Everything you need to know about virgin sheep wool

“Wool is just wool”. That’s definitely not what we think! Here we explain the difference between sheep wool and virgin sheep wool, what we at Lehner Wool look for when purchasing it, and how the wool is then processed by our company.

What exactly is pure new sheep wool?

sheeps sheeps

Not all wool is the same, despite popular belief. There are between 900 and 1,000 breeds of sheep allows the existence of many different kinds of wool. In fact, studies have shown that between eight and 14 types of wool grow on a single sheep alone. This results in a total of over 30,000 different types of wool worldwide.

Virgin wool Virgin wool

But what do all types of sheep wool have in common?

Sheep's wool is a natural animal fibre consisting mainly of protein. Proteins are large molecules, so-called macromolecules. They are made up of amino acids. A distinction is made between globular proteins, which are rather spherical and easily soluble in water, and fibrillar proteins. These are mainly found in keratin, a protein which is present for example in hair or fingernails. The proteins are more elongated and thread-like and do not dissolve in water. Sheep's wool consists mainly of keratin.

More precisely, sheep's wool can be divided into two parts: the outer cuticle and the inner spindle cells.

The outer cuticle is made up of individual fibres coated with wax, which protect the core particles from any water, as thanks to the wax it will just roll off them. The wool also gets its natural shine from this layer. The wool wax is called wool fat or lanolin. Due to sun and weather influences, this layer oxidises, and this typical sheepskin smell develops. This wax is produced by the sebaceous glands of the sheep’s skin and serves as a natural protective shield. It is now also used in the cosmetics industry.

The spindle cells inside consist of two types of cells that wrap around each other and have different degrees of elongation. This causes the sheep's wool to curl. The spindle cells are made up of macrofibrils, which in turn are made up of microfibrils that can be further subdivided down to the protein molecule chains.

Structure wool fibre Structure wool fibre

Why is virgin sheep wool so popular?

Virgin sheep's wool: sustainable raw material Virgin sheep's wool: sustainable raw material

Virgin sheep wool is so popular because it has an amazing number of capabilities and properties. For instance, sheep wool is a renewable raw material, its ignition temperature is about twice as high as that of wood (560 - 600° C) and its positive influence on indoor climate speaks for itself.

As measurements by the German Wool Institute prove, sheep wool can demonstrably improve indoor air due to its climate-regulating properties. It eliminates unpleasant odours and can even neutralise toxic pollutants such as formaldehyde (link text neutralise formaldehyde) due to its basic building block keratin. In addition, sheep wool provides pleasant room acoustics due to different forms of fibre fineness.

Furthermore, sheep wool has a hygroscopic effect. This means that it can ideally regulate the humidity in a room by absorbing excess moisture and releasing it again when the room air is dry. Wool can absorb up to 33 % of its own weight in moisture, store it and release it again when it gets warm without suffering any damage. Manufacturers of sports textiles as well as mattresses, duvets and pillows make use of these natural properties. We also rely on this special feature in our ISOLENA natural insulation materials. Another advantage of this versatile natural raw material is that sheep wool does not provide a breeding ground for mould spores due to its protein fibres.

Sheep wool vs. pure new wool: what's the difference?

It’s not an uncommon question to ask: what exactly is the difference between sheep wool and new wool? The answer is quite simple. Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, sheep wool is simply the generic term for wool that is obtained from sheep in different ways. Pure new wool comes from living and breathing sheep, meaning that the wool is fresh. Since the wool is directly taken from the sheep after shearing, it is of high quality. Sheep wool, on the other hand, can also be made from textile remnants. In general, the following sub-types can be distinguished:

  • Pure new wool (comes from the living animal)
  • Torn wool (old textiles that are recycled)
  • Tanned wool (wool that comes from slaughtered animals)
  • Death wool (wool that comes from animals that have died of natural causes)

What we at Lehner look out for when buying and processing virgin sheep wool

Wool is a sustainable, environmentally friendly and naturally renewable raw material. The ideal basic prerequisites for a truly "green" and "good" product. Nevertheless, one should always take a closer look. Even if wool is an exemplary raw material, the sustainability of the material only applies if animal husbandry is appropriate to the species and no chemicals are used in further processing.

In addition to animal and environmentally friendly aspects, other criteria are also important so that we can produce high-quality products from virgin sheep wool.

Purchase criterion: the quality of the wool fibre

There are three main elements to look for in wool fibres: fineness, crimp and length. Let's start with the first:

Wool quality Wool quality
The fineness of the wool fibre

The finer the wool fibre, the more valuable - this is the principle in terms of quality. The fineness of the fibre also determines for which later product the virgin sheep wool is best suited. The finer the fibre, the softer it feels, but the more brittle it also becomes. If the fibre is coarser, it is also more robust. There is a scale between superfine (15 microns) and super coarse (42 microns).

Several factors influence the fineness of the wool: climate, age, rearing, sex, diet and breed, but also where exactly the wool comes from on the sheep. One sheep alone can have several quality grades. The finest comes from the shoulder (1), side (2) and back (3).

Crimping the wool Crimping the wool
The crimp of the wool fibre

Fineness and crimp of the wool are directly related. The finer the wool, the more crimped it will be. The crimp also gives you an idea of how elastic and stretchy the wool is.

In the illustration you can see different crimps from high-fine wool (1) (2) to medium-fine wool (4) to rough wool (6) (7) (8).

In the case of virgin sheep's wool that has been industrially processed, the crimp can be lost. If you dampen the wool however, you can more or less get it back again.

Wolllänge Wolllänge
The length of the wool fibres 


The length of the individual wool fibres also influences the softness of the wool. The shorter the fibre, the softer the wool. The fibre length is the length of the fibre when it is stretched. The staple length, on the other hand, describes the length of the virgin sheep wool in the relaxed state, i.e., the wool in the crimped state. Roughly, the wool length can be divided into three sizes:

  • short staple (20-40mm)
  • medium staple (40-90mm)
  • long staple (90-550mm)
Why is wool itchy?

Whether wool feels itchy or not is mainly related to its fibre thickness. Thick and robust fibres do not bend easily, the ends can protrude and thus irritate the skin.

This itchiness is not relevant for a rug, but it is for clothing that comes into direct contact with the skin over a long period of time. We therefore recommend looking out for fine fibres such as merino or cashmere wool and be sure to wash textiles made of virgin sheep wool with a detergent before wearing them for the first time.

Purchase criterion: the origin of the wool

In principle, sheep feel comfortable everywhere and adapt ideally to the conditions. Only Corsica and Sardinia still have wild sheep.

New Zealand is known for its large number of sheep. People like to joke that there are more sheep than inhabitants - and this is true: in 2020, New Zealand had about 5 million inhabitants, and the number of sheep was almost five times as high. There are around 200,000 sheep per farmer. For the sake of comparison, we should mention that in Austria, there are around 20 sheep per farmer.

New Zealand is well known for coarse to medium coarse wool. Superfine wool comes from Australia and Argentina. Here there are special breeds whose wool is mainly used for fabrics for suits or sportswear. The main wool producers also include China, Uruguay, Argentina and South Africa.

Main wool producing countries Main wool producing countries
Main wool producing countries

Only virgin sheep wool is used at Lehner Wool. The reasons for this are quickly explained:

  • Tanning wool has already been chemically treated, destroying the natural properties of sheep wool. In a tannery, this is a necessary process to protect the animal's skin from rotting. Therefore, the wool is often chemically removed from the skin.
  • A chemically pre-treated wool reacts differently to a dye bath than an untreated one does. It therefore gets a completely different colour.
  • The behaviour of the wool would also change depending on levels of moisture.

Wherever possible, wool from the DACH region is used. This wool is ideal for insulation and garden wool.

Where does the virgin sheep wool at Lehner Wool come from?

Since too little virgin sheep wool is produced in Austria, some of Lehner Wool’s wool also comes from abroad. Depending on the intended use (production of insulation, acoustic products, floristry products, rugs, garden wool), we also use wool from different countries because of the wool quality. But where exactly does it come from?

Types of wool Types of wool
  • Curly wool from Upper Austria: This is our Lehner Wool nickname for this type of wool because of its strong curl. It has a merino wool content and is therefore ideal for felt production and dyeing.
  • East Tyrolean Stone Sheep: The wool naturally has different shades of grey, brown and white, which makes it something very special. We have been buying this wool for over 20 years because of these unique colour nuances.
  • Tyrolean mountain sheep: It is one of the most industrial wools of almost all European wools. Tyrolean mountain sheep are completely white, the wool is medium fine. In terms of length and crimp, it has a wide range. It should be noted that the autumn shearing is lighter than the slightly yellowish early shearing – this is due to more sunlight.
  • Turkmen wool: The sheep have a natural and intense brown colour. For nomads, sheep represent their livelihoods, as well as their means of obtaining meat and milk. The wool is only a by-product through which they can make a bit of money. The condition of the wool is therefore not as well-kept due to the many burrs, wire, etc. in it.
  • New Zealand wool: This is the world's most industrial wool and has a so-called “type” number, which gives information about fibre fineness, fibre crimp and colour. At Lehner Wool, we buy this wool at auctions in New Zealand.
  • Argentine lamb wool: Lamb wool is the first shearing of a lamb. The wool is very short, finer, crimpier and feels very soft. Lamb wool is more expensive because it weighs less. We use it for rug yarns and the corresponding felts for borders.

No matter where the wool comes from, we pay special attention to the quality and proper husbandry of the animals. Especially in Australia, the practice of mulesing is unfortunately still very widespread. In this process, pieces of skin about the size of a hand are cut off around the tail of young lambs. This is to prevent fly maggot infestation. Proper care with medication to stop the pain and prevent infections is usually not given. The aim behind this practice is to get as much profit as possible. We do not endorse such practices and clearly distance ourselves from these methods.

Impurities in virgin sheep wool

"Good" and "bad" wool

Every processor of virgin sheep wool would prefer to work with 100 % of the so-called wool hair: fine, supple and elastic wool fibres.

Naturally, however, every sheep shearing also produces the so-called stitch hairs: short, brittle, sharp fibres that are less supple and that don’t react well to being dyed. Fortunately, many of these stitch hairs (also called short or bristle hairs) break during spinning and fall out before further processing. Unfortunately, however, they cannot be completely ruled out.

Virgin sheep's wool Virgin sheep's wool

Everything "veggie"?

What you might not think of at first when you think of the quality of virgin sheep wool is plants. The vegetal content is the proportion of grass, straw, burdock ... that tends to get stuck in the wool. In New Zealand wool, for example, this proportion is about 0.2 - 0.3 %.

Most of the dirt is removed during washing. However, some of it only comes out during the carding or combing process. However, the new wool will never be completely clean, because even during the combing process fine blades of grass can get caught. That is why our woven rugs are always cleaned again by hand at the end and every fibre that looks out of place is removed with tweezers.

Sheep shearing

Sheep are usually shorn twice a year. Once in spring to get rid of their thick winter coat and so that they do not sweat too much in the summer heat. And then a second time before winter, so that they don't sweat too much in the barn when they are huddled together. The reason you want to prevent sweating is because the sweat could mix with the lanolin, or wool fat, and reduce the quality of the wool.

For the sheep shearing itself, the sheep must be dry, and then the coat is shorn off in one piece in just three minutes. That's between two and five kilos per sheep. This procedure is called "wool in sweat", meaning that the wool grease and dirt, such as grass or straw, are still present.

Again, virgin sheep wool can be divided into different categories:

  • Lamb wool: This is the term used to describe the wool after the first shearing after about 6 months.
  • Yearling wool: This wool comes from the first or second shearing after 10-12 months.
  • Single-shearing wool: Here, the sheep are sheared once a year.
  • Two-shorn wool: The sheep are shorn twice a year.
  • 8-month wool: The sheep are shorn every eight months.

Processing the virgin sheep wool

After shearing, the raw wool is pressed into bales weighing about 450 kg and taken to be washed with curd soap. The virgin sheep wool must now be brought to a certain slightly acidic pH value of 6.5 to 6.9, as it would dissolve in the alkaline range.

This is followed by drying. If the wool is for the production of our ISOLENA insulating materials, it is then pressed into bales and delivered to us in Waizenkirchen for further processing. For our decorative products of the floristry brand STYLIT, and our new wool rug brand FELICE, most of the wool is dyed before further processing. At Lehner Wool, the next step is to mechanically clean and card the virgin sheep wool. This means that wool is sent through many rollers with small hooks hanging from them. The new wool is thus completely "brushed through". The distance between the hooks is about 1 mm at the beginning and decreases to 0.1 mm towards the end. After that, the flocks are no longer flocks, but a single fleece. This can be further processed into other products.

For our FELICE rugs, the cleaned virgin sheep wool now goes through a few more production steps before we can lay your woollen rug at your feet:

ph-Wert ph-Wert

1. dyeing virgin wool

For white or brown rugs, we can process the washed wool directly. However, in order for our wool rugs to shine in a wide variety of colours, the virgin sheep wool is processed in a dyeing factory. If the end product is to be colourful, we unfortunately cannot work with pure natural dyes, because there is no method to dye the wool yarn in such a way that it is colour-, wash- and light-fast. Therefore, we have the wool dyed within the EU according to the REACH regulation. This EU regulation aims at a high level of protection for human health and the environment when dealing with chemicals. This way we can produce high quality yarns and still take care of health and the environment.

Colour mixtures Colour mixtures
Wool store Wool store

2. compose the right mix of colours

The virgin sheep wool we receive from the dyeing factory is usually not the final colour of the wool yarn. In order to be able to react to colour trends, to achieve different colour nuances and to create a consistent colour quality, we "create" the colours according to the following “recipe”: take 30% red, 50% white and 20% brown. We then mix the different colours into one colour, until the wool is "fluffy".

3. produce wool yarn

This processed virgin sheep wool is then spun into wool yarns in various thicknesses for a wide variety of rugs.

Many of these yarns go through another step: they are additionally rolled after spinning to make them more durable. For this purpose, the wool yarn is first washed and then dried in a drying chamber. This process felts the yarn specifically and makes the virgin sheep wool more resistant.

Yarn milled Yarn milled
Loom Loom

4. weaving the rug

Only after these many processing steps do the colourful wool yarns reach the weaving mill, the cornerstone of the production of our rugs made of virgin sheep wool. Here the warp yarn made of linen twine is pulled through numerous heddles of the loom shafts and the colourful wool yarn is prepared for the "weft": Through constant back and forth on our historic looms, the virgin sheep wool is processed into the rug you wish for.

Washing and care of products made of virgin sheep wool

Sheep wool products are resistant and have a high self-cleaning power. The best tip is therefore not to wash them. Many detergents have aggressive ingredients that can damage the wool and destroy the protective film. If washing is absolutely necessary, then use mild and special detergents and consider washing the item by hand.


Our sheep wool rugs are very simple to care for. Dirt usually only settles on the surface. Simply vacuum or tap it out and the dirt is gone. If there is a more significant stain, there are a few tips and tricks for getting the rug spotless again.

If you prefer to use home remedies for cleaning but don't know which internet tip to believe, we have tested them for you. Here you can find the results of our home remedy test for stain removal.

Rugs and allergy sufferers Rugs and allergy sufferers

Rugs and allergy sufferers

Even though rugs are often considered to be very efficient dust catchers, they are often more suitable for allergy sufferers than one might think. It is precisely this property that makes them particularly worthwhile for allergy sufferers. A rug can improve the fine dust content in the room air and thus allows allergy sufferers to breathe easy again.

In our magazine article "Rugs for Allergy Sufferers" you will find more useful information on what you should look out for if you or one of your loved ones suffer from house dust allergies.

Rugs and animals Rugs and animals

Rugs and animals?

If you keep a few points in mind, your favourite rug can also be suited to your pet. Here is a selection of points that encourage the right rug choice for pet owners:

  • Go for flat-weave or short pile rugs,
  • choose a non-sensitive material,
  • make sure that the colour of your pet's fur matches the colour of the rug.

If you also vacuum or air your rug regularly, you and your pet will enjoy the cosy styling element.