Wool: Allergies vs Sensitivities

Most knitters truly enjoy shopping for yarn. However, when you or whomever you are knitting for has a “wool allergy”, this usually fun experience can become quite frustrating. Because of the many valuable properties of wool, yarn from this fiber is highly preferred by knitters and crocheters. At least some wool is present in a large proportion of the available yarn; avoiding wool or wool blends significantly limits your yarn selection options.

But according to allergy studies conducted at the Massachusetts General Hospital, only about 6% of the people tested for allergies were actually allergic to wool. This is a much smaller percentage than most people think. A true wool allergy can result in a rash on face, hands, and arms. That itchy-scratchy feeling some people experience when they come in contact with wool fibers is actually a “sensitivity.”

Did you know that wool fiber is actually very similar in chemical make up to that of human hair and nails? The difference lies in the physical nature of the wool. Wool’s natural function is to keep sheep warm and dry; this is accomplished with a thick fiber (the warm part) and a kind of microscopic “scale” to shed water and permit breathability (the dry part). These are exactly the properties that make wool so preferred by knitters and crocheters!

IMG_7050To reduce sensitivity and avoid feeling itchy when wearing or working with wool, choose a wool with a finer fiber and fewer scales. There are lots of sheep out there, and they all produce their own unique fiber. Various processes employed by yarn manufacturers can also reduce the number and sharpness of the wool scales. For instances, most superwash wools are less scaled, thus smoother and less itchy. Wool blends, where the final yarn contains both wool and one or more companion fibers (silk, bamboo, linen, cotton, etc.), also have fewer scales since there’s less wool overall. You can also give your wool a gentle bath with your hair conditioner to reduce the potential irritation caused by the scales.

Knowing the difference between a true wool allergy and a sensitivity is your first step toward enjoying wool. Next, learn how to choose a yarn that complements your project and will create the final fabric you want. We can help with this step. Knowing how to minimize or even avoid triggering a sensitivity opens up a myriad of possibilities when shopping for yarn; you are no longer limited only to yarns without wool. After all, you deserve as many choices as possible as you make your selection to meet the aesthetic, function, care requirements, and desired knitting or crochet experience as you undertake your handmade art.