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100% Wool Vs Synthetic Wool Blends

Why do many sustainability focused companies include nylon or polyester in their wool offerings?
January 18, 2023
By Oliver Charles

Welcome to our deep dive into the complex world of wool and its various blends! As someone passionate about sustainable fashion, I've been fascinated by the conversation around using nylon, polyester, and other synthetics in wool garments.

While Oliver Charles doesn't blend synthetics in our wool products or superwash our wool, many sustainable-focused wool companies do.

I wrote this blog after being inspired by a rich and insightful discussion thread I found, and here, I aim to explore the various perspectives, dilemmas, and solutions that come with striving for eco-friendly clothing choices.

As an advocate for sustainable fashion, I firmly believe that 100% wool garments are superior in almost every case (maybe socks being the exception), not just for environmental reasons but also for their outstanding performance attributes.

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The Blend Debate: Why Companies Blend Plastic With Wool

Many of us, including me, have been puzzled by the presence of plastics like nylon in wool clothing.

The primary reason companies blend synthetic materials with wool is to increase durability and reduce pilling. While wool alone is durable, it's not stronger than plastic, which takes hundreds of years to biodegrade.

And for pilling, most wool knits will pill. It's simply a natural process where shorter fibers work their way to the surface. But over time, pilling reduces.

For people looking at their clothes through a long-term and sustainable lens, there are better answers than adding plastic to reduce pilling. Is plucking a few pill balls off a 100% wool sweater better or worse than having a nylon blend that contributes to microplastic pollution, especially when they shed fibers during washing? This pollution has a detrimental impact on aquatic ecosystems and, ultimately, our health.

To play devil's advocate, though, the key is to strike a balance between practicality and environmental responsibility. A small percentage of synthetic blends might be justifiable in cases where durability is paramount, such as in heavy-duty outdoor clothing. However, pure wool is the ideal choice for everyday wear where such extreme durability isn't a necessity.

So, where do we draw the line in our quest for sustainability? The answer lies in reassessing our priorities. If we aim to minimize environmental impact, 100% wool garments are the clear winner.

The Superwash Dilemma: A Hidden Environmental Cost

Another aspect of the discussion was the process of superwashing wool.

Superwashing involves coating wool fibers with a polymer, usually plastic, to smooth out the scales on the wool's surface. This treatment prevents the fibers from interlocking and felting during machine washing. While this makes wool garments more user-friendly, it introduces non-biodegradable elements into the fabric.

It's a classic case of solving one problem but potentially creating another. How do we reconcile our desire for convenience with sustainability?

The key lies in making informed choices and sometimes redefining what convenience means to us. While superwash wool offers the ease of machine washability, it detracts from the innate eco-friendly qualities of natural wool.

One way to reconcile this is by embracing the natural care of wool. Wool's inherent properties, such as odor resistance and moisture-wicking, mean it doesn't need to be washed as frequently as other materials.

Ultimately, choosing to superwash wool or stick to natural, untreated wool is a personal one. However, as advocates for sustainable fashion, we can make a significant impact by choosing the latter. This choice reflects our commitment to sustainability and fosters a deeper, more meaningful relationship with the clothes we wear.

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Wool Blends: Tradeoffs Between Sustainability And Convenience

The longevity of clothing is a key factor in sustainability. Several people who commented on the discussion thread noted that 100% wool garments tend to pill and wear out faster. Blends with nylon, though not entirely plastic-free, offer more durability. This raises a crucial question: is it more sustainable to have a garment that lasts longer but contains synthetics or to stick with pure wool that may need replacing sooner?

Firstly, it's essential to debunk the myth that pure wool lacks durability. In reality, wool fibers' natural resilience and elasticity make them remarkably sturdy. Wool's ability to resist wear and tear, recover from stretching, and maintain its shape over time is often underestimated. While it's true that pure wool may not possess the same level of abrasion resistance as nylon blends, it is by no means a fragile material.

Including synthetics like nylon in wool, clothing enhances certain durability aspects, but it comes with an environmental price. Synthetics are derived from petrochemicals, are not biodegradable, and contribute to microplastic pollution.

When considering a garment's sustainability, we must look beyond its lifespan. A garment that lasts longer but is made with environmentally harmful materials may ultimately be less sustainable than a pure wool garment that requires the occasional repair or replacement. The production, use, and disposal stages of a garment's life cycle all contribute to its overall environmental impact.

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Sustainable Sweaters: The Big Picture Beyond The Fabric

The reminder to look at the bigger picture resonated most with me in this conversation. Our environmental impact is not just about our clothes but also how we live our lives. It's about striving for progress, not perfection.

Navigating the world of sustainable fashion is complex. We often face choices that don't fully align with our ideals. But that's okay. It's about making the best decision with the information we have.

There's no one-size-fits-all answer in the pursuit of sustainable fashion. It's about understanding the tradeoffs, making informed choices, and continually learning and adapting.

If you believe that every good wardrobe starts with owning less and owning better, consider buying yourself an OLIVER CHARLES sweater.
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