Wool is the fiber derived from the fur of animals of the Caprinae family, principally sheep, but the hair of certain other species of other mammals such as yaks, goats, llamas and rabbits may also be spun. In Nepal however, most woolen products are made from yak wool or a mixture of yak and sheep wool, which is most available within the country. Wool has two qualities that distinguish it from hair or fur. For one, it has scales that overlap like shingles on a roof, and it is crimped. In some fleeces the wool fibers have more than 20 bends per inch. And, wool is a renewable resource; after shearing it grows back.
Global wool production is approximately 1.3 million tons per year, of which 60% goes into apparel. Australia, China and New Zealand are the world’s leading commercial grade producers of wool. Due to their high prices, however, very little wool is imported to Nepal from these countries. Most Australian wool comes from the Merino breed. Breeds such as Lincoln and Romney produce coarser fibers and wool from these sheep is usually used for making carpets. The American states of Texas, New Mexico and Colorado also have large commercial sheep flocks. Some small farmers maintain a thriving ‘home flock’ tradition, raising small hobby flocks of specialty sheep for the hand spinning market. These small farmers may raise any type of sheep they wish, so the selection of fleeces is quite wide. The woolens available on the Nepal market, however, are mostly from the high altitude sheep and yaks of Nepal and Tibet. Because wool production here is not nearly enough to meet the rising demands of the local and export market, Nepalese business people also buy wool from India.
In addition to clothing, wool has been used for blankets, horse rugs, saddle blankets, carpeting, felt, wool insulation, and upholstery. Wool felt is used to pad piano hammers and is also used to absorb odors and noise in heavy machinery and stereo speakers. The ancient Greeks lined their battle helmets with felt, and Roman legionnaires used breastplates made of felted wool. In Nepal, highland ethnic groups such as the Gurungs living on the south flanks of the Annapurna, raise large flocks of sheep and make water repellant woolen capes with stripes, and durable heavy blankets with check designs. Some street peddlars around Kathmandu sell blankets of this sort from the hills.