Alpaca: The Black Sheep of Natural Fibers - Alpacas of Montana

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Alpaca: The Black Sheep of Natural Fibers

  • 5 min read

Many of you are probably thinking “what the heck is superwashing”? Probably followed by “why should I care?”. There’s a lot of hush-hush talk about superwashing and its effects on the environment, but it’s vital to your health to know about superwashing and why Alpacas of Montana has never and will never superwash any of our products.

In order to learn about superwashing and understand why it happens in the first place, we’ve got to know a bit about sheep and how their wool is compiled. Sheep’s wool has this yellow waxy substance called lanolin that functions to keep the animal waterproofed. The lanolin works as a raincoat for sheep and helps trap heat, making wool a naturally warm and water resistant product. Lanolin by itself is greasy and makes the wooldifficult to manufacture into yarn, which makes it hard to use in product production, so it is often removed for ease. Lanolin can also cause allergic reactions for some people, so is often eliminatedto improve comfort for the wearer.

When big textile companies are processing their sheep’s wool for product creation, they remove the lanolin through achemical process called superwashing. While superwashingextractsthe lanolin, it also burns off the cuticle or the “barbs'' of the fiber. These little bits can be thought of like fish scales or tiles on a roof. The exposed parts of these scaly cells face away from the roots (the end closest to the animal), which causes friction if rubbed one way versus the other. You can think of it like a pine tree limb--all of the needles are facing one way and if you ran your hand along the needles following the same direction that they were naturally laying, you wouldn’t get poked, but if you tried to go the opposite direction, the needles would splinter in many directions and you would inevitably get a pine needle to the palm. This part of the fiber helps the wool expel dirt and grime and also allows it to be used for felting--as wool felts when the fibers are aligned in opposite directions, allowing for them to become entangled and, therefore, felted.This is what makes wool itchy and scratchy against the skin. Those little barbs join together and hang on tight, which makes wool warm, but also shrinkable, which is why it often undergoes processes to prevent shrinkability so that it can be machine washable--cue superwashing.

So now we knowwhy companies superwash, but what actually is superwashing? Well, superwashing consists of treating the wool with harsh chemicals such as: chlorine, sulphuric acid, alkali metal salts of dichloroisocyanuric acid (DCCA), hypochlorous acid, epichlorohydrin and polyurethane in order to burn off both the lanolin (that yellow greasy stuff that makes the fiber hard to work with) and the cuticles (those spiky barbs) so that the fiber isn’t itchy against the skin and can be machine washed. It’s basically an acid bath for the wool that stripsall of the undesirable aspects of the wool so product creation can be easier and more marketable (i.e. softer, machine washable, etc). 

In addition to superwashing, in order to create a product that doesn’t shrink when washed, the wool is coated with a polymer [plastic] that keeps those scaly aspects of the fiber from joining together and therefore shrinking. However, when the barbs cannot join together, they can’t trap air, which means the product is innately going to be less warm. It also can’t repel water as well, because the scales found naturally in the wool are burned off in the chlorine treatments, so a superwashed product will repel water much less effectively than a natural wool product. Sheep’s wool strands contain air pockets, which generate thermal capacity as well as the ability to wick, and can also absorb up to 50% of its body weight in moisture, essentially wicking sweat; but, if the wool is coated in plastic and not allowed to breath, it diminishes its capacity to provide warmth as well as expel water.  Plus, sweat can sit and saturate on your skin creating a bacteria build up that causes odor, so it’s not as great when worn as it is for the sheep itself.

So, superwahing involves a lot of nasty chemicals, but what does this mean for the environment? Well, all of these chemicals have harsh effects on the environment and its inhabitants. Chlorine often escapes from the water and goes into the air during the superwashing process, and studies have found that when in the air for prolonged periods of time, chlorine can cause immune disorders and issues in the respiratory systems of animals. Chlorine alone can also have a multitude of harmful effects on aquatic life and ecosystems centered around water. As previously mentioned, another aspect of superwashed wools is that they are often coated in plastic. Both the chemicals used to wash the product and the chemicals used to create the resin--the applied plastic layer that keeps the product from felting--are highly toxic. They’re toxic enough that most water waste facilities in the U.S. won’t accept the waste and so it must be disposed of in a toxic waste facility. Additionally, while superwashing allows for wool products to be machine washable, every time they are washed a little bit of the resin plastic layer is stripped off and so little bits of plastic are being washed down the drain. As we all know, plastic is not biodegradable, so while the wool itself would compost over time, a superwashed wool product will remain on the earth for hundreds of years, continuing to release toxins into the environment while it breaks down.With all the chemical processes that take place with superwashing, there is a reason for SmartWool products being processed in Indonesia (thank you very much EPA), and it’s barely (if at all) a natural product after all of that processing--not to mention the toxins it releases that your skin absorbs in every wear. 

alpaca fiber

Why doesn’t Alpacas of Montana superwash our wool? Alpacas do not have lanolin, therefore it does not need to be removed. Plus, alpaca fibers do nothave the barbs that need to be burned off.We use biodegradable, eco-friendly soap to remove organic material from the fiber before it is spun into yarn. We do not use environmentally harsh chemicals or agents to create our products.Alpaca fleece is as soft as cashmere, warmer than sheep’s wool, hypo-allergenic and almost completely waterproof. Alpaca is considered a dry fiber, without the barbs or lanolin that are found in sheep’s wool and does not need to besuperwashed. Alpacas of Montana has created an elite Dry Fusion Technology Alpaca wool offers an eco-friendly alternative to sheep’s wool.

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