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.