Wool: The Survival Fiber

By Compatriot Howard Thomas

If one traces the development of civilization through the middle East and
Europe, the parallel between those early lifestyles and the possible life of 
the survivalist family in the future can hardly be avoided. The early nations 
lived by agriculture, wood and brick architecture (if any), and by manufacture 
of their own clothing. Almost invariably the clothing of first choice was wool.

What made wool the first choice of fiber for early people makes it the most 
logical choice for a family in a long-term survival situation in the future.

1) Sheep are cheap to keep. They can live in a wide variety of climates, from 
the semi-desert, arid regions of Lebanon and Israel to the cold, damp areas of 
Scotland and Ireland. They need only grassy or shrub-like vegetation for normal 
summer and spring forage, and they thrive quite well on hay during the winter 
months. They reproduce readily in tended situations, since they have been 
staple farm animals for thousands of years. Finally, they produce two benefits 
for their owners in the forms of wool and meat.

By comparison, cotton requires large amounts of land and a great many 
people-hours of work to grow, gather, and process. Cotton is also inedible. 
The Scots and Australians have raised sheep on a strongly individual basis for 
centuries. The American southern cotton empire by contrast required huge amounts 
of slave or tenant farmer labor to maintain a reasonable income.

2) Wool is a readily processible fiber compared with other natural textile 
materials such as cotton, flax, or silk. It can be hand spun without a great 
deal of skill required, and rudimentary textile equipment for hand manufacture 
is easy to construct. Fine wool in open weaves is about equally as comfortable 
as cotton in summer wear, and almost nothing else comes close to the warmth 
retention properties of heavy wool fabrics for winter use.

Getting Started in the wool business

For practical purposes, the inexperienced shepherd can expect to shear the 
flock only once per year, although high yield, large production operations 
today shear twice per year. It goes without saying that the shearing time is 
late spring on the once per year format and mid spring and late summer for the 
twice per year shearings. The animals have those coats for a purpose, and it's 
best not to interfere with Nature's plan if you want the sheep to stay with you.

It is an anomaly of wool that naturally short fiber is also fine fiber, and 
longer fibers are coarse. This means that the very long wool varieties of sheep 
should be raised for winter goods. (Coarse fiber yields coarse yarns, which 
make bulky goods.) Shorter wool fiber can also be used for heavy goods, but 
it's a waste of the fiber's natural capacity to yield high strength even in 
fine yarns. Overall, if you are going to raise only one variety, opt for the 
short, fine wool type. They're more useful year round.

A pair of stout (12"+ long) scissors will work for shears at first. Shearing is
tricky to perform, and humane methods require that the sheep not be shorn too 
closely at first. Their skins can be mistaken for bunched up wool.

The best wool is on the back, shoulders, and the upper head. The worst quality 
is at the tail and rear legs. They call the unwashed wool state "in the grease",
but trust me, it ain't grease making the stuff feel and smell that way.

This brings up the point of preparation. Wool must be washed thoroughly before 
it is useable. In some situations, the sheep farmers make their own soaps of 
potassium hydroxide and fats. Extreme caution must be taken to ensure that the 
soap is not too alkaline (base) in nature, since wool is a protein fiber which 
dissolves readily in bases. Fortunately, the fats to be used will probably be 
of agnusine origin, so the molecular attraction of the lipidic groups will be 
enhanced. (It's good to use sheep fat to make the soap, because sheep fat will 
wash out sheep stuff better.) NEVER use chlorine bleaches on wool; even 
perborate (clorox 2 type) bleaches are not good to use. When the wool has been 
thoroughly cleaned, it must be gently air dried before it can be processed.

Spinning wool into yarn

Processing begins by carding the wool. For home-type operations, hand cards can 
be bought at many hobby shops. If these are unavailable, then wire dog brushes 
can be altered to make hand cards. The important thing is that the wire must be 
bent at an angle away from the brush surface. Carding takes place when the 
wires from one brush are passed over wool on wires on another brush. the 
wires must all be pointing in the same direction. A single pass in the 
opposite direction to the point is made each time. A back and forth motion is 
useless, since opposing wires would strip off the fibers. The carding operation 
parallels and further cleans the fibers. The more you do it the finer the yarn 
can be when you make it and the less grass, leaves, dirt, etc. you will have in 
the fibers.

Carded stock can be spun. Spinning does not require a wheel, although it's nice 
to have one. The wheel simply keeps the spindle moving. The real spinning is 
done with the hands. Wool has a wonderful natural friction about it, and only 
a little twist will hold it together. The spinner must judge how fine the 
desired yard will be by pulling out the fibers and twisting simultaneously. 
This takes much less practice than one might think. Most craft fairs allow the 
inexperienced to try spinning firsthand, and it is a worthwhile endeavor.

Spun yarn can be wound onto a circular paddle frame resembling old sternwheeler 
steamboat paddles. This frame is called a skein winder; a skein being a measure 
of yarn length equal to 120 yards. The amount wound onto the frame does not by 
any means need to be 120 yards long, but the longer the wool wound, the more 
will be available for fabric formation.

At this point yarns may be dyed, but this is optional, since dyeing can take 
place in the fabric stage or even at the garment stage.

A final word of advice about wool spinning is that the spinner needs to consider 
end use. For basic survival purposes, fashion is not a consideration, so plan to 
spin yarns as finely as possible for summer use. (Hold the tension higher, but 
more constant than with thick yarn.) Large, fluffy, soft, bulky yarns are 
wonderful for knitting heavy sweaters, scarves, and socks. These are made much 
more quickly than thin yarns since less twist and pulling is required, but the 
raw stock is used up more quickly for these yarns.

To be continued. Next Fabric Formation and Dyeing.