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Think of winter fashion, and wool will likely be one of the first things that comes to mind. Thick, woolly jumpers, cocooning scarves, soft cashmere cardigans, knitwear so smooth it almost resembles silk — this is the garb that most defines the chilly season, and makes it more bearable, enjoyable even. Nothing feels as snug as this spun and woven fibre.

But wool isn’t just warm. It’s also one of the most versatile, complex and varied fabrics to clothe us — and has been since the end of the Stone Age, when Mesopotamian tribes began incorporating it into their garments. It organically wicks moisture, retains heat and is easily cleaned. Growing in tufts on sheep’s and goats’ backs (as well as alpacas and other furry animals), it’s natural, biodegradable and renewable, but also highly resistant thanks to the protein it’s made of, called keratin; this is why a wool fibre can be bent 20,000 times without breaking, and why your Christmas jumpers last for years. It can be finessed to create delicate, ultra-light knits, or left in an almost-raw state, for a coarser, rough-and-rugged effect.

In a way, it’s almost the perfect textile — which is why it’s long been a staple of designers, who have tended to favour its superior yarns: merino, which is one of the most prized breeds of sheep; cashmere, which is obtained from cashmere goats or pashmina goats, and is known for being one of the more luxurious, silky types of wool; and mohair, which is made from the hair of the angora goat, and is notable for its high lustre and sheen.

Christian Dior’s New Look designs in the late 1940s featured black wool. Images courtesy of V&A

In the 1930s, Coco Chanel combined her classic tweeds with wool, to give them a sophisticated look that still served a functional purpose. Christian Dior used it in some of the designs that defined his New Look in the late 1940s, like a coat in black wool crêpe, and a black wool suit he named Daisy.

In the 1950s, Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino Garavani and Yves Saint Laurent proved their sartorial craftsmanship through wool when they participated in — and won, at different times — the design competition now known as the International Woolmark Prize. All in the early stages of their careers, the designers played with the fibre’s adaptability to create silhouettes and garments that proved their chops and firmly placed them in the upper echelons of the industry.

The material went through a decline of sorts from the mid-1970s, due partly to the rise of synthetic fibres and partly to high production costs, which had wool manufacturers moving out of Britain, New Zealand and Australia and into Turkey and China. The International Woolmark Prize itself went on a brief hiatus. But the luxury market kept betting big on the fabric.

In the 1980s, Giorgio Armani, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren experimented with and embraced wool, as did Escada, Max Mara and Calvin Klein in the 1990s and early 2000s. Fleece went high-fashion with coats, sweaters, berets and separates that were lavish and high-performing. Dame Vivienne Westwood, an icon of edgy style, has made fine knitwear a core component of her aesthetic for much of her career.

Hermès’ wool-infused AW19 Collection. Images courtesy of Hermès

By the 2010s, wool returned to be one of fashion’s favourite fabrics, both high-end and high-street, thanks to the rise of slow fashion and a newfound interest in its lavish, dynamic qualities. Production picked up (Australia is currently the leading producer), as did sales. Wool sauntered down the Autumn/Winter 2012 catwalks at Marc Jacobs, Chanel and Michael Kors, and in turn became a staple at retailers such as Zara and Muji.

The fibre’s popularity has only grown since. This season, there are opulent wool tops and coats at Celine, and pleated wool trousers at Fendi, the last collection the late Lagerfeld worked on in partnership with Silvia Fendi. Hermès, a loyal fan of the fabric, has functional and supremely elegant wool pieces such as double-faced cashmere jackets, light V-neck sweaters, tartan ponchos, enveloping shawls and hand-sewn embroidered wool ties that are the epitome of dapper.

Fringed cashmere blanket coats, sportswear in Japanese technical wool and hand-knitted textured sweaters offer casual luxury at Salvatore Ferragamo, proving the material’s high functionality; Bally’s Swiss mountain-inspired collection shows its styling versatility with a gamut of colourful sweaters in brushed wool, from vermilion to canary yellow, and cherry to purple.

Isabel Marant, too, has made wool one of her autumn textiles of choice, creating solid pieces that evoke cosiness and comfort: chunky sweaters, a fuzzy poncho, an oversized, textured vest and an edgy acid-washed jean jacket with a snug woolly collar.

A white cropped cardigan and wool leopard coat from The Kooples’ AW19 collection. Images courtesy of The Kooples

The same goes for the high street. Zara stocks sharp wool-blend suits and wide-leg pants for him and her, as well as city-ready beanies and merino wool dresses. A brushed camel-wool coat and an off-the-shoulder shearling jacket are some of the highlights of Whistles’ winter line, as is its series of knits. At The Kooples, a white cropped wool cardigan with puffed sleeves and a belted wool leopard coat blend quality and cool, as do men’s offerings like a black wool coat with shearling collar and navy-blue wool suit trousers.

Wool might have been around forever, but it’s certainly never felt more relevant.