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Fibre Characteristics of Wool

Wool is a protein fibre chiefly composed of keratin. The fibre is made up of overlapping cuticle scales
and an inner cortex. Both the cortex and the cuticle influence the fibre properties of the wool and the
fibre is slightly elliptical, unlike other animal fibres. With the wide range of sheep breeds, the fibre
properties of the wool produced are equally wide ranging. The particular fibre characteristic of specific
breeds can be exploited by processing the fibre into appropriate end products. In a general sense, wool
varies from the super fine Merino producing a fibre similar to cashmere, very high lustre English breeds
producing mohair-like fibre, and coarse hairy wools similar to the guard coat of some goats.

The range of fleece weights produced annually by sheep in the IWS member countries is from 2-5 kg
clean depending on the breed of sheep and the farming environment. In the countries where sheep
owners income from wool is less important, the annual fleece weights are lower, ie. from 1-3 kg clean.

The first shearing of the sheep as a lamb occurs from 3-11 months of age and produces lambs wool
which is the finest diameter wool the sheep produces. The diameter is from 2-6 microns finer than the
second time the sheep is shorn usually at 9-18 months. The amount of change that occurs is influenced
by the interval between shearing, feeding levels and animal health and possible breed effects. The third
time shorn, the wool maybe from 1-3 microns coarser that the previous shearing . From then the change
in diameter is small. The range of fibre diameters between the different breeds of the sheep varies from
15 microns grown by superfine Merinos through to 45 microns produced by the carpet wool sheep.

The length of wool produced is influenced by breed and fibre diameter. Merinos range from 60-110 mm
if shorn annually through to the coarse carpet wools ranging from 100-200 mm annually.

Scientific breeding programmes in the major producing countries have almost eliminated melanin
pigmentation and consequently the wool is of very white colour. However, this is not the case with
wools grown in many of the other producing countries.