In this article by Leslie Petroviski published in the 2018 Late Winter Vogue Knitting Magazine, explore yarn fiber allergies, the symptoms, culprits, and more!
Click these links to order your copy (I get nothing for that if you do! I’m just providing a resource!)
I do not necessarily agree with some of the points about the unlikelihood that wool could even BE an allergen that some of the sources proport, but the article gives a lot of really great information and resources to help you make your own decisions as you research the fibers you want next to your skin, and whether or not you want to seek a medical diagnosis.
Please comment at the end, and share this with others in your fiber arts world!
WHEN SUZI QUILLEN WAS 13, her grandmother made her a poodle skirt, which Quillen matched with a short, puffy-sleeved cashmere sweater in the perfect shade of cotton-candy pink. She was over the moon—until she was overcome by a hot, itchy rash. “You know what fiberglass feels like?” she asks. “Everywhere the sweater touched my skin, I turned bright red and blotchy.”
The problem doesn’t stop there. Quillen can’t wear wool or mohair, nor can she carry wool, cashmere or mohair yarns in her Arlington, Washington, shop, Perfectly Knotty. Is she allergic? Sensitive to the microscopic scales on animal fibers? What causes the irritation she experiences with these premium fibers?
For those of us who can happily stitch away with toothier wools like Romney and Icelandic, fiber sensitivities are the equivalent of a combined gluten/dairy/nightshade intolerance: Can you even conceive of life without pasta, cheese or potatoes, not to mention low-micron-count cashmere? But the struggle is a common one for a percentage of the crafting population. Certain fibers make them writhe, and this fact keeps textile scientists—and yarn designers—up at night.
Amy Singer, founder of the online knitting magazine Knitty and author of No Sheep for You: Knit Happy With Cotton, Silk, Linen, Hemp, Bamboo and Other Delights, says she is both allergic and sensitive to certain yarns. Diagnosed
by a skin-prick test as having a wool allergy, she also finds alpaca and cashmere uncomfortable to wear and work with, not because they cause an allergic reaction but because she says she can actually feel the microscopic scales on the fibers.
“I am hypersensitive,” she explains, noting that clothing labels and sock seams also bother her. But when she knits with wool, the feeling is altogether different: She first feels a prickling sensation in her hands; within minutes they start to burn. “I can tell when it’s an allergic reaction and when it’s something else. With wool, it’s an allergic reaction.”
Textile contact dermatitis—which falls under two basic categories, “irritant” and “allergic” contact dermatitis—is the umbrella name for Singer’s condition. The former arises when the skin’s protective layer has been damaged; the latter occurs when something sparks an immune response. Symptoms include itching, redness, burning, swelling, bumps, flakiness and even oozing blisters.
Michael Sheehan, vice president of the American Contact Dermatitis Society, is a dermatologist who runs a specialty clinic in Columbus, Indiana, for patch testing and dermatitis. He says textiles can irritate the skin, but that fiber allergies are fairly rare. “While the true incidence of textile allergies in the general population is not known, it is likely uncommon,” he observes. “The majority of skin reactions to textiles are the result of irritant contact dermatitis rather than allergic contact dermatitis. Certain people may be more prone to irritation. For example, people with a history of childhood eczema may experience more irritation from wool fibers.”
THE BLACK SHEEP AND GOATS AND LLAMAS, ET AL.
Wool in particular gets a bad rap, but other animal fibers, such as mohair, alpaca and cashmere, can also cause people discomfort. Whether it’s childhood memories of itchy sweaters (which may or may not have been wool) or experience with garments made from higher-micron-count fibers—what the yarn industry calls “rustic yarns”—wool struggles with an image problem. “People really need to be educated about wool,” observes Liz Deurmeier, interim manager of the Montana Wool Lab at Montana State University. “It’s an amazing fiber.”
WHAT IF WOOL FIBER IS ACTUALLY GOOD FOR YOU?
Research into wool’s awesomeness bears this statement out. Studies demonstrate that wool breathes, keeping bodies warm or cool depending on atmospheric conditions. It wicks moisture, biodegrades, resists burning and even protects the skin against the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Outdoor-clothing manufacturers including Smartwool and Duckworth, sock companies like Farm to Feet and Darn Tough Socks, and the hugely successful Allbirds, which use fine merino or Rambouillet fibers, have helped the public see that wool really isn’t just the Swiss Army Knife of fibers. It’s comfy, too.
In addition, wool may have salubrious properties. Wool garments and bedding can result in better sleep, faster muscle recovery and happier babies. Recent studies even suggest that merino may help reduce symptoms of eczema. Two studies, one focused on small children and the other on teenagers and adults, show that superfine merino can heal. Published in the British Journal of Dermatology last year, the infant eczema study discovered that superfine wool might actually improve eczema symptoms in infants. Adolescents and adults who donned low-micron-count merino garments next to the skin also experienced reduced symptoms, as well as enhanced mental and physical well-being.
The “how” behind wool’s healing potential is yet to be determined, but the current thinking posits that wool creates a more congenial microclimate between skin and fabric. “The mechanism for wool’s benefit has not yet been definitively proven, but our strong hypothesis is that wearing a wool base layer acts like a second skin for people—eczema sufferers, for instance— whose skin is ‘leaky’ and prone to drying out,” explains Angus Ireland, program manager for Fibre Advocacy and Eco Credentials for Woolmark Company, a subsidiary of the not-for-profit industry association Australian Wool Innovation. “Wool is comprised of a similar material to skin and holds a similar moisture content to skin, which is far higher than the other main textiles. It absorbs and releases moisture freely and provides better thermal insulation.”
Studies into the wearability of fibers such as mohair show that it too possesses remarkable characteristics. Renowned textile scientist Lawrance Hunter, who in the 1990s wrote the only definitive book on mohair and serves as the head of the textile sciences department at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, summarized the latest knowledge about mohair in a paper for the trade organization Mohair South Africa.
Produced by angora goats, mohair is known for its gorgeous luster and durability; plus, it’s water-repellent, absorbent, wrinkle-, soil- and fire-resistant and possesses fewer scales than merino, though micron counts tend to be higher. In the book Silk, Mohair, Cashmere and Other Luxury Fibers, Hunter’s chapter on mohair asserts, “From the point of view of health and safety, mohair, in common with other animal fibers, is generally very comfortable, and it is rare that any allergic reaction to it occurs, although there are occasionally problems with prickliness or scratchiness when the fiber comes into direct contact with the skin.”
Despite industry efforts to soften wool’s image, some consumers persist in looking askance at the fiber. A global consumer study by Wool- mark Company shows that 10 percent of all people who won’t consider buying a wool garment eschew the fiber because they believe they’re allergic to it. Data about the actual allergic potential of various fibers remains scarce, with the most robust information available about wool.
Understanding that people may be avoiding wool because of perceived allergies, the wool industry has invested heavily in research to subvert perceptions about wool as an allergen. In a massive literature review published last year, a team of dermatologists, allergists and immunologists pored over studies conducted over the past century and concluded that the evidence simply does not support the notion that wool itself causes allergies. By combing through the research, scientists determined that wool’s allergic reputation derives in part from older papers published using poor or inconsistent methods and from the historical analysis of coarser wools with higher levels of lanolin, manufacturing additives and dyes than are typically used today.
“The real takeaway from this study is that there is no credible evidence that wool fiber itself is an allergen or that the wool garments produced by today’s wool industry trigger allergic responses,” says Angus Ireland. “It found that cutaneous irritation caused by wool garments is due to the high fiber diameter of the wool in those garments.” Scientists now say that it’s the “prickle factor” that causes skin irritation. Garments made from wool or synthetic fibers that exceed 30 microns cause people with sensitivities to react. Because these thicker fibers don’t bend as easily, their ends can poke and irritate the skin, provoking allergy-like responses.
When allergies do occur, Michael Sheehan suggests, it’s often not the fiber per se that’s the culprit, but the dyes and finishing chemicals. “European data suggest that dyes and finishing resins are the most common potential allergens,” he says. Studies point to formaldehyde, disperse dyes typically used to color synthetic fibers, and para-phenylenediamine, also found in some textile dyes, as allergens. But if people can be allergic to dogs and cats, why not sheep? “In the case of cat and dog allergies, it’s often their dander or dead skin that is the problem; a protein in these dead cells triggers an allergic response,” Angus Ireland explains. “The dander can circulate in the air and settle on furniture, beds, etc., where it may be consumed by dust mites, whose feces and dead bodies can also trigger allergies. Sheep also produce dander, which can trigger an allergic response in the same way—only limited by the fact that sheep don’t normally live inside people’s homes.”
Ronald Pope, a research scientist at Texas A&M’s Bill Sims Wool and Mohair Research Laboratory, agrees. “Wool is a protein that is keratinized, like fingernails, hair, horns, hooves, etc. It is not actively growing once it is keratinized. Only below the skin of the sheep, at the root bulb, does growth occur. Therefore, it would not be rational to think that the fiber in garments is chemically reacting to human skin.”
ITCHING TO KNIT
People whose yarn or knitted garments cause discomfit typically don’t care whether they are literally allergic; they just want the irritation to stop. Amy Singer, who has spent the better part of her knitting career defending her wool allergy, takes the position that if working with a fiber feels bad, stay away from it. “Whether someone is allergic or not,” she says, “if it feels bad to them, it feels bad period. You are allowed to have that feeling. Find something else.”
When Suzi Quillen and her husband opened Perfectly Knotty four years ago, the couple initially carried a range of animal fibers. Over time, however, as Quillen spent more time in the shop, her face felt hot and her neck, chest and arms got red and itchy even if she wore cotton gloves while handling wool yarns. So she ditched the offending fibers and branded her shop “allergy conscious.” “I’ve never been medically tested,” Quillen says. “My philosophy is, Why do I need a test? What is that going to change about what I want next to my skin?”
As the only allergy-focused yarn shop in the country, Perfectly Knotty carries yarns Quillen tests herself and is able to tolerate: llama, alpaca, sugarcane, bamboo, milk, cotton, silk, acrylic, hemp, soy and peppermint. Only one yarn in the shop features a smattering of wool, the Hayfield acrylic/wool blend Quillen carries as a workhorse, which she can knit with but not wear. “Some customers can’t do any animal fibers at all,” she says. “Most customers with allergies know what they should and shouldn’t touch. Based on that, I tell people, ‘This is safe, this isn’t safe.’”
Quillen estimates that about one quarter of her customer base shops Perfectly Knotty because of an allergy or sensitivity. Most people have no issues with plant fibers, though occasionally a customer will have a reaction as a result of an additive used in the yarn’s manufacture. Overall, she says, people are becoming more aware of how their bodies react, whether it’s to gluten or to a particular fiber. “People are talking about it more.”
In the same way gluten sensitivity forces dietary exploration, a wool sensitivity pushes knitters and crocheters to experiment with yarns they may have never considered previously, such as pineapple, recycled denim or alternative animal fibers including yak or bison. “It’s so important for people to know they have options,” Quillen says. “As a person with these sensitivities, I thought there was no reason for me to go into a yarn store. But now there are so many yarn manufacturers offering new things. It’s exciting to be a front runner in this micro niche. There is a whole world of awesomeness out there. Why limit yourself?”