What Is Worsted Wool?

Understand the basics of wool so you can make better buying decisions

If you have shopped for a suit before, the term worsted may have been thrown around a little. So, what is it? And more importantly, how does it relate to men’s suiting - is it something you need to be looking for?

In this article we will cover these questions and others.

A little history

Worsted is a high-quality type of wool yarn. It is named after the small English village of Worstead, in the county of Norfolk and this village was a center for manufacturing in the twelfth century.

During the Middle Ages, common agricultural practices were in flux because new breeds of sheep were being introduced in England. These sheep were raised in enclosed pastures with plenty of nice tall grass. In other words, these sheep produced long wool that we call long staple wool (A staple, in the context of textiles, is a cluster or lock of wool fibres). On the other hand, the older breeds of sheep that preferred more challenging environments produced short staple wool.

Concurrently, England was experiencing a migration of Flemish textile weavers. Many of which came to Norfolk. Before long, weaving now came to define the Worstead area. And yes, the type of cloth was soon known only as “worsted.”

And here’s a little bit of interesting trivia: Worsted cloth was known up until the nineteenth century as stuff. The whole idea was to differentiate it from cloth, which was always a woollen fabric. Stuff was generally used to describe any woven fabrics that wasn’t woolen. So, what’s woolen, you ask?

Worst or Woolen?

They are both wool, right? Yes, they are. And that’s what can make all of this very confusing and make you wonder if they are simply two words for the same thing.

Here’s what you need to know:

Worsted: Stronger, finer, and smoother. Imagine a nice suit fabric.

Woolens: Fuzzier and not smooth. Imagine knitted items like sweaters.

Because worsted wools are finer, they are better at keeping out the wind and rain, but woolen wools are going to be warmer. Their fuzziness helps to trap air and therefore insulate you better.

You should also know that worsted wool fabric is very resilient. That is, it wants to return to its natural shape. Obviously, this is just what we want with men’s suiting. When we sit down at a meeting or drive to work, we want our suit to go back to its natural drape and not be prone to wrinkling.

Manufacturing

The key thing about worsted yarn is that it’s comprised of straight, parallel wool fibres, with little space between them. But if you’ve ever seen a clump of wool, it’s anything but straight. And every sheep I’ve seen up close appears to have a wool coat more akin to dreadlocks than anything resembling a fine suit. So, how does a clumped pile of wool turn into fabric that can be sewn into a bespoke suit?

First of all, that clump of wool has both long and short fibers. To make all of the short pieces of wool align with the long pieces, so that it all can be spun into a yarn, it is first carded. Carding is a mechanical process that will help to disentangle and mix the fibers. It is sort of like brushing in two directions at the same time with stiff brushes. Ostensibly, early forms of carding were done using teasel heads, a thistle-like plant.

Then the wool is combed to remove all the little short fibers. The long fibres then go through gilling machines to align the fibers parallel once again. This eventually results in a bunch of overlapping and untwisted strands called slivers.

As a byproduct of this process, woolen wool can be collected. It usually comes from sheep with shorter wool fibers, but during carding these short fibers can be collected and made into your favorite woolen sweater.

After the wool is carded, it is then spun into yarn and woven into great big sheets.

Clearly, the manufacture of worsted wool is relatively complex and time consuming. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that worsted wool is more expensive than woollen fabrics. Raising sheep for the production of worsted wool can also be in competition with other forms of agriculture.

Wear

The one drawback to some worsted fabrics is that they may go shiny at areas that receive a lot of wear, such as the seat of pants and skirts, because the parallel fibres are pressed more firmly together. Something good to know is that twill weaves are more likely to go shiny than plain weaves after significant wear.

Semi-Worsted

Steer clear of this. This is a fabric with yarns that are spun tightly, but not combed. Manufacturing-wise, this is a cheaper process and usually done with inferior wool. Certainly not what you want in a custom suit.

Super 100s, 120s, 150s - what does it mean?

As the story goes, when the first Super 100s wool was developed back in the 1960s, nobody could believe how silky smooth the wool was. In their exuberance, they exclaimed that it was super!

Here’s the whole idea: The higher the number, the narrower the fiber. The number refers to the diameter of the wool fiber.

"S" Value "Maximum Fibre Diameter"
Super 80s 19.75
Super 90s 19.25
Super 100s 18.75
Super 110s 18.25
Super 120s 17.75
Super 130s 17.25
Super 140s 16.75
Super 150s 16.25
Super 160s 15.75
Super 170s 15.25
Super 180s 14.75
Super 190s 14.25
Super 200s 13.75
Super 210s 13.25
Super 220s 12.75
Super 230s 12.25
Super 240s 11.75
Super 250s 11.25

Today, super numbers are creeping higher and higher. Careful sheep breeding and manufacturing now enables wool to be as fine as 14 microns or even smaller.

Fortunately, there is a bit of regulation on this topic. Mills are supposed to follow the Fabric Labeling Code of Practice, as set forth by the International Wool Textile Organization (IWTO).

Part of the reason that these Super numbers have really taken off in the past 10 - 15 years is that it’s perceived as an easy way to gauge the quality of a suit. And let’s face it, us guys tend to look for easily ways to categorize things.

But higher quality doesn’t always mean higher durability. A real high S-number can cause problems when manufactured into a suit and it won’t hold up as well at the dry cleaner. Also, these fabrics can be relatively wrinkle prone. In our opinion, a Super number at about 160 and up will start to give you some diminishing performance.

When you're shopping

So, what does all of this mean? How do you find the right suit fabric for you?

Here’s an easy way to gauge the quality of a suit fabric: Take a handful of fabric and clench it in your fist tightly, then let it go. A high quality fabric will rebound quickly. If you’re looking for something that won’t wrinkle easily, this is what you want.

If you’re looking for a suit fabric that will be very durable, know this: Worsted cloth is usually woven in a twill or plain pattern. And twills tend to be stronger than plain weaves.

How about breathability? None of us like suits that make us sweat through our dress shirts. When shopping for a custom suit, it’s important to understand that a high Super number, that is, a lighter weight fabric, won’t always mean that it’s a cooler fabric. For instance, in our summer-weight worsted wool fabrics you’ll often see a looser weave. This is how a wool suit fabric can actually be quite breathable.

Next Steps

We hope that this article helped to shed some light on worsted wool. As you can see, there are a handful of key things to look for when you’re out shopping. Consequently, an important part of our job is helping our clients find the fabric that’s right for them.

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