Ever wonder what virgin wool is? Why are some sweaters marked "virgin wool" and some not? Well, it's very simple really. Virgin wool is wool which has not been used before by anyone other than the sheep. It's sheared, cleaned, spun, and turned into the garment you have before you without ever having been another garment or fabric.

The idea of recycled wool in one's clothing is alien to many these days. These days clothing is cheap and raw materials plentiful. If you walk into a department store and look at a selection of sweaters in a rainbow array of colors, chances are very few will be labeled "virgin wool" but at the same time not one will have a single recycled fiber in it. It wasn't always so, however.

One of the biggest pushes towards fiber and garment recycling was a result of World War II. Many things were rationed beyond food. The effect on a decade's worth of fashion was profound as governments restricted the amount of fabric which could be used to make new garments commercially, and restricted the raw materials for home producers. Wool was needed for uniforms, silk for parachutes, etc. and even after the war economic troubles prevented an immediate cessation of rationing.

Instead of buying new clothing people took to recycling clothing out of necessity. An adult's sweater could be unraveled and turned into children's sweaters, gloves, socks, and any number of useful things. An older girl's dress could be smocked and taken in to fit a younger child. And there was no stigma in this. It was patriotic, and considered a part of the war effort.

These days, wool production is going strong, but some people continue to recycle wool and many even sell it or the garments made from it. This is as much a result of excess as the previous recycling was from dearth. High quality yarn tends to be expensive. At the same time, many designers make and sell sweaters which just don't do their fibers justice. Many fiber artists on a budget find items in used clothing stores and spend a few dollars and some effort to come away with fiber which would otherwise have cost hundreds of dollars. They spend time instead of money, which can be worth it if cash flow is a problem. That ill-conceived orange cashmere blend men's sweater becomes hundreds of yards of potential wound into balls.

Of course, with so much recycled material being sold during and after the war, the assurance of the reverse became a valued selling point. "Virgin Wool" became a signifier of something luxurious and good. In these days of plenty however, it can be a bit misleading since the virgin wool may be nothing special compared to the recycled yarn from a $300 sweater that had been worn once before it was sent to Goodwill. In the mean time, these days regulation decrees that garments made from recycled materials need to be labeled as such. It's up to the buyer to decide what "new" is worth.


Further reading:
Utility fashion
http://www.1940.co.uk/history/article/article.htm
http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/ZZSI172Y1947.html
http://www.fashion-era.com/utility_clothing.htm
Recycling yarn
http://www.az.com/~andrade/knit/thrifty.html

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