Agriculture 101: Wool


I recently took up a new hobby that I never thought I would enjoy. Knitting. I love the look of hand-knitted scarves and hats and there are so many beautiful yarns available today. My first few projects turned out pretty good, so I took on the challenge of making a full-size and a doll-size scarf and hat set for my daughter and four nieces. Not only would this cross a few Christmas presents off my list, but it also fed my desire to try kitting with fancier yarns. The Christmas gifts are complete, and I am now in love with wool! A scarf knitted with wool or a wool-blend yarn is so soft and warm, and it looks luxurious too.

I thought a lot about wool during my many hours of knitting and realized there was a lot I didn’t know. Does most wool come from the same sheep raised for meat? Do different types of wool yarn come from different breeds of sheep or are they just processed differently? After a little research and a conversation with a wool enthusiast, my questions were answered.

Suffolk sheep

Suffolk sheep

Does wool used for textiles come from the same breeds of sheep raised for meat?

Yes it can, but like cattle, different breeds are preferred for different uses.

There are more than 1,000 breeds of sheep and they are categorized by their primary purpose: meat, wool, or dairy. Although most breeds provide at least two of these products, few breeds excel in more than one. Sheep farmers generally choose a breed and make management decisions that prioritize one product. For example, farmers who raise Suffolk sheep sell the wool, but meat is their primary revenue source.


A Polish Merino Sheep

Do different types of wool yarn come from different breeds of sheep?

Yes. A sheep’s wool can be fine, coarse, elastic, ridged, straight, wavy, shiny or dull.

Length, crimp, fineness and luster are some of the characteristics of wool that vary by breed and affect the look and feel of yarn and other wool products. Wool sheep breeds are classified into four general categories: fine wool , long wool, medium wool and carpet wool.

Fine wool breeds like Merino, produce wool that is very soft, less likely to itch when close to the skin, and makes excellent yarn for knitting. Fine wool is shorter in length than other types, but most valuable commercially because it produces high-quality yarn and wool garments.

Do all sheep produce wool that has to be sheared?

No. Hair sheep are covered with a mixture of hair and wool and naturally shed their coats. They typically do not require shearing. Hair sheep breeds tend to be more disease-resistant and produce high-quality meat and hides. Because of the declining value of wool relative to meat, hair sheep are gaining popularity in the U.S. and abroad.


Where is most wool produced?

Australia reigns supreme in wool, producing 25% of the world’s supply. China ranks second, and the United States, New Zealand and Argentina round out the top five wool-producing countries.

Does all wool come from sheep?

No. Sheep’s wool is the most common, but technically speaking, wool is a category of spun fiber from mammals, generally long-haired ones. Wool can include cashmere and mohair from goats, angora from rabbits, and even hair from camels.

The next time you purchase a new coat, scarf, or sweater, take time to consider and appreciate the beauty and warmth of wool.



Happy in Wool

One thought on “Agriculture 101: Wool

  1. Pingback: Say What? Common Myths in Agriculture | Iowa Agriculture Literacy

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