Old-Fashioned Wool Blankets: Pros and Cons Vs. Cotton

Although this blog is all about old-fashioned sheets, I thought my readers might be interested in other matters of natural-fiber bedding.  'Cause I am.

So today I'm thinking about wool blankets. I have ambivalent feelings about them. I am allergic to wool but seem to be able to use it sometimes when my skin doesn't touch it and the fibers aren't airborne. The term "wool," by the way, doesn't just mean sheep's wool; it includes alpaca wool, goat's wool like angora, and pretty much any animal hair fiber that's woven into fabric. I think most blankets made of wool are more than worth their expense, but there are a few exceptions, which I talk about below.

Garter Stitched Alpaca Wool Knitted Blanket I'm Knitting



Where I live in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, something other than cotton, whether it's a natural fiber or synthetic, is a necessary adjunct to all-cotton or all-linen bedding for the chilly months of autumn and winter. I'm determined to get my family moved away from polyesters and toward wool this year.

Benefits of Wool as a Blanket Fabric Vs. Cotton


Wool is not just a natural fiber; it is, in my view, a miraculous one. It has so many benefits over acrylic, which, in my grandmother's days, was THE popular yarn for knitting blankets. I don't understand why, exactly, since it was her generation that was so big on the traditional crisp cotton sheets my blog is all about, but I think it has something to do with how economical it was and, generally, how readily that generation adopted post-World-War-II modern conveniences.

Specifically, here's why wool has the great reputation it does as warm, safe bedding:
  1. It is insulating - very insulating, way more than other natural fibers like cotton or linen. "Insulating" means that despite having low volume and mass, its physical properties prevent or inhibit the transfer of heat, so it keeps body warmth inside the bedding and the cold of the winter air away. To get the equivalent insulation from a cotton blanket, a much heavier and thicker blanket layer is needed, to the point of being uncomfortable.
  2. Wool is cooling, too.  It reduces humidity because of its complex organic cellular structure, which absorbs water vapor. So if you get too warm in bed and your body starts sweating to cool you off, that moisture doesn't get trapped in the air around your sheets. Instead it goes into the blanket fibers, then evaporates in the air. This is how the wool blanket allows your body to cool off naturally and is in contrast to cotton, which gets saturated with moisture and is slow to evaporate it out.
  3. Wool is fire-protective on several fronts. According to the International Wool Textile Organisation, its moisture and nitrogen content help it resist combustion; though wool will burn, it won't burn readily and it takes fairly high temperatures to ignite in the first place; and, once on fire, the flames smolder but tend to extinguish naturally. Also, if it does burn, it doesn't release as many toxic fumes as man-made fibers. Cotton, unless treated, is highly flammable.
  4. Wool fibers are extremely strong and elastic, making wool blankets durable. Holes in blankets come from moths, not stress. Cotton, on the other hand, has very little stretch and will develop holes more readily than wool, though long-staple cotton is stronger and in my experience can stand up to bleaching, unlike wool.

Problems With Wool Blankets


All that said, wool blankets are not without their issues.

They can be too warm. This is especially true in the colder months, when many people tend to heat their houses to extreme degrees. The snugness of cuddling under a wool blanket is kind of moot if the ambient temperature is already a comfortable 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Cotton blankets like this thermal one are generally better if you don't need serious warmth.

Secondly, the correct way to wash wool blankets is in the washing machine on the woolen cycle or by hand, without agitation. This is to prevent felting.  In a fairyland, such a protocol would always be followed. Since in my real-life experience, every item of wool eventually gets thrown in the washer, whether by accident or design, I'd say it's safe to assume that wool blankets will felt over time.

Felting a blanket can be good if you want thicker, warmer blankets, and bad if your blanket loses so much length and width it no longer covers people adequately. Washable wool blankets are one way to go, but they're kind of a newfangled animal and I have no experience with them, so try them at your own risk. Cotton blankets do not have this problem, after the first initial shrinkage.

Lastly, and this is the biggie, wool blankets vary in quality enormously. The quality of the fibers makes a big difference. Some wool is rough and scratchy beyond anything; some is hardly rough at all. Some will pill if washed in the washing machine; some not so much. Sadly, I've learned that the honesty of the declaration of fiber composition can be questionable with cheaper off-brands, though woolen mills are a pretty safe bet.

One option is to buy a used woolen blanket at a secondhand store.  You can see by handling it whether it has held up to the test of time. However, if you have dust mite allergies and/or asthma, as we do, this is not really feasible, as used woolen blankets might be contaminated with dust mites, cat dander, and other allergens.

I am solving the problem of quality in two ways.  I am hoping to save up enough to buy this quality wool blanket from Hudson Bay, or this wool and cotton one from Pendleton, pictured at right.


The other, more economical solution?  Though I'd really prefer a professionally felted blanket, I'm a knitter, so in the meantime, I am making my own wool blanket. I've been working for quite some time on two blankets: an all-cotton patchwork, shown in progress below, and the alpaca wool blanket pictured at the top of this article.  (Alpaca is supposed to be hypoallergenic, but I'm not sure how that's working for me.)

This is My Cotton Patchwork Blanket In Progress.

Lastly, since we're talking so much about natural fibers, I have to give credit where credit is due and say that polyester blankets these days are much better than they were when I was a kid.  They pill less, they're light, they're soft, they're easy to wash, and they're very warm. Acrylic I still don't like. But polyester I would warm to, no pun intended, were it not for the idea of toxicity in the event of fire.

Are you a wool-blanket sort of person, or do cotton or synthetic fibers work better for you? I'd love to hear your opinions.

4 comments:

  1. I came for the crisp sheets, but as a natural fiber girl from way back, want to pass on some experience. On the topic of wonderful wool blanketing, I have to tell everyone what I believe to be the best. I grew up in s very small town with frigid winters. Back in my granny's day, she and her friends would get together to make simple quilts with wool batting. There is nothing like them for lightness and non-stick warmth. I have one leftover from my high school days (and that's a while back). In recent years I have been thrilled to see the availability of commercially made quilts with wool batting. I also saw some with silk batting. I have tried neither, but highly regard the wool quilt option. Probably both need professional cleaning. I picture people sleeping under these with smiles on their faces.

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  2. Thank you for this very informative blog.

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  3. I thought i was the only one in the world to want to sleep on Crisppy sheets ty ty ty

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