that will ensure a soft, warm, luxurious and long-lasting investment.
Qiviut: Warm & Expensive
Qiviut is the name of yarn made from musk ox wool. Musk ox are more closely related to goats than bison or cows. They live in the extreme north where temperatures can reach -80°F.
There are 150,000 animals spread among Alaska, Canada, Russia, Norway and Greenland. At one time it was extinct in North America, but was reintroduced in Alaska in 1935.
Today there are two Alaskan farms that commercially produce yarn from a few thousand animals.
The soft, fluffy undercoat is released all at once, every year. It is either brushed out of the musk ox using an afro pick where it can come out as a single giant fleece, or can be gathered from the wild (similar to camels).
If it is exposed to the sun for extended periods of time it can become brittle.
The finest fibers come from female and young animals. It is only 11.3 microns, making it one of the finest fibers available. In spite of the fineness, it’s stronger than sheep wool and won’t pill or felt.
It is unbelievably soft, warm and itch-free. The fibers are very low in grease. Even wet, qiviut will insulate well without any unpleasant odor and doesn’t shrink in warm or hot water.
Qiviut is the most expensive fiber at $35 per ounce, or $560 per pound. There is a very limited supply available, but knitwear such as hats, scarves, mittens and sweaters or yarn can be purchased online from the Alaskan farms or various Etsy sellers.
Wool is synonymous with winter wear. Sheep wool is the most common and is a good insulator, wrinkle resistant, and versatile.
But there are also great choices available in more exotic fabrications. They offer greater comfort, insulation and luxury.
Explore some of these great options, and remember: there are no baaaaad choices 😉
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