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The Science of Sheepskin

Modern high performance sheepskin combines the exothermic properties of wool with the hydroscopic quality of each individual wool fiber. The resultant fabric is as strong as leather, can absorb upto 30% of its own weight in water and can be washed and dried like a pair of jeans.

Man made fabrics can’t absorb water like sheepskin. This is because sheepskin’s absorbency doesn’t depend on surface tension (the physical property that makes water ‘creep’ up the sides of a jar). Instead, sheepskin ‘holds’ moisture within the air trapped between its wavy strands. Tight curly hairs inhibit air movement to such an extent that the space between them works in our favour, locking moisture comfortably away and producing heat as it does so.

Sheepskins produce heat as they absorb water

Wool is a hygroscopic fibre. As the humidity of the surrounding air rises and falls, the fibre absorbs and releases water vapour. Heat is generated and retained during the absorption phase, which makes wool a natural insulator. Used in the home, wool insulation helps to reduce energy costs and prevents the loss of energy to the external environment, thus reducing carbon emissions.” –Campaign for Wool

Sheepskins are naturally anti-bacterial, and will work surprisingly well as picnic rugs, particularly suited to nestling bowls and glasses away from the British weather. They also work well as baby changing mats and medical cushions – the moisture handling comes into its own on long journeys or when confined to a bed. Shake them out and they are ready for more.

Plastic isn’t fantastic

You can spend as long as you want snuggled up with a sheepskin. Unlike polyesthers, sheepskin releases zero endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Fight fire with fur

Wool is flame retardant, see for yourself in this short video.

No only are man made fibers derived from oil, but they also lack the heat and moisture handling properties of natural sheepskin. Sheepskin is flame retardant. Polyesthers are fuel, the difference couldn’t be more stark.

Plastic fabrics break down at an astonishing rate. Each time a man made fabric is flexed it sheds millions of tiny plastic fibers that have ended up in our air, water and food. Microfibers are found in almost every living being on earth, whereas sheepskins are 100% biodegradable.

99.6% of sheepskins are destroyed each year over ethical concerns regarding fur farms and animal exploitation. All Dartmoor Sheepskins are by-products of the meat industry, which consumes 5.5 million sheep a year but preserves just 60,000 hides. We think that’s a waste, do you agree?

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Do sheep die to make sheepskins?

sheepskin laid on log

Sheepskin is a sheep’s skin, and it comes from an animal that has been slaughtered. Most Sheepskins (including ours) come from sheep that have died for meat. *Very* few Sheepskins are tanned. 60k out of well over 5 million sheep. This is sad. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation a lorry load of plastic fabrics gets burned or buried *every second*. This is the same fate awaits all these millions of wasted sheepskins.

 and has come from a sheep that has died for meat.

Sad because at the end of their long life, sheepskins rot away harmlessly into the environment. Not only this, during use sheepskins emit zero endocrine disrupting chemicals.

Whereas man made fibers, made from oil (with all its associated “complications”) emit chemicals that harm developing brains. Sheepskin doesn’t do this. What sheepskin does is help regulate temperature and moisture (just like it did for the sheep). Its exothermic nature means it warms up whilst absorbing moisture, this is *very* good in winter. 

It can absorb up to 30% of its own weight in water (although we all know I’m talking about sweat, right?) this quality is excellent in summer.

Further reading can be found on the excellent Campaign for Wool website (Dartmoor sheepskins is not affiliated with Campaign for Wool, it’s just a brilliantly laid out argument for wool), here it is.

You may like to read my blog posts where I go into a little more depth about the ethics and sustainability of sheepskins, or perhaps you’d like to view our range of Dartmoor sheepskins?

sheepskin being used as a changing mat in the park
All season baby care, click here to view.

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Why Wool? -Because at the end of its long and useful life, it has the good grace to rot away.

Why Wool? -Because at the end of the party it has the good grace to leave.

Wool has qualities that man can only dream of recreating. The first attempt was made in 1855 and we’ve been trying in vain ever since. Not only does wool wick moisture and retain heat (and all those other good things we have come to associate with wool), but it also has the good grace to rot away harmlessly into the environment when it is finally done (to be clear: I have *never* seen a sheepskin reach the end of useful life).

Campaigners from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found a full bin-lorry of man made fabrics is being dumped or burned every second of every day. Much of this waste comes from wool replacement materials.

All Dartmoor Sheepskins come as waste from the meat industry. Less than one in two hundred sheepskins are tanned (the rest are landfill, or burned). To further compound the illogic of this we then extract oil from the ground and make plastic fur out of it. This causes a multitude of problems, including microfibers in our own bodies.

At the end of its useful life, wool can be returned to the soil, or the marine environment where it decomposes, releasing valuable nitrogen-based nutrients into the ground/ocean.

Campaign For Wool

Green, in unexpected ways

Step forward the Campaign for Wool with a series of short videos extolling the virtues of wool vs its synthetic counterpart. Take a look, we’ve worked with sheepskins for years and some of these videos surprised us. More available on the Campaign for Wool YouTube page.

Wool is a hygroscopic fibre. As the humidity of the surrounding air rises and falls, the fibre absorbs and releases water vapour. Heat is generated and retained during the absorption phase, which makes wool a natural insulator. Used in the home, wool insulation helps to reduce energy costs and prevents the loss of energy to the external environment, thus reducing carbon emissions.

Campaign For Wool

If you are already in love with natural fibers you may want to check out our specialist subject, and if that is your thing, you may like our range of natural plant dyes too! Keep it real – keep it wool.

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Are Sheepskins Sustainable?

Fake fur presents an apparent solution to the ethical issues with real fur. I cannot and will not defend the fur industry. But we are at a place in history where the reality of our situation must be acknowledged. We eat meat in the UK. This means we kill a lot of sheep, 15.5 million a year (PDF). Sadly, we destroy nearly all of the sheepskins – a madness only properly appreciated when considering the damage caused by the man made microfibers we create to replace them.

Our textile industries have responded to the public demand to ditch fur. A demand to end fur farms and needless slaughter. The trouble is we still want ‘fur’ and soft fabrics. People cleverer than this writer have created faux fur, which approximates that of animal origin but is made instead from plastic, derived from oil. Some of it is pretty good and feels authentic. Most doesn’t come close. All of it is damaging to life on earth.

Setting aside the serious global issues that we face because of oil, let’s look at the garment from the moment we first wear it.

As soon as you first put them on, your clothes start shedding fibers. This rate increases massively during each wash, Friends of the Earth claim that a single wash load can release up to seventeen million micro fibers. Micro fibers have entered the ecosystem, they’re in our food, in our water, and they are even in us.

Washing machines and wastewater treatment plants aren’t designed to trap the minute plastic fibres that our clothes shed during washing. Many of these fibres sneak into our waterways and ultimately the oceans. And lots are caught up in sludge at the treatment plants – which is then sprayed over our soils as fertiliser.

Friends of the Earth

Modern fake fur really came into being in the 50’s with the introduction of acrylic polymer fibers. These made man fabrics are easy to work with and can come close to feeling like fur. However, like all plastic, they have a useful lifespan. They also have a much longer decidedly not useful lifespan.

Microfibres have been found in air, rivers, soil, drinking water, beer and table salt.

Friends of the Earth

Broken artificial fibers join trillions of other tiny pieces of plastic that are literally entering the food chain. Man made garments take nearly a thousand years to degrade in landfill, or release damaging gasses when burned. Natural sheepskin simply biodegrades, happily we have on hand millions of sheepskins each year. Sadly, we destroy them.

99.55% of sheepskin is destroyed as a waste product of the meat industry. We then manufacture fake fur to replace what we have wasted.

Less than 1 in 200 sheepskins go through the tanning process, the rest are regarded as hazardous waste. If the public were to look at the issue of waste they might well grow more affectionate towards sheepskin.

Sheepskin has unique and valuable properties. It stops ice from melting and refreezing, for example, essential on Dartmoor at sub zero temperatures. It lets skin breathe and wicks moisture away. Its fibers are hollow, making them exothermic – they give out heat as they absorb moisture. All the while the structure of the crimped and curl fibers traps an insulating layer of air. Paradoxically, each fiber is also hydrophobic, making sheepskin easy to wash and dry (or to shake off picnic crumbs).

The shear waste is bad enough to make you wince, but to then manufacture a fake replacement for what you have wasted it is just plain wrong.

We are going to have to make different choices if we are going to make this life-on-earth thing work out. We are told our dietary choices need looking at too, with a reduction in meat. That is fine by me. But right now as at this moment we are manufacturing a plastic product to replace the natural one we are wasting in ridiculous quantities. Happily, the natural one is also better.

At the end of its useful life, wool can be returned to the soil, where it decomposes, releasing valuable nutrients into the ground. When a natural wool fibre is disposed of in soil, it takes a very short time to break down, whereas most synthetics are extremely slow to degrade.

Campaign For Wool

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