Ah, wool: so versatile, so warm, so...itchy? Sure, itchy wool can happen, but don't let one or two bad experiences turn you against this cozy fiber forever. A little knowledge can help.
Smooth wool vs. coarse wool
The itch you feel when you use coarse wool happens when the ends of the wool fiber rub against your skin. It can cause itching and sometimes even a rash. No fun! A coarse wool likely has shorter fibers that stick out, creating that itchy feeling — and there's not much you can do to change that. So your best bet is to wear an underlayer.
Worsted vs. woolen
Wool yarns can be spun in two ways: worsted and woolen. In general, worsted is the smoother, softer choice.
- Worsted: To get a smoother yarn, the fibers need to be long and lie flat alongside each other. Worsted spinning achieves this, with fibers that are all about the same length and run parallel.
- Woolen: Woolen yarns have a variation of long and short fibers that go in different directions, which makes the yarn feel a bit rougher.
Of course, there's much more to be said about spinning, but for itchy-wool purposes, you really just need to know the basics.
Will it itch?
It's not always possible to feel your yarn before you buy it to assess the itch factor. So if you're looking online, merino wool is usually a pretty safe bet. Blends are a good compromise, too. Choose wool that's blended with fibers that you know to be soft and silky (silk is an obvious choice here, but also think alpaca, angora, cashmere, etc.). The combination of fibers will help reduce the itch factor. Superwash wool is often softer than it's non-superwash counterparts, but a word of warning: it may not act the same in your finished garment. You know where this is going... swatch first!
According to Devon Fine Fibres, a farm producing cashmere, mohair and wool, the key to choosing wool is quality. Not all merino wool is going to be high-quality and itch-free, so buying from reputable yarn companies is also a good idea.
Maybe the yarn isn't to blame!
There are other factors besides the coarseness of fiber that can make you itchy, and most of them have nothing at all to do with being allergic to wool.
- Temperature: Obviously you won't be wearing a wool sweater in the middle of summer. But if it's winter and it's hot in the room, that can make your sweater more itchy.
- Skin conditions: If you already have a skin condition such as eczema, you're probably more likely to itch, even if you're wearing a high-quality wool.
- Thick vs. thin skin: Thin-skinned wool wearers are more likely to feel a prick than someone who has thicker skin. That's why choosing wool for babies — who traditionally have much thinner skin than adults — requires extra care.