Have you ever worn a wool scarf or sweater that felt itchy or left your skin blotchy red? Did you assume you must be allergic to wool and that wool would be forever off the table for you? You might be surprised! That itch may not be what you think it is.
Wool allergies can be very real and serious. If you are concerned that you might have a wool or lanolin allergy, please consult your doctor immediately. I am a fiber artist, not a doctor, and offer nothing in the way of medical advice.
Most wool allergies are not to the wool itself. Often, individuals are allergic to lanolin, or sheep grease. Lanolin is used in the cosmetic industry as a moisturizer in lotions and creams. This is where you will most likely have your first run-in with it.
Because lanolin occurs naturally in all sheep wool, any sweater, blanket or scarf made from wool has the potential to still contain some lanolin. It also means that any fiber preparation has the potential to put you in contact with lanolin.
Commercially prepared wool tops are your best bet at finding a lanolin-free preparation. In commercial wool processing, the wool is chemically scoured at high heat, removing both lanolin and vegetation. Smaller mills will process their fiber differently, and sometimes leave trace amount of lanolin in the fiber.
One of my favorite terms to throw around is “prickle-factor.”
This is a term that refers to how prickly fiber feels against your skin. While micron count (the diameter of an individual fiber) doesn’t tell the whole story, it is often a fairly good gauge as to what will feel prickly and irritating to the skin. Anything over 28 microns is often considered to not be next-to-skin soft. Many store bought sweaters are made with cheaper, coarser wool. Sometimes knitters use a coarser wool for luster and waterproofing qualities. This is one of the reasons wool is often considered to be itchy.
If you think you may have sensitive skin and not an allergy, try working with a finer wool. Commercially prepared 19-21 micron Merino is fairly readily available.
If you buy fleece or mill-produced roving, you may find vegetation or vegetable matter in your fiber. Hey, they’re animals and they live in the great out doors. Sorry, they’ve probably been rolling in some pretty gnarly stuff! Depending on what plants grew in or near the pasture, this could cause an allergic reaction. My husband had a very bad reaction to one particular fleece that came from Florida. It wasn’t the wool itself, but ragweed pollen. Once the fiber was thoroughly scoured, I was allowed to bring it back into the house. Keep this in mind if you are prone to pollen or plant allergies and try commercially prepared fiber if you’re not sure.
Assuming you don’t want to take the chance, you are not excluded from the world of fiber arts! There are many synthetic fibers, silks, plant fibers and more! The fiber world is at your fingertips!
My favorite fiber to suggest to non-wool spinners is alpaca. It is soft, warm and has a similar handle to wool, perhaps a bit slicker. It is generally considered hypoallergenic, as it does not contain lanolin. You will find mill or farm produced roving fairly available.
Some of my favorite purveyors of alpaca fiber include: