What is the difference between a house and a home? For me, it’s the coziness factor. Home is the place where one can snuggle into a chair with a cat, a cup of tea, and a warm blanket, and relax into blissful peace. In recent years, my family has traded all of our blankets for the magic of a wool throw. These wonderful blankets have gone the extra mile to make our home feel even cozier and more delightful than ever before.
For the uninitiated, the mere thought of wool often brings up memories of itchy and uniformly uncomfortable fabric. Mention a wool blanket to anyone on my side of the Atlantic and you are bound to be regaled with stories of scratchy, paper-thin blankets appearing everywhere from Maine summer camps to national park cabins in Yosemite, California. This was our personal experience for years; yet there is barely a room in our home nowadays that does not have a delightfully cozy woolen throw draped over a sofa or chair. There is a striking difference between the thin wool blankets of our youth and the expertly spun and woven woolen treasures that now grace our home; as a result, much like our toddler selves, my husband and I can no longer bring ourselves to sleep without our favorite blankets.
The vast majority of my family’s prized blanket collection hails from Scotland, or more specifically, the Shetland Islands. I fell in love with woven blankets at the Jamieson’s of Shetland factory during my first visit in 2018. Not only was it incredible to see these works of art being made in person, but these wool blankets were like nothing I’d experienced before: light, soft, and incredibly warm in winter, while remaining surprisingly cool even during the hottest part of the summer. As it turns out, those special qualities I was able to sense in the Jamieson’s of Shetland blankets actually have a scientific basis. On a microscopic level, wool fibers create pockets of air which capture heat and moisture. As a result, wool is able to insulate against the cold, yet also can cool by wicking away moisture and keeping skin dry in hot climates.
Wool’s insulating magic can be further enhanced by the way the fiber is spun into yarn. If the wool is carded — which separates the fibers but does not necessarily align them in the same direction — and then is spun using a looser “woolen” method, the yarn will retain significantly more air and loft between the fibers, thereby behaving in a similar manner to home insulation. This is the secret to a truly divine woolen blanket, so much so that entire books in the spinning and weaving canon have been devoted to this process.
In contrast, a “combed” fiber preparation — which organizes and aligns the fibers in the same direction — combined with the more controlled “worsted” drafting method, creates a yarn that is ideal for garments with defined stitches or a graceful drape, such as a cable-knit sweater or a tartan kilt. These garments still retain the warmth of wool but tend to be less insulating and cozy than woolen-spun blankets and garments.
Although wool has served as a staple of bedding around the world, over the past fifty years, blankets available to the U.S. consumer are more likely to have been made from acrylic yarn or polyester-based synthetic fleece. For many years, my own cozy reading chair blanket was a green acrylic zig-zag crochet pattern made by my great-grandmother sometime in the 1980s. That particular blanket’s warmth came from the memories of my wonderful Little Grandma, but not so much from the blanket itself.
Synthetic fleece, the favorite material of fast fashion housewares, has a softness and warmth to it that many people enjoy and shares many of the insulation-related properties of wool. However, neither acrylic yarn nor synthetic fleece can achieve the same level of thermoregulatory properties as pure wool. There has even been a study sponsored by the Australian wool industry which concluded that wool is the most temperature-regulating fiber due to its “superior moisture buffering and moisture management properties,” beating out cotton and polyester for the title.
Synthetic fleece sometimes is seen as a “vegan alternative” to wool. However, contrary to popular belief in certain online circles, using wool from a sheep does not harm the animal. Sheep have been domesticated over millennia, and most breeds now cannot survive without human intervention. If a sheep were not shorn once or twice a year, its wool would create too much weight for its body, possibly leading to injury.
In truth, the environmental profile of synthetic fleece is perhaps the biggest concern. Synthetic fleece is comprised mainly of a type of polyester called PET, a petroleum-based product that generally is manufactured from non-renewable sources. Unlike wool, synthetic fleece is not fire-resistant unless it is chemically treated. Synthetic fleece also releases microfibers back into the environment each time the garment is washed, which enter the watershed and do not biodegrade, ultimately being consumed by wildlife and thus adding to the plastics burden on our planet. Yet, as with most fast fashion, it is far less expensive to produce synthetic fleece than similar fabric made from wool, and thus is available in every big box store and online home goods retailer.
Even if wool blankets appear at first glance to be far more expensive and less widely available than their synthetic counterparts, it is worth the effort to source them. Not only will they change your experience of napping, sleeping, or general lounging, but they are woven to last for decades. More concerning is the constant threat to the skills used to produce these delightful blankets; with so many mills having closed in the past three decades in the U.S., UK and Ireland, it is nearly impossible to find weavers in those countries with the skills to produce wool textiles on an industrial level. This makes supporting those who are producing such blankets and related textiles even more crucial at this time.
For those in the UK and Europe, there are several excellent options available which use woolen-spun yarn and traditional weaving methods, particularly Jamieson’s of Shetland, Jamieson & Smith, and Studio Donegal. Abraham Moon offers both Shetland and Merino blankets both in the UK via Bronte by Moon and in the U.S. through distributor Bronte Moon. American online yarn retailer The Woolly Thistle also is carrying a limited supply of Studio Donegal throws.
In North America, there remains a handful of commercial woolen mills which still weave wool blankets in the U.S.: (1) Pendleton in Portland, Oregon; (2) Faribault Mill in Faribault, Minnesota; (3) Amana Woolen Mill in Amana Colonies, Iowa; (4) Maine Woolens in Brunswick, Maine; and (5) Johnson Woolen Mills in Johnson, Vermont. Handwoven luxury wool blankets also may be sourced from smaller artisan producers such as Swans Island Company in Northport, Maine, and Nantucket Looms on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts. Finally, numerous individual weavers sell on Etsy, though it is important to differentiate between importers and actual artisans.
As for my own home, wool reigns supreme. My family sleeps better under wool, even in the temperate climate of Atlanta, Georgia. As it is easy to tell from the photographs of our home, all animals and humans enjoy our family’s blankets, but the teens are more difficult to capture in the wild. I personally am grateful to those who keep these heritage weaving traditions alive, and I hope that the wonders of pure wool blankets will be available for many future generations to enjoy.
Christine Cox is a longtime fiber arts enthusiast with a particular affection for Shetland wool. She has knit for decades, spun for years, dabbles with weaving, and still can’t crochet to save her life. Her first sweater was an unbelievably scratchy Lopi design knit in the early 1990s, making “cozy” an essential aspect of anything she has knit since. Christine lives with her family outside of Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A., where she refuses to hem pants or knit on commission.