Luxury Wool and Eco-Friendly ECO WOOL Alternatives

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New to the fashion world? Welcome :) To help catch you up to speed, virtue + vice is offering free mini-courses. We will be releasing a new chapter bi-monthly. The courses will take you from the very first step in the fashion supply chain, textile fibers, all the way through to the finished product in stores. Our first crash course is TEXTILES 101. The fourth topic of TEXTILES 101 is Luxury Wool. Where we explore other wools sources besides standards sheep wool.

Before you buy that discounted, to good to be true cashmere, educate yourself on some of the worlds most sustainable and rare luxury wool in the world.

Remember, not all wool is equal, there are different types of luxury wool. And, a lot of different ways of acquiring it. Always do your research to make sure your wool is sustainable and ethical.

one step above merino

CASHMERE

When we think of luxury wool, the first type people usually think of is cashmere.

cashmere goats himalayas photo credit: PETA

What is cashmere?

Cashmere comes from goats. Literally, almost, any type of goat (except angora).

Cashmere was once the symbol of luxury in the fashion industry. Soft, cozy, and oh so rare luxury wool. That was back when cashmere came exclusively from the Gobi Desert, which stretches from Northern China into Mongolia. Now, cashmere production happens all over the world. For example in America, Feral Australian Goats are bread with Spanish Meat Goats to selectively create animals with optimal fibers for clothing. And, in New Zealand cottage industries are emerging where local farmers specialize in super luxury cashmere fibers.

Goats fleece its made of two different types of fibres, they are the actual cashmere and the guard hair. The guard hair is long, coarse outer coat, and without much crimp - basically useless to us fashionistas. The guard hair protects the undercoat cashmere hair from the elements.

The cashmere underneath the guard hair is what we want for sweaters. It is extremely fine and fluffy.

A single goat can produce about 2.5 pounds of cashmere fleece per year. Cashmere, the high-quality kind, is 6 times warmer than wool.

Where does cashmere come from?

Now, cashmere comes from all over the world. But the best cashmere still comes from the Alashan Plateau. That is because the goats in this area have special coats. These goats grow an extra fine and extra warm cashmere that can be found nowhere else in the world. They have this hair because of selective adaptations that help them live in particularly harsh climates.

Cashmere collection?

First, the animal is shorn. Super ethical brands gather their fibers from nomadic farmers who only brush their animals to collect hair. But, most of the time the animal is shorn with a pair of clippers similar to an electric razor. In the cases of particularly bad farm conditions, the animals are sometimes injured and abused during this process.

Woolen vs worsted

The key to quality.

After the goat is shorn the cashmere must be separated from the guard hair. The first step to separating out the guard hairs is carding. Basically, the fibers are raked through brushes to separate out and align the fibers. If only the first process of carding is done, the yarns made out of these fibers are woolen.

For higher quality cashmere the fibers go through a second process of combing. Combing helps to separate out the finest cashmere fibers. The better quality of combing, the finer the fibers, the better the final sweater. The yarns made out of combed fibers are called worsted.

Are worsted yarns better quality then woolen?

Well, they are more expensive because of the extra processing, and finer quality. But, simply having a worsted yarn does not mean you have a higher quality eco wool fabric.

For example. Tweed specifically requires woolen yarns. If you tried to use worsted yarns the fabric would come out terrible.

On the other hand, gaberdine fabric needs to have worsted yarns to be made correctly.

See… product development is never black or white - it’s combining the right elements at the right time, to create the best product.

How to tell the difference between woolen and worsted?

Woolen yarns are fuzzier than worsted yarns. They are generally knit into things like ski sweaters and blankets because they have better eco wool insulation.

Worsted yarns can make tighter yarns (more TPI, twists per inch). The high TPI gives the finished fabric a more shiny look. High-quality suiting is made out of high TPI fabrics.

Zero waste is built into the system

But what about the guard hair waste?

I can already hear the conscious fashion community now - we need to save the guard hairs from the landfill.

No, you don't.

This is a business, their goal is to make money. When resources go to the landfill, suppliers lose money. And, no business wants to lose money. Please remember, just because you don’t know where something is going, that does not mean it is going to a landfill. Do your research.

Generally, the guard hairs make products like rugs.

How to tell if your Cashmere is high-quality

mongolian goats photo credit: ULA + LIA

Is your sweater made out of luxury wool? Here is how to tell.

100% content

Blends are always cheaper. 100% cashmere is optimal if you are looking for the warmest winter wear.

But, that doesn’t mean that blends are inferior. I personally like cashmere-cotton, or cashmere-silk blends for the spring, and even cool nights in the summer.

How tightly is the fabric knit?

Good quality cashmere will have a very tight, dense knit. Cashmere price is based on weight. So, often brands will try to save money by making sweaters lighter by loosening the knit. Not only does this cheapen the product, but it makes it more prone to snags.

Use the light test

Hold your garment up to the light. Can you see through little holes? If yes, the garment was knit too loose. When you are buying cashmere you don’t want your sweater to resemble swiss cheese.

Stretch test

Stretch the fabric out. If it snaps back, you have a good quality sweater. If the fabrics stay stretched out, or slowly shrinks back, skip it - it wasn’t made to last.

What type of yarn?

2 ply is better than single ply. 2 ply means that two yarns were used while knitting instead of one. If brands are using 2 plies, generally they will advertise it. The same way anyone that uses Egyptian cotton advertises it. It is an indication of quality.

Why is 2 ply better?

2 ply yarns combine 2 very thin, fine, yarns instead of one thick yarn. And, finner yarns generally have finer fibers, which are a higher quality and create a much nicer feel on the body.

Does it pill?

Pills are the little round balls that form on the surface of your sweater. To test if a sweater is going to pill rub your hand up and down a few times. If the sweater starts to look fuzzier, and stray hairs start to poke out, then skip it.

Looking for the best cashmere?

Check out Loro Piana, the 200-year-old Italian company whose name is synonymous with the best you can buy.

Budget cashmere - myth bust

When it comes to cheap cashmere sweaters and accessories you get what you pay for.

Example Uniqlo:

Uniqlo has their own special, super-secret farms where they source their yarn, claiming "they’re no different from the farms used by all of those fancy brands."

What the actual fuck?

A secret farm making budget cashmere - Red flag, the lack of transparency can’t be good.

AND,

The increase in cheap cashmere manufacturing is having global effects beyond China and Mongolia.

“In less than a decade, a deluge of cheap cashmere from China has transformed a centuries-old industry, stripping the plush fabric of its pricey pedigree and making it available in big-box America. Chinese-made cashmere sweaters now go for as little as $19.99.

But behind the inexpensive Made in China tag is something Americans rarely view: the cascade of consequences around the world when the full might of Chinese production and U.S. consumption converge on a scarce natural resource.”

To learn more about the cashmere industries impact on the world, check out this article from the Chicago Tribune.

Why is Cashmere so expensive?

It’s rare, or, it was. But, not as rare as the next few fibers we are going to talk about.

Instead of cashmere try YAK.

Instead of cashmere try an eco-friendly or cruelty-free alternative like- yak, camel, guanaco, mohair, alpaca, and vicuna, and even, sometimes, angora.

YAK

mongolian yak

Yak fiber is still an industry insider secret. This luxury wool is as soft and warm as cashmere but for a fraction of the price.

And the Khangai yak, which is indigenous to Western Mongolia may actually be able to help preserve the country's fragile ecosystems because Yak tends to be much gentler on the ground than goats.

Just like cashmere goats yaks have evolved to withstand the harsh Mongolian desert climate.

If you want to learn more about yak luxury wool, head over to our friends at ULA +LIA. Founder Jon Hetts has been in Mongolia since 2010. A Peace Corps veteran, he has made his home in Ulaanbaatar working with nomadic herders and local yarn suppliers. Currently, their focus on slow fashion, supplying home knitters with high-quality yak yarns.

CAMEL

Bactrian camel

Did you know camels are in the llama family? And, that they can produce some really nice, fine, and long hairs. Exactly what we are looking for when it comes to luxury wool quality. Their hair fibers create high quality, non-itchy, wool products. The camels that produce the best wool come from colder regions like Mongolia. Just like goats that produce cashmere animals that live in the harshest conditions tend to have the best fibers for sweater making.

Camel wool is magic, it can keep you warm and cool.

The secret to camels ability to keep you warm in cold temperature and cool in warm temperatures is in the fibers structure. Camel hairs are actually hollow. This hollow core is perfect for temperature regulation. Camel wool fabric isn't the only luxury wool that can do this, it's just really good at it.

According to camelhug - Depending on the climatic conditions, the air flowing in the hair can both cool you and heat you, making it perfect all year round.

These special temperature controlling properties are a function of survival in the Gobi deserts crazy climate changes. Bactrian camels, specifically have the best luxury wool.

In the desert, temperatures can be extreme. Usually, when we think of deserts we think hot and dry. But, did you know it gets insanely cold at night? Because the days are hot, and the nights are freezing, camel's hair has evolved to help them survive these harsh temperature changes.

Lack of market demand keeps production ethical

Historically, the Mongolian nomads allowed their camels to wander freely. The wool collection takes place during the spring when camels naturally molt. And, generally, the workers gently hand-gather the fibers.

Because camel is not as popular of a fiber as cashmere, the demand is lower, and the supply chain has not become as corrupt as the cashmere trade keeping it eco-friendly. That is not to say that all camel hair is always ethical. It is always important to do your research before buying any wool.

Zero waste

And, just like goats, camels also have a thicker less luxurious guard hair. The guard hair fiber is actually waterproof, so Mongolian herdsmen use it for coats and the outer layers of their yurts.

Is it worth it?

When I buy wool I worry about itch. So, is camel hair itchy? Not really! Camel luxury wool is an investment. When you purchase camel wool you are purchasing something that will last you a lifetime. And, something that you can wear in different climates (that should make packing for your next trip a lot easier). As an added bonus, pilling is minimal because of the extra long fibers. So, your sweater will look as sharp 20 years from now as the day you bought it. If you are interested in trying out camel wool products try one of these camel wool blankets, camel coats, or even pillows. 

GUANACO

guanaco in nature photo credit: national geographic

The guanaco is another relative of the llama native to South America.

Guanacos live in Ecuador and Colombia all the way to Patagonia. They roam the countryside, wild, and require very little food or water compared to other animals. So, they have a very small environmental impact.

Guanaco fibers are softer than wool, but they are not as soft as the domesticated alpaca. They are still a luxury wool fiber though. What they lack in softness (they are still really soft) they make up for in sustainability.

Is guanaco ethical?

Guanaco populations are relatively low because of overhunting for their meat and wool. Today, there are only approximately 500,000 guanacos living wild in South America. Because of their low numbers, they are on the endangered species list.

Guanaco is not bread or domestic. To use their wool they must be captured, shorn, and then released back into the wild. Fiber gatherers work with great care, so as not to harm the animals.

To ensure your guanaco is sustainable check for an Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) certification. Products that have CITES certification are legal and guarantee ethical and sustainable fibers.

MOHAIR

angora goat photo credit: hobby farms

Mohair comes from angora goats, not to be confused with angora rabbits. South Africa is the largest producer of mohair, followed by the United States (mostly Texas).

What's it in?

Angora mohair is mostly in men's suiting because the fibers create fabrics that are extremely strong and wrinkle resistant. Woven fabrics made with mohair tend to have a nice sheen to them. Mohair is also sometimes in knits, like sweaters and scarves. But, these products have a much denser and stiffer feel then say cashmere so they are not as desirable. 

Unethical practices

This video produced by PETA is graphic...

Dehorning

Baby goats undergo dehorning when they are 1-2 weeks old. The process involves burning their horns off with a hot iron, or with caustic chemical paste. This paste can cause burns and even blindness.

Mohair Banned

Because of PETA’s expose, many brands like H&M, Zara, and Gap banned the use of mohair.

Sustainable fibers

Instead of mohair try alpaca.

ALPACA

alpaca with fluffy hair

(and their even less popular cousin LLAMAS)

Thank you the internet for making alpacas cool - like this list of 25 alpacas with the most amazing hair.

Alpaca is one of the oldest domesticated animals in the world. They originate from the Andes region. During the time of the Spanish conquest, alpacas were brought to the higher mountain areas. There, alpacas had to adapt to the colder living conditions by growing thicker and warmer coats.

Where do Alpaca's live?

80% of the worlds 4 million alpacas live in Peru. Because of this most of the alpaca wool on the market is 100% natural Peruvian wool. And, the alpaca fiber industry currently employs more than 120,000 local families in Peru. Here in the states, we often associate alpaca fibers with knit sweaters. But in Peru, they weave the fiber on traditional looms.

What's the best alpaca fiber?

There are four categories of fiber content. The first is baby alpaca. Baby alpaca is the finest hairs. Only 1% of baby alpaca hairs make the cut to become Royal. Royal alpaca hair is the best of the best of baby alpaca, and ultimate in luxury wool. About 35% of the hair is Superfine quality, one grade less than the baby. And, the lowest quality (about 45%) is just Alpaca.

Just like cashmere alpaca is light, breathable, non-itchy and extremely warm.

Are they sustainable?

3 alpacas

The fashion world markets alpaca as a sustainable option to cashmere.  The secret to their sustainability is their large hooves. These hooves have a bigger surface area so they are able to create less damage on the soil while grazing in comparison to other animals like goats.

Alpacas come in about 22 colors. This gives designers a lot of variation to play with without having to use chemical dyes. There is a growing trend in knitwear to forgo chemical dye and create patterns that use only natural colors. 

But, alpaca (like camels) fiber production is still small in comparison to cashmere. Is it only a matter of time until consumers catch onto alpaca and the same destructive issues that are currently happening in China’s cashmere industry take over Peru?

Luxury

VICUÑA

vicuna photo credit: robb report

aka the luxury llama

Vicuñas are the ballerinas of the llama family. They are sleek and tiny (only 150 lbs). Their wool is the best in the world. And, it’s rare. Vicuña only produces about 1 pound of wool per year.

Back during the days of Inca rule, vicuña was only for royalty. But, after the Spanish took over vicuña was no longer protected. By 1964, the vicuña population was down to only about 6,000. Conservation action was taken, and now there is about 350,000 vicuña that lives in South America. Although, they are still an endangered species.

Like with guanaco, wild vicuña are caught and after sheering, are set free back into the wild. Vicuña fiber is so rare and so superior in quality, a custom vicuña suit can reach up to $40,000.

ANGORA

wally the angora rabbit photo credit: Wally the Angora Rabbit

White fluffy, and symbolic of ski bunny fashion. Angora rabbit fiber is one of the most expensive and luxurious fibers out there.

Banned by fast fashion

After PETA’s 2013 campaign giving an inside look to China’s angora production, many retailers put an end to its use. The video shows the torture and mutilation of angora rabbits. Factory workers ripping their fur from their skin. The video was so successful over 100 brands stopped using angora rabbit wool including Clavin Klein, Gap, H&M, Ralph Lauren, Topshop, Uniqlo, and Zara.

The backlash was so quick and so widespread sales of angora rabbit luxury wool decreased globally. In 2010 China exported $23 million of angora, and by 2015, after the release of the video, their exports were reduced to $4.3 million (Italy bought $2.1 million worth of angora rabbit wool in 2015).

Reclaimed by sustainable knitters

If you want to geek out on wool and textiles head over to Tulasi Zimmer’s blog Joy of Handspinning. There Tulasi advocates slow fashion home knitters to raise their own angora rabbits.

“I started raising Angora rabbits because I wanted a source of fiber for my spinning projects. Sheep were out of the question, but I thought I could handle a rabbit. After seeing these darlings for the first time, I couldn’t resist and I ended up adopting four of them.

Angora rabbits are relatively easy to care for. They don’t require vaccinations, and it doesn’t cost much to feed them. Keeping them well groomed is the biggest chore in order to maintain a coat of fur that is matt-free and clean. I wouldn’t recommend adopting an Angora rabbit if you are not willing to take the time to thoroughly brush or blow out their coats at least twice a week. Although, I have found that my German angoras require less grooming, which is why they are my favorite breed.”

Yes! 

I particularly love what Tulasi is doing because I so often see the sustainable and ethical fashion community calling for totalitarian bans on fibers or manufacturing practices. Instead, what we really need is a critical approach to changing the system for the better. Tulasi does this with her slow fashion approach to reclaiming and disrupting an industry.

Rare Finds

chiru luxury wool photo credit: tibetpedia

What's so great about Shahtoosh?

Shahtoosh literally means “king of wools”. Shahtoosh is actually not a type of fiber, but a type of garment. It is a shawl, that is woven with the down fibers of Tibetan antelope, the chiru. The shawl can only be woven by craftsmen and women of Kashmir. And only by special, high skill, master artisans.

The chiru has the finest hairs in the world, about 7-10 microns. These large shawls are so fine you can pass the entire thing through a wedding ring. This is why shahtoosh is also known as a ring shawl.

The buying and selling of shahtoosh shawls are now illegal in most countries.  The chiru is an endangered species under CITES. Sadly, Shahtoosh shawl weaving continues secretly in Kashmir. There is still a very high demand for these luxury shawls. The shawls go for about $5000–6000.

Recently Martha Stewart made headlines, bragging about her shahtoosh shawl.

If you must have one, buy vintage. 

ORGANIC WOOL

What's even more sustainable than all of these options? Organic Wool. Organic wool is made by treating animals without chemicals. You can learn more about the standards for certified organic wool here on the Organic Trade Associations, Organic Wool Fact Sheet.

DIY

Are you a home knitter that is looking to switch up their merino wool yarn stash, or maybe add some variety to their natural wool stash? Here are a few of our favorite. As a reminder, always make sure to hand wash your creations!

Cascade Yarns®, ecological wool® - Cascade eco wool makes one of my favorite Alpaca 100% wool knittings yarns. The yarns come in a variety of yarn weights " Peruvian tones " meaning they are undyed and are the natural color of the animals. One of their most popular colors in night vision, a deep chocolate brown. The wool comes in about 478 yards per hank, and costs about $20. Some sites even offer free shipping.

 

Did we forget a luxury ECOwool? Drop us a line in the comments section, or email us!

 

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