Friday Night Vi-EWE-ing – when ‘wool’ isn’t wool

As is evident from all of today’s WOVEMBER posts, one of the core aims here is to recognise that the word WOOL refers to the fibre, yarn or fabric derived from the fleece of THE SHEEP; it does not refer to the fleece of other animals nor to fibres derived from petrochemicals or plants.  Tonight’s Friday Night Vi-EWE-ing illustrates the mis-use of the term wool with some fantastic examples from British Pathé. Louise investigates.

As a child my mam and nannie were machine knitters and I grew up surrounded by a lot of wool, but in reality it was not wool.  For the most part it was acrylic yarn, or a blend of wool and acrylic, often referred to as “Scotch”.  I am not quite sure how old I was when I realised that wool and yarn were two different things.

Of course, now I am patently aware that wool is from sheep and anything else is yarn, but recently, at the In The Loop conference in Glasgow, this was brought back to me. A speaker was talking of the “wool shops” her aunt used to buy her acrylic from to machine knit. Someone in the audience, for whom English was not her first language, was very surprised that the term “wool” was used to mean something that did not come from a sheep. She wondered if this was just a Scottish idiosyncrasy, but alas the term ‘wool’ has been applied to non-wool for a long time and used the world over.  Tonight I have found a few very short news pieces which are happy to describe fibre or fabric which does not originate from sheep as wool.

Here we have a news segment on making ‘wool’ from milk. The announcer says “Baa Baa Black sheep will have to look to his laurels, for in the world of wool he isn’t the big noise he used to be.”

Making wool from Milk (1937) British Pathé

During World War II wool was rationed like everything else and there were real shortages. In the mid-30s the Italian company Snia Viscosa produced a yarn called Lanital – it was made by mixing skimmed milk with an acid, which extracted the casein protein, similar to curds. The casein went through several processes before it came together in a fibre form including filtration, deareation, cutting, spinning and chemical baths – including formaldehyde – to harden the spun fibres and make them pliable and knit-able. It may have rivalled the real thing in terms of softness and warmth, but those processes are quite far removed from the natural wool we all love so well.


The mis-use of the word ‘wool’ in this film is really only in the title of the news segment, but it is still an extremely interesting term for the “lava spun into gossamer thread”.

Wool from Volcanoes (1957) British Pathé

Mineral wool, also known as rock wool, is created by melting volcanic rock to around 1600 C. The final product is a mass of fine, intertwined fibres which conduct heat extraordinarily well, making it an excellent material for insulation. The first attempts to manufacture this ‘wool’ for insulating purposes was in 1840 in Wales, by one Edward Parry. Unfortunately it was quickly discovered how injurious the loose fibres could be. Great care is taken to not handle this fibre with bare skin, so I am not sure I would like to knit my own volcanic ‘wool’ dress, would you?!

Totally different from what we know as real, 100% wool from sheep –  it is still incredible to watch the processes here, isn’t it? Look at those curds becoming fibres and those candyflosses of mineral fibre – it is fascinating to watch the fibres form.


My favourite of the non-wool ‘wool’ films finds are about dog wool.

“Dog wool doesn’t need a coupon!” as Miss Betty Lewis, from Northumberland discovers. She has “knitted many a jumper of dog wool.”

Dog Wool (1942) British Pathé

Knitting with dog hair is no new concept, not for Miss Lewis in 1947, or Miss Skinner of  Walthamstow,  in 1951 in this film below (from “the wool her dogs never miss”!).

Dog’s Wool (1951) British Pathé

DogPoster - Copy(1)

Unbelievably perhaps, there was during the First World War a British Dogs’ Wool Association! The poster above reads:



Every Little Helps!

Will owners of long-haired dogs preserve and collect all combings from their dogs and send them to the British Dogs’ Wool Association for the supply of comforts for the Sick and Wounded?

The British Red Cross spun long-hair dog fibres for knitting “comfort” items for the troops and what an image that conjures of British dogs contributing to the war effort!

This continued into World War II and beyond with the National Canine Defence League (now Dogs Trust) collecting combed dog hair to be knit into socks and scarves. The Glasgow Herald, in February 1941, reported,


Mittens and seaboot stockings are being made from the combings of the many breeds of long-haired dogs. The hair is spun into yarn by Highland crofters and knitted by voluntary workers of the National Canine Defence League. The League has recently sent a consignment of these comforts to the British Sailors Society. Seamen describe them as warm and cosy.

Warm and cosy they would certainly be but, be it from dogs, milk or volcanoes, it most certainly ain’t wool!

As Felix investigated earlier today, we frequently see other fibres labelled as WOOL.  Why is there a tendency to call a fibre ‘wool’ and why is it so hard to stop using it? Kate also wrote about this is in Wool 0% in October 2011, with evidence from ASOS, which termed items as ‘wool’ or ‘woollen’ but which, in some cases, did not contain any wool.  This is still happening, as this recent example from ASOS shows.


(Ensure you hand wash your 90% man-made “Dress”)


Why do you think the confusion is out there? Is it the name given to the fibre spun, or the material in a raw form, a skein or ball? Or is it the word for the feel of the fabric? This is something we shall be seeking to explore a little more throughout WOVEMBER.

Do you get angry at the mis-use of the term WOOL? Tell us about your experiences in the comments and discuss on social media using the hashtag #WOVEMBER

| Information
You can read more about the invention of lanital here. Information about Edward Parry came from Van Nostrands Engineering Magazine 1880. You can read more about the British Red Cross Dog hair spinning efforts at the Mary Evans Picture Library and in the Glasgow Herald.

This entry was posted by louisescollay.

7 thoughts on “Friday Night Vi-EWE-ing – when ‘wool’ isn’t wool

  1. When I really got into knitting again a few years ago I called all types of yarn wool, because that is what my mum called it. (She learnt from her mum, and her grandma was a knitter too- I think my grandma called yarn ‘wool’, even though she made stuff with acrylic. Not sure what my great grandma called it- but it was probably all pure wool when she was alive!)

    I now say ‘yarn’, unless I am talking about fibre from a sheep- otherwise it might not be clear what I’m talking about.
    I don’t get annoyed by people generally saying ‘wool’ when it’s not wool (although I might correct them, hopefully in a not too pedantic way!) because calling ‘yarn’ ‘wool’ is so deeply ingrained, even amongst knitters.

    I do get annoyed by companies like the one in the post earlier desvribing acrylic hats as ‘wool’, however- if it’s your business to make clothing you should at least know your product well enough to describe it accurately!

    I think I would be less annoyed by it if there was another word to describe sheep fibre- then the misuse of wool would be less problematic…

  2. Very interesting post. BTW, cats eat milk yarn . I have some yarn clled “Elsie”; it’s milk protein I bought it years ago, before I knew better. The yarn is now discontinued). And I have cats. Needless to say, I don’t want my cats to eat my FOs – especially since you have taught me the process includes the poison formaldehyde!

    Wearing milk is a terrible waste of protein that could be used to feed starving children.

  3. “Wool” as a term for yarn is widely used in New Zealand as well. I suppose it is thanks to our British heritage! Fortunately, from what I can tell, most of the wool products sold in New Zealand do not appear to have the same issues regarding labelling as in other countries (except when it comes to the generic term for yarn!)

  4. This was very interesting to read, and I’m a bit like Nicola as in the past I’ve called all yarn “wool” as that is what people around me said and I’ve seen “acryllic wool” used on a label befor enow…(no wool just all acrylic)…not sure I’ve ever heard anyway say “oh yes, I’m knitting a nice acrylic-y scarf” however for the past few years since I became aware that there was a difference then I’ve tried to make sure I use the right word……

    Perhaps part of it is that the word “yarn” doesn’t sound half as nice as “wool” does it…..nowadays “wool” brings up ideas of better quality, nautural-ness, being “eco friendly”, keeping warm and cosy…..”yarn” is what old boys do in corners of pubs over a pint….and as for saying something is “wool” over any other material like in the advert you show (mmmm a fine “viscose” dress, so you know that is going to bobble up like an acryllic cardigan, isn’t as likely to entice you in to the shop to purchase it)..then that should be a matter for Trading Standards but I guess if “everyone” is calling any old fibre wool then Trading Standards would say why bother…. …

    I don’t think it’s just wool (or clothing that is trying to pass itself off as) that is mis-labeled though, I’ve seen other items of clothing with furry collars or boots with fluff around the top and the label just says “fur” …..

    I didn’t know about cats eating milk protein yarn so thank you Sophie, and as I do have some of that I’ll be taking it to a charity shop (with a label saying not for cat owners)
    I suppose

  5. Thank you for finding and sharing all the historic films about “wool alternatives”. Maybe the world wars contributed to the alternate fibers being called “wool” and that term stuck? I learned to spin on a drop spindle. I started with a fleece from my neighbor, cleaned it, then mastered the drop spindle. After spinning the wool, I went on to a very light weight drop spindle for my dog’s hair (Hungarian Kuvasz). The hair has some crimp but not like wool. It spins into an angora like yarn. I knitted the wool and dog hair into a vest, using the dog hair for a fluffy diamond shape section on the front. Because this was my first attempt, the knitting and spinning of each fiber is not perfect, but it is an unusual piece that I display at our AKC Meet The Breeds booth in the USA. Unfortunately, I have “outgrown” the vest, so it is merely a display piece, now.

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