Many people have wool sensitivities or wool allergies that keep them from working with wool or force them to use blends that donât include a lot of wool. But what is a wool allergy and how does it differ from a sensitivity? How common are these problems?
Most medical experts, while not discounting the discomfort caused by wool sensitivity, say that true wool allergies are rare. A person with wool allergies has an allergic response, just like a person with an allergy to cats or pollen would have when he or she came into contact with those allergens.
Forty to 50 million people, or about 20 percent of the population of the United States, have some kind of allergies, but it's not known exactly how many people are allergic to wool.
The most common side effect of a wool allergy is a rash on the face, arms and hands. This rash may occur immediately after contact with the wool or it may take a couple of days for the rash to appear.
It is thought that most wool allergies are actually a reaction to wool alcohols, which are the main ingredients in lanolin. If you have a reaction to lotions, creams and makeup that contain lanolin, you'll also have a problem with raw wool.
To determine if you have a true wool allergy, a patch test can be conducted using wool alcohols. If you are found to be allergic to wool, you will have to find a different fiber to knit with.
What is much more common than a wool allergy is people with sensitive skin who feel uncomfortable wearing wool. Their skin is often irritated as well, but they do not have a true allergic reaction.
Many people who say they think they are allergic to wool just have sensitive skin that would be irritated by any kind of coarse fiber. Others, who might have a runny nose when they wear a wool sweater, might actually be reacting to dust mites or other allergens that are caught in the weave of the wool rather than having a problem with the wool itself.
One study showed that people wearing wool sweaters were exposed to 10 times the cat dander that people wearing no shirts were exposed to in homes with cats. That makes it especially important to keep your wool away from your kitties if you're knitting for someone who is allergic to cats.
Those who are sensitive to wool should also avoid wool, since there is no reason to unnecessarily irritate your body. If you don't know whether a person you are knitting for is sensitive to wool, it's best to avoid knitting with wool so that your gift will be enjoyed.
Some people who are sensitive to wool can successfully knit with or wear wool blends. Since each person's sensitivity is different, you might try experimenting with different wool blends, some containing more wool and some with less, to determine what your body can tolerate.
And because there is less contact with the skin when knitting than when wearing a knitted garment, and since the skin on the hands tends to be less sensitive than other parts of the body, it's a good idea to swatch the yarn in question and test your reaction by rubbing it on your skin and seeing what happens. You can also try wearing your swatch by pinning it to the inside of your shirt and noting how your skin reacts after a day of contact.
Some people find that wearing a shirt under a wool or wool-blend sweater makes it more comfortable to wear. If all else fails, you can always avoid wool altogether and start knitting with non-wooly fibers like cotton, silk, bamboo and linen. Some of these yarns are so nice you almost won't miss wool, and you certainly won't miss the irritation.