There is something timeless and beautiful about handmade knitted baby clothes. Whether it is the fact that the little one can get to be a ‘little lamb’ in as woolly a way as a real one, the cosiness and feel of such garments, or simply the fact that wool has been used in clothing for millennia, there is something reassuringly constant about it in a changing world.
Of course, change can sometimes be a bit scary, and the kind of world today’s babies will live in as adults will be a real concern to all who care about them. Climate change and pollution, once regarded as the obsession of tree-huggers and people in beards and sandals, is now a central concern.
All this begs an important question: What role should wool play in clothing in the future? There are those that see the material as being as anachronistic as coal – a relic of the past and something associated with animal exploitation.
There will always be those like vegans who will not use the material on such grounds, but being sheared once a year is, for a sheep, no more hardship than having a human haircut – not least because fellow sheep will not bleat on at their fellows about how unfashionable it looks. More importantly, it means they can enjoy feeling cooler in summer without a hot, heavy fleece.
The reality is that wool is an organic material with a huge range of advantages over the alternatives.
Firstly, one should consider what it contains: half of wool is carbon, but this is natural and part of the cycle. The sheep have absorbed it through what they eat and, ultimately, that carbon will go back into the ground because wool is fully biodegradable.
Of course, while wool is naturally organic, the way it is farmed can make a difference. Inorganic measures such as chemical treatments against pests are an obvious limitation on how organic wool is.
At the same time, however, it is worth bearing in mind that such veterinary interventions help maintain the health of a sheep. If those opposed to farming such animals got their way and all the flocks were just let loose to roam wildly forever without human interaction, many more would suffer and die from parasites, infestations and various other diseases.
It is worth bearing this in mind when people discuss issues of animal welfare in the realm of sheep farming.
Wool also contains a wide range of benefits that make it ideal for clothing, as well as other uses such as bedding. It helps keep you warm, is water-resistant and is hypoallergenic, apart from a very small number of people who have an allergy to lanolin.
The substance is also resistant to mildew and mould, easy to clean and very durable, all crucial qualities for getting the most value out of any item of clothing.
At the same time, it is also important to consider how wool differs from the alternatives.
Cotton is, of course, another organic material and some garments actually mix the two, but wool is more durable. Moreover, wool is the equal of cotton in environmental terms; while sheep will produce methane emissions naturally (something they would still do if they went feral), cotton farming uses pesticides and inorganic fertiliser.
However, the biggest advantage of wool is over plastic-based clothing materials like acrylic and polyester. The problem with these materials is not just that they do not last as long as wool, but they shed microfibers every time they are washed.
All that activity releases plastic toxins into the environment, adding to the micro-plastic pollution from products like shampoo and other cosmetics. These particles end up everywhere. They are in the soil, in freshwater and in the sea. Ultimately, they are ingested by animals and can therefore get into the food chain. A single load of washing can release 700,000 particles.
Micro-plastics may not have the exact same impact seen in dramatic TV footage of a single-use plastic straw getting stuck up a turtle’s nose, or dead marine animals washing up on the shore with stomachs full of inedible plastic, but they are making an impact that discarded wool never would.
All this means that wool and sheep farming, far from having a negative impact on the environment, are in fact an invaluable source of organic, sustainable and biodegradable clothing materials. Knitting with wool does not just produce great garments that babies can enjoy wearing today; it can help preserve the environment of the world they will grow up in.