Recycled Wool Fabric: A Story of Sustainability and Waste Reduction
The fashion industry is steadily moving towards a more sustainable future – and fibers like wool are no exception. While wool is a relatively eco-friendly textile already, its environmental footprint can be lessened even further by utilizing techniques to recycle wool fabrics and garments to extend the lifespan of the fibers and reduce waste.
Why wear wool?
The word “wool” may conjure up thoughts of stuffy, old-fashioned, itchy garments – but today that couldn’t be further from the truth. Techniques to produce wool fabrics have improved immensely over the years, and modern wool is higher quality, extremely versatile, and comfortable to wear.
Wool is shorn from sheep once a year and helps to regulate the sheep’s body temperature in all kinds of weather, and it can do the same for you! It’s an extremely insulating textile in cold temperatures, helping to trap body heat within the fibers to keep you warm. Plus, when the weather warms up, you can continue wearing your lighter weight wool garments – they are breathable and will help to wick sweat away from your body and evaporate it off.
The versatility of wool is remarkable: it can be perfect for anything from knitted, light-weight casualwear to heavy, weather-resistant outerwear.
Virgin wool vs recycled wool: what’s the difference?
“Recycled wool” and “virgin wool” are two terms floating around the textile industry that may be confusing, but the difference is actually quite simple.
Recycled wool, just as the name implies, is wool that has already been turned into fabric (and sometimes even garments), that has been re-worked into another product. Recycled wool will almost always be labelled as “recycled wool” to differentiate it.
In contrast, virgin wool is any wool that has not been recycled. Basically, virgin wool has come directly from the sheep, been spun into yarn, and made into fabric. Sometimes wool will be labelled as “virgin wool,” but most often it is simply labelled as “wool.”
Why is recycled wool more sustainable?
Wool in general is a relatively sustainable fiber, especially when compared to synthetic options such as polyester and nylon. It comes from a natural source rather than a chemical reaction, it’s biodegradable, and it’s extremely durable – a quality wool garment can last for decades and be passed down through generations. Durability of garments is important in reducing textile waste because it limits the need to purchase new clothing.
However, no fiber industry, including that of wool, is completely free of negative environmental impacts. Raising sheep requires fresh water and land to graze, which reduces natural landscapes. In addition, methane released by sheep can contribute to CO2 emissions. These negative effects can be lowered by recycling wool, decreasing the need for additional sheep to produce more wool.
Recycling wool also reduces textile waste and limits chemical use for dyeing. Because the wool used to produce recycled wool fabric is already dyed, specific colors of fibers can be combined into a recycled textile to create the desired hue, rather than bleaching and re-dyeing the fibers.
Methods of recycling wool
These 3 methods are the primary avenues used to recycle wool products and waste:
- closed-loop system: with this method, wool garments and fabric waste are shredded to turn them back into fibers, re-spun into yarn, then woven or knitted into fabric
- open-loop system: with this method, wool garments and other products are broken down and used in other products, usually padding or insulation
- refashioning/reengineering: with this method, wool garments or fabric trimmings are turned into new products in creative ways. For example, a garment may be deconstructed, then resewn in a more modern style, or fabric trimmings and selvedges may be used to weave into rugs.
For the remainder of this article, we will be focusing on the closed-loop system, creating recycled wool fabric from existing wool garments and fabric waste.
Closed-loop system of recycling wool
The closed-loop system of recycling wool garments and textile production waste is a relatively simple concept. When materials to be recycled are received, they are first sorted by color. This is very important as the materials are not bleached, then re-dyed – instead, the desired fabric color is achieved by combining specific colors of source fibers.
Once the pieces have been sorted by color, all non-wool items are removed from the garments. For example: tags, zippers, and buttons.
These textiles are then put through shredding machines to completely break down the materials into raw wool fibers. The fibers are then sorted and bundled by desired color combination, then spun into yarn.
This recycled wool yarn can be woven or knitted to create a new wool fabric, the same way that virgin wool yarn is turned into fabric.
The origins of recycled wool fabric
It is thought that the first person to ever recycle wool garments into new fabric was Benjamin Law, who created the first recycled wool cloth in a mill in West Yorkshire, England in 1813. Recycled wool fabric, made from clothing and textile waste, was cheap to produce and demand started to increase for wool scraps to create recycled fabric in the UK throughout the 19th century.
During the second world war in the 1940s, clothing manufacturing was severely impacted by the economic situation created by the war. In addition, wool was the primary material used in military uniforms worldwide, which led to a shortage of wool for making fabric.
This resulted in strict rationing of all types of textiles, especially wool. It also created an environment where recycling clothing was highly encouraged, and production of recycled wool fabric significantly increased.
Recycled wool fabric today
While recycled wool fabric has its roots in being a cheap way of producing wool cloth in an environment where wool was hard to come by, production techniques today mean that recycled wool fabric is just as high quality as virgin wool fabric.
With the added benefit of being a more sustainable choice when compared to virgin wool fabric, recycled wool may be considered the better option today.
Fabric sourcing: make sure you’re actually getting recycled wool
When sourcing sustainable, recycled wool fabric, it’s important to make sure that the fabric you’re receiving is truly a recycled material and that it was produced in an environmentally friendly way. This is where fabric certifications come in.
There are two certifications that are important to consider when choosing recycled fabrics: the RCS (Recycled Claim Standard) certification and the GRS (Global Recycled Standard) certification.
The RCS certification simply ensures that the content of the fabric originates from recycled sources, allowing you to make a decision on the fabric with the knowledge that it is a recycled wool.
On the other hand, the GRS certification ensures not only that the fabric is recycled, but that it was produced in a sustainable manner that reduces harm, both on the environment and the people involved in the manufacturing process.
Here at FabricSight, we offer a huge selection of recycled wool fabrics, many of which are GRS and RCS certified.
What kind of clothing can you make with recycled wool?
Recycled wool is perfect for any type of clothing you would normally use virgin wool fabric for – and there is quite a range.
A light or medium weight wool is perfect for a button-up shirt. It is a great layering piece that will keep you warm in the cool weather or can be worn on its own with jeans or slacks. Try a simple, rustic cut without extra details or curved elements. This mid-weight mélange recycled wool blend fabric would make an awesome buttoned shirt.
A classic wool suit is also a great choice for woven recycled wool fabrics. Go for earthy tones and keep the cut simple to allow the fabric to shine. This textured recycled wool blend fabric would really stand out made into a traditional suit set.
Heavy weight wool makes for great outerwear – and it can look sophisticated and classy, depending on the fabric you choose. A long, elegant trench coat is always a good look in winter. It can be worn over jeans for a casual style or be used to dress up a chic, fancy outfit. A classic, neutral wool fabric, such as this black and white tweed, is a great choice for a versatile trench coat.
Wool outerwear isn’t limited to sophisticated styles – heavy weight wool is extremely durable and hard-wearing, great for work coats. Try a rustic workwear style – a straight-hemmed, collared work coat with buttons. A very heavy wool, such as this brown recycled wool, coming in at a whopping 367 g/m², will make for workwear that withstands years of intense use.
How to care for recycled wool garments
Caring for recycled wool garments is no different than caring for any wool garment. Most wool garments need to be either dry cleaned or hand washed with cold water.
These days, there are some wool fabrics that can be machine washed, usually with a gentle detergent and using a delicate cycle with cold water. If your wool fabric is machine washable, it should be labelled as such.
For drying, wool should be hung or laid flat to air dry, unless the fabric care label indicates explicitly that it can be tumble dried.
While it may seem inconvenient to have a piece of clothing that can’t be machine washed and dried, the great thing about wool is that it doesn’t usually hold odors, so won’t need washed as often as most garments (especially when it’s worn as outerwear and not against your skin).