Wool's best the most comfortable of fabrics

4 April 2012

Gone are the days when people’s perception of woollen garments was as prickly and itchy. Objective testing has proven that no other fibre looks, feels or wears like wool, with ultrafine woollen garments outperforming other high-quality fabrics in comfort and softness launching wool into a league of its own.

The Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep Industry Innovation (Sheep CRC), with support from The Woolmark Company, commissioned the manufacture of select ultrafine wool fabrics to provide a set of benchmarks for the measurement of next-to-skin comfort and handle.

And after the testing the four ultrafine woollen garments by 25 wearers, wool was the winner when tested against 44 other fabrics including 100 per cent cashmere and 100 per cent cotton.
Sheep CRC CEO Professor James Rowe said this outcome would be valued by consumers.

“It is the first time that ultrafine knitwear has been shown, using objective testing, to be superior to other natural fibres in terms of functional qualities valued by consumers,” Mr Rowe said.

To manufacture these fabrics four bales of ultrafine wool, between 14 and 15.7 microns, were purchased through normal market channels and then sent to Italy for processing through to fabric. Each bale was processed separately and subsequently converted into garments.

Sheep CRC Program 2 (Next Generation Wool Quality) leader David Tester said the decision to select these wools and convert them to fabric was made because lightweight knitted fabrics of less than 16.5 micron were not readily available to purchase.

“Our research needed fabrics of the best handle and comfort so the only way to get them was to make them ourselves,” Mr Tester said.

“The garments were tested using the CRC wearer trial protocol and the results were used to calibrate the CRC’s new measurement equipment over a wider micron range. Using all the measurement systems for comfort and handle the four garments emerged as being in a class of their own compared to all other fabrics used in the Sheep CRC wearer trials.”

In terms of comfort, softness and smoothness the four ultrafine knitted garments averaged 330 points out of a possible 400, while 100 per cent cashmere scored 308 and pure cotton scored 298 points.

According to Mr Tester the wearer trials, which were not confined to wool knitwear and included pure cashmere, cotton fabrics and synthetics, revealed that we have reached the highest levels of next-to-skin comfort that can be measured.

Wearer trials are slow and expensive ways to get information from consumers. So the Sheep CRC, with the support from The Woolmark Company, has developed the Wool ComfortMeter and the Wool HandleMeter as fabric measurement systems to provide quick and accurate measurements.

The Wool Handle Meter can provide a prediction for a range of fabric handle attributes such as softness and smoothness and will be used in the wool supply chain for product development, quality assurance and quality control. How a garment feels is critical for first impression when a customer tries on an item and this technology will provide knitters and retailers with the ability to better target and specify wool knitwear handle and ensure consistent quality to the consumer.

The Wool Comfort Meter gives a value that relates to the perception of comfort in next-to-skin garments. Comfort is a key feature of customer satisfaction and this tool will help bridge the gap between the negative “itchy” associations with wool and foster the development of new wool knitwear markets.

The expected result will be a technology that will underpin the development of new products, increase demand for fine Australian wool and hopefully widen the proportion of the Australian clip currently supplied to the next-to-skin knitwear market.