Growing up, my classmates and I were subjected to a yearly visit from a firefighter-educator who would walk us through fire safety. Stop, drop, and roll; turn your pot handles toward the wall while cooking and keep a lid nearby; and don’t ever, ever smoke in bed. (It was the 80’s.)
As we approached the ripe old age of 10, we started to roll our eyes about these yearly assemblies. We knew everything we needed to know about fire safety already. Why are they subjecting us to this again? The chances of fire seemed disproportionate to the amount of time that was being spent on fire safety.
Then, later that year, one of the three buildings that comprised our school burned to the ground in the night, likely due to faulty wiring in the library. The next year, a classmate’s grandfather died from… wait for it… a fire caused by smoking in bed. A few years later, I met a child who was badly scarred by a grease fire. And over time, I’ve met people who have lost part or all of their homes due to fire, some with loss of life.
Maybe the yearly firefighter-educator visits in elementary school were necessary after all.
One thing I never remember being taught in grade school is about how the fiber we wear or use in our homes can affect the level of fire safety.
No, wait. I take that back. We were told that all of our pajamas should be chemically treated synthetics or cotton so that if we were in a fire they wouldn’t catch. Never that wool pajamas would have prevented the need for the chemical treatment.
Because in the 80s, much of the wool we had affordable access to for clothing was scratchy. Merinos had long ago left New England and a lot of American wool was the scratchy stuff, suitable for coats, blankets, and carpets, but not for sleep in or against. And no one wanted to wear wool. In my mind, wool jammies were red, button bottom punchlines in cartoons, and part of the joke was how uncomfortable they were. I’m sure they were available somewhere, but merino jammies would have been prohibitively expensive for anyone I grew up with.
I think sometime when we advocate for wool use, we forget to make it clear that a preconception for wool’s itchiness is justified. It’s no longer accurate that all wool items are itchy, but it was largely true in the past. At least where I grew up in small town New England. Access to the softer stuff is largely thanks to improved supply chains that both transport items for mass-market production around the world and a concerted effort of yarn and clothing makers to have the softer wool held back for skin-contact specific uses.
That softer wool for clothing makes us safer. And the coarser stuff can still be put to use in our homes to make us, and the building, safer.
But how does this work? What is it about wool that makes it a safer fiber in the face of fire?
First, the actual makeup of the wool is the main factor. Wool has a high nitrogen content, which acts as a natural fire retardant. It also tends to absorb moisture from the atmosphere, which makes it harder to combust due to the presence of the water. When you can get it to burn or smolder, it releases less heat than other materials, so it doesn’t tend to spread the fire. All of this adds up to a fiber that is resistant to catch (requiring temps up to 600F to start burning) and quick to extinguish when it does start to burn.
It also releases far less toxins in the air than other materials, and it doesn’t drip or stick when it does burn, preventing secondary harm from fire exposure.
And this holds true of wool that has been chemically treated to be superwash. However, adding synthetic fibers to a wool blend can counteract the fire-safety benefits of wool, so choose carefully.
All natural fibers are safer than synthetics when it comes to burn temperatures, “sticking” and toxins, but wool is the safest of all. Wool pajamas, wool bedding, wool carpets and curtains, wool clothing and coats–all add comfort, cut our plastic profile, and create safer environments for use to dwell in.