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The Many Uses of Wool

During the process of writing my Handwork Album I have done a LOT of research into wool and have been amazed to find out quite how much we humans use it. Wool is not just the stuff we knit into warm blankets and quaint tea cosies – is a key material in a myriad of everyday products and specialist equipment. Industries as diverse as medicine and sport, music and conservation, all make use of the unique properties of wool.

This is how I explore the many uses of wool with the children in my class. You can do this with any age child (or adult). Ideally, I would have actual examples of wool products for the children to look at and feel, and I would tailor the lesson around these. If you don’t have any actual examples, you can print and laminate the pictures so the children can hand them around.

Remember not to give the children too many ideas about the uses of wool – you need to leave some for them to discover themselves.

Writing in italics: What I say

Standard text: What I do.

Step 1

I have been thinking about wool this morning and about what a useful material it is. My gloves are made out of wool and I have been knitting some wool slippers. I’m wondering what else wool might be used for. I’m pretty sure that humans have found many other uses for this wonderful material. I wonder if we can think of any?

Help the children to brainstorm uses for wool and discuss why it might be particularly good for each purpose.

Step 2

Show pictures of different wool products and discuss each one with the group.

The nomadic people in the steppes of central Asia take their homes with them as them move around. This means their houses need to fold down small enough to be carried by mules, but also need to be sturdy enough to live in when they are put back up again. As the climate is very cold, the houses need to be warm inside. The people have developed a clever solution for this – they live in circular tents called yurts. Yurts are made of wooden frames covered with layers of wool felt to keep the heat inside and the snow outside.

Wool is used for insulation in permanent housing too. It is more effective at keeping heat in than any of the manmade alternatives, and does not contain dangerous chemicals – in fact it can actually absorb chemicals and clean the air. And, as it cannot catch fire it is a very safe material to have in houses.

Wool is also a perfect natural sound insulating material, as it can absorb both low and high frequency sounds.

Early tennis balls were made of leather and stuffed with anything from sawdust to chalk until the French King, Louis XI, declared that they could only be filled with wool.

Early Scottish players also used wool in their tennis balls, but their method was to wrap the wool around the outside of a sheep or a goat stomach and secure it with rope.

Tennis balls are no longer made from animal stomachs or leather but top line tennis balls, such as the ones used at Wimbledon, are still coated with a layer of wool felt to give them bounce. A fleece from a single sheep is enough to make felt for five hundred and twenty tennis balls.

Tennis players are not the only sportsmen to recognise the value of wool – would you believe both baseballs and soft balls are also filled with wool?

Have a look at this picture of the inside of a baseball and you might be surprised.

Have you ever seen a pool or snooker table? The tables look very smooth and flat but if you have touched one you will know they are also kind of furry. That is because they are covered with a layer of specially prepared wool that affects the speed the balls roll.

And have you ever looked at a piano and wondered how the sounds are being made inside it each time someone presses a key? Maybe you have looked inside and seen the little hammers that strike the special strings. If you have, you will have seen that each hammer is covered with a soft pad that allows it to hit the string and then bounce gently back into its place. Can you guess what that pad is made from? – Yes, wool of course! In fact there are many musical instruments that have wool in them – it is used on bass drum strikers, timpani mallets, cymbals stands and accordion keys.

We have talked about using wool to keep our bodies warm, and we have seen how people use it to keep their houses warm. Well, there is something else that people like to keep warm and they often use wool to help – tea! The English love to drink hot tea, but as England is not a hot country, they need to keep the teapot warm. Woolly tea cosies are a fun way to do this and they can be made in all different shapes and colours.

If we start to look for different ways that wool is used in the world we may be surprised by the number of places we find it. In homes it is used in carpets and furniture as well as insulation. Hospitals use it to dress wounds and people have even started making coffins out of wool as it is thought to be better for the environment than using wood.

Wool is a truly versatile material that helps us in so many ways. You might like to do some research or just look around and see if you can spot some more ways wool is useful in our lives.

Children really enjoy being ‘Wool detectives’ and finding as many uses of wool as they can. If you or your children find any interesting uses for wool, please share them in the comments section.

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