Why not wool?

I’ve never liked the feel of wool next to my skin. It’s too itchy! But I couldn’t understand why vegans didn’t wear it. Sheep need to be shorn, right? And unlike fur, they’re not killed for their wool. Or are they?

A few years ago, after researching about wool, I changed my stance. Wool isn’t welcome in my home.

bleating sheep

Wild sheep grow only enough wool to keep warm (and they can shed it). Domesticated sheep have been bred for their wooly coats and do require shearing. Often, sheep who aren’t shorn before the weather is too hot will die of heat exhaustion. And if they’re shorn too early, they’ll die from exposure. About a million sheep a year die this way.

Sheep, like merinos, are bred to have lots of wrinkly skin (more area to grow wool on). As a result of their wrinkles, they suffer from skin infections. Flies lay eggs in their folds and maggots literally eat the sheep alive. Ranchers have found a way to combat this: mulesing, a process where large strips of flesh are cut off the sheep’s backsides. About 100 million sheep have this process done to them every year–without anesthetic!

Also performed without painkillers: castration, dehorning and tail docking.

Sheep are shorn by laborers who are paid by volume, not the hour. And in their hurry to work quickly, sheep are often rough-handled and injured. And when sheep stop producing as much wool as ranchers need to keep profits up, the sheep are killed for their flesh. In Australia, sheep are often shipped alive to the Middle East so they can be sold and butchered there. Many don’t even survive the cramped, long journey by sea.

In theory, one can raise a few sheep and sheer them humanely. In reality, the scale of operations–farms with hundreds of thousands of sheep–means there isn’t time or resources to care for the sheep. Dead sheep are a cost of doing business. It’s great that sheep aren’t usually confined to factory farm, like pigs, chickens and cows, but they roam land in habitats that they aren’t native to and often destroy habitat for native species. In Australia, some indigenous species are becoming endangered as a result of sheep grazing.

Don’t get fleeced! Whether for carpets or clothing, skip the wool (which is pricy, shrinks, attracts moths, retains odors and isn’t hypoallergenic) and try humane alternatives:

  • Cottonsheep
  • Bamboo
  • Hemp
  • Tencel (biodegradable)
  • PolarTec (made from recycled plastic)
  • Poly fleece
  • Synthetic shearling
  • Rayon
  • Linen



29 thoughts on “Why not wool?

  1. Thanks for the “reality check”…..wool has always made me itchy, more or less…..I suppose more or less depending on the quality and percentage of wool in the garment. I know you won’t wear or even recycle the garments with wool or leather belts which you previously had because people might think you condone such products. I just can not bring myself to not use products that I have already bought and paid for and for which the animals have already suffered. I can’t even assure vegans that I or my wife shall not buy such products for me in the future. In this regard I can only try to be a minimalist. You are always enlightening and give cause for thoughtful reflection.
    Yours in sincerity,

    • You raise a good point. If you can stand wool next to your skin, used wool clothing is a good way to recycle what’s already out there. I know people who buy wool sweaters and meticulously unravel the yarn so they can knit new sweaters. Recycling and upcycling is environmentally friendly!

  2. I can only imagine what horrors people are put through in factories making synthetic fabrics. Synthetic dyes are also extremely toxic as they are derived from coal tar, a by product of petroleum production. Synthetic fibers are not preferable to natural.
    I get what you are saying and I agree that huge sheep ranches don’t do things in a humane way but I do not agree that is the only option for wool. Your assertions about wool are not correct either! Coarse wool is itchy, fine wool is not. Quality matters. Wool does not shrink if it is cared for properly and products made of natural fibers last for generations.. I doubt there are any synthetic fibers that do. Synthetic fibers end up in our landfills.
    My main point however, is about not buying wool. I can’t disagree more. Why does it have to be purchased from a large retailer. There are many ethical and humane wool growers that love their animals and produce high quality yarn and products. I am one of those people. I have raised alpacas for many years and I care very much for them. I treat them well, I do not slaughter (a vegetarian for 30 years). I create lovely, naturally dyed wool products, that are environmentally sound. More people should seek out products that are made in the bio regions in which they live, and make choices that way. I can guarantee that wherever you are there are farmers around with incredible wool and happy, healthy cared for animals.
    People need to be as concerned about where their clothing comes from as they are about where their food comes from.
    Urging people to not wear wool is short sighted. Saying that wool is bad because it is itchy is simply wrong. There are options. Many options.

    • Thanks for your perspective and info. I cannot wear wool–even a small percentage in a garment and I’ll notice. But the feel of it isn’t my main concern. A coat isn’t next to my skin so technically I could wear one. I’m concerned about the conditions of sheep (I didn’t address alpacas in this post, but you show that it’s possible to raise them humanely). If someone can source ethical wool from a place that doesn’t slaughter their animals at the end of their usefulness (like your farm), that’s great! I’m not sure how common farms like yours are though. The majority of people probably shop at department stores and buy coats that are mass produced in factories overseas. Triple whammy: wool, non-local, and subpar worker conditions.

      I’m committed to not using animals in any form, and I’ve found a terrific vegan company (Vaute Couture) that makes coats in the USA from recycled materials. Petrochemicals aren’t environmentally friendly, as you mention. That’s a big part of why I don’t support the leather industry. It’s toxic! There’s still an ecological footprint with raising animals so people have to do their research and choose what’s right for them.

  3. Thank you Jean for your wisdom and compassion! Wool is not welcomed in my house (or on me) either…or leather for that matter. We know better! 😉 Encore merci for all Animals! XO

  4. Do you realize that the colors of the clothing are all derived from coal tar. Synthetic dyes are toxic. If products are artificial and synthetic they are toxic. There are many farms that raise wool bearing animals and do not slaughter. Its too bad that you have not done your research.

    • I’ve chosen to fight against animal exploitation, which is why I don’t wear wool. Humane wool, as you’ve pointed out, can exist on a small scale. We couldn’t say the same thing about, say, humane fur, which doesn’t exist.

      That said, I’m not on a mission to completely remove petrochemicals from my life. Dyes may be synthetic, but lots of things are. The shelves in my fridge, the tires on my car, even the computer I’m using right now are all made from petroleum products. If natural materials exist, great. But my goal, and the purpose of this blog, is to look at ways animals are exploited and eliminate that cruelty.

      • Synthetic dyes and the textile industry cause much of the water pollution on this planet today. Do you think that does not harm wildlife? Humans, most of them in countries where they do not have much choice in the work they do or what they are paid, also suffer greatly because of the toxic synthetic dyes they are working with. Plastics are shed from our synthetic clothing when we wash them and are accumulating on the ocean floor. The oceans and marine life are already in peril, much of this comes from our need for cheap clothing. If you don’t care about how your clothing is made isn’t that the ultimate in animal cruelty. What is going to happen to wildlife when water is so polluted it poisons them?

        • Animal agriculture is the top cause of water pollution, and raising and producing animals and their byproducts uses more water than all other industries combined (and contributes more to global warming than any other sector). People who profit from animals don’t want to acknowledge this though. The most vocal opponents wool-free, fur-free, meat-free lifestyles are those with ties to these industries. The best thing we can do for the animals, people and the environment is to be vegan.

          And yes, avoiding sweatshop-made clothing and non-fairtrade coffee, chocolate, etc. is another excellent step. Caring about all life on the planet is important.

    • Thanks for your comment! It seems that the larger the ranch, the more cruel the treatment. The common denominator is that people want to profit from animals. It always boils down to money. I choose companies with business models that don’t include exploiting animals or using them to make money.

  5. “In theory, one can raise a few sheep and sheer them humanely. In reality, the scale of operations–farms with hundreds of thousands of sheep–means there isn’t time or resources to care for the sheep.” that’s the point. humanity lost respect and well, humanity, towards all living things.

    but the thought goes beyond that. because: petroleum-based fabric… I wonder how animal-friendly those really are. wood fibres (like lyocell and rayon) on the other hand are enviromentally crappy due to the processing.
    I’m admittedly still searching for the ultimate answer what to wear 😦

    • It doesn’t seem like there’s a perfect answer, does it? I stay away from animal products (like you said, even industries that *could* be humane aren’t anymore). Plus, animal agriculture is the biggest source of water pollution. But what’s the best thing? I don’t know. Hemp is a great fiber. Easy to grow, requires no pesticides, and is renewable. Let me know if you find something else!

      • Organic cotton and hemp I guess. Everything else is “stained”. But I have no recipe :/ My biggest hope lies in more independent businesses coming up. People who are from the trade but see that they can’t go on like in the last 30 years, rather go further back and try and cut out the backsides of industrial development: exploitation and pollution. (Of everyone and everything.)

        Fashion industry is a sad picture altogether. Just surfed the greenpeace and the cleanclothes.org websites for updates as I prepare a few checklists for a greener Christmas…
        And if you talk to insiders, they will tell you that ecofair and vegan hardly overlap. Exagerating: You can eiter have organic and fair production – or vegan clothes made from petrochemicals.
        There’s a lot of work ahead.

        • What about the shops on Veganstrasse in Berlin? Can you find clothes that are organic, fair trade, and vegan? I know it’s a tall order and the more adjectives one adds, the smaller the list of acceptable items becomes. Fashion is usually not sustainable, unfortunately. I’m reading a good book called “Overdressed: The shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.” Interesting stuff.

          • Great read! What is also a real eye-opener is “Deluxe, How Luxury Lost its Luster”.

            Veganstrasse. What is that??? o.O
            Organic, fair trade and vegan – you can find single garments, but rarely a whooooole carefree brand if you know what I mean. Or you find a brand specialising in organic, fair trade and vegan… bridal gowns (notice how it’s never moto gear) – obvisouly because it’s easier to enter a niche. Oh, I forgot yoga wear. This you get a lot in vegan and organic glory. But thankfully also underwear. Just no formal clothing (needs chemicals to stay in shape) etc etc etc. It’s a Quest! 😉

          • I’ll look for “Deluxe.” Thanks for the recommendation.

            Veganstrasse is a nickname for Schivelbeiner Strasse. I read about it on Of Course Vegan. There’s a vegan clothing store called Dear Goods that I’d love to visit, as well as Avesu Vegan shoes. If you go (or have been), I’d love to hear what it’s like.

          • Ha, funny. I know the street of course, but nobody ever called it Veganstrasse. So it took me a digital/virtual trip around the world to hear that expression. Priceless. Or maybe OCV made it up, so kudos to them! 😀

            We have now 2 Veganz in Berlin by the way. I am totally astonished since the stores are really pricey and Berliners aren’t known for splurging on groceries. But I absolutely cross my fingers, they are important, and they have opened another plant in Western Germany (Frankfurt).
            And I’ve been to the stores as well! Avesu is nice, and DearGoods (originally from Munich) is a really good pick for vegan/eco clothing, especially tees, and for bags/small “leather” goods, but I prefer to shop online (the Schivelbeiner is by far not in my hood ;)) + I think you can get most labels in the US, like Beyond Skin and Nat&Matt?

  6. I’m glad I’m allergic to wool (even so-called fine wool) or I would have bought it all through the years thinking it doesn’t hurt animals. I have never worn fur knowing the cruelty of abusing and killing animals. Wool is like milk and eggs, in the sense that we are duped into thinking these animals have a good life, when in reality the suffering is the same, if not worse.

    • Well said. It’s one of those hidden industries that people think is harmless. Perhaps they have an idyllic, old-fashioned image in their heads, not modern reality. Not their fault, of course. The abuses are hidden for a reason.

      My sweet, smart hubby pointed out that people often like animals if they’re a source of profit. He said they should exist for their own reasons, not for ours. He said owning another living being and using that creature as a source of income is a bad business model. It’s the same business model slavery was created under. Strong words, but I have to agree.

      • “Not their fault” – true, until we learn the truth. As you say, these hidden industries give us a false illusion imagining sheep frolicking peacefully on the hillside, rather than the reality of animals being used for gain and profit. Hubby has an excellent point!

        There may be some smaller sheep farms that raise and shear sheep humanely, but I still can’t wear it because any type, any percentage of wool, itches me. Even so, because of my concern for animals, unless I see with my own eyes and know for sure how they are treated, I prefer cotton and other fabrics. You have an excellent point, Jean: We live in a plastic world and cannot eliminate all man-made products or we’ll have to give up computers.

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