20th May 2021

Why are mohair socks better than the rest?

Why are mohair socks better than the rest?

Mohair is the truly all season sock

Spring is here. Or is it? The primroses have popped, the bluebells are bursting, the campions are coming. Time to get outside, stretch the legs, put on some miles, maybe lose some pounds, catch some rays. But it’s hot and cold, warm and cool, howling gales, providential showers. What to wear? Why, it's mohair, the sock for all seasons.

Got a bit prosy there. Sorry... More seriously, we thought it was time for a mohair explainer to say why we're such fans of Mohair Socks and why, after you've bought your walking boots, posh wellies or trail shoes, you really need to spend a little more on your feet.

The Story of Mohair  and Angora Goats

Not to be confused with 'angora wool', which is actually from the Angora rabbit, mohair is what we call the wool or hair grown by the Angora goat.

Thought to have originated separately from all other breeds of goat, Angora goats are different from the common, dairy or cashmere goat in many ways. Their progenitor is thought by some to be the wild Falconer's Goat, Capra Falconeri, still found in the Himalayan mountains of Tibet.

 

Markhor or Capra Falconeri

Capra Falconeri, the ancestor of the Angora Goat. Maybe.

It's thought that Angoras were introduced from Central Asia in the 13th Century from Turkestan to the area around the city of Ankara (formerly Angora/Ancyra), by Suleyman Shah's forced 'relocation' westwards by Genghis Khan.

Following the presentation of a pair of Angora goats to the Pope in Rome, in 1554 their precious fleece was soon after so much in demand it became subject to an export embargo by the Turkish Sultan, until Queen Victoria applied pressure to have it lifted. 

Although mohair has been used in high end British suiting and fine apparel since the 19th Century, angora goats weren’t successfully introduced into the UK until the 1980s. 

Angora goats are small and friendly, and as long as the conditions are relatively dry, easy to manage and very rewarding. They are shorn twice a year (unlike sheep, which are shorn annually). I'll come back to Angora goats later but if you want more in the meantime check out the British Angora Goat Society.

Angora goats

Angora Goats Climb Trees

Magical Mohair

Angoras do not produce lanolin (the oily waxes that sheep rely upon to stay waterproof), so they are not well suited to wet climates and rely upon structure of the mohair fibre to still function when wet. They also lack the insulating fat layer that sheep enjoy, so their fleece is the only protection from the environment. It has therefore developed by breeding over hundreds of generations to be a superb insulator in the wet and the dry. This is why mohair is warmer when wet than sheep's wool is (after the wool is stripped of its lanolin). In addition, the silky-smooth hollow fibre takes dye colours extremely well. What starts out as a natural pure white fibre has better light-reflective qualities than wool, cashmere or alpaca due to the lack of microscopic scales and its famously lustrous sheen enhances colours added to it.  You'll see this lustrous quality in many of the mohair throws we keep in our collection. 

Mohair takes a dye beautifully

Mohair takes dye beautifully 

 

Why No Smell?

Because goats produce no lanolin, the mohair has developed as a smooth fibre, better at shedding water than sheep's wool, which is surfaced with microscopic scales. Because it has no scales there are no tiny crevices for bacteria to hide and breed in - and this is why mohair socks don't get smelly: they're naturally anti-bacterial.

 Why Warmer than Sheep’s Wool?

Insulation is achieved in garments by creating pockets of low conductive material to prevent heat from crossing one side to the other. Mohair does this by catching pockets of air between the fibres as well as inside the fibres because they are hollow. Sheep’s wool relies upon lanolin to help keep the fleece dry on the sheep (the the original wax jacket!).  Angora goats, on the other hand, did not need to develop this waterproof coating in arid Turkey or Tibet, but the fibre itself has had to develop some water-resistant qualities. The smooth hollow fibres absorb some water and a lot of water vapour, but because wool is “breathable” if it does get a bit wet your mohair socks will continue to help keep your feet warm.

What do you mean by breathable?

Like all wool, mohair is able to absorb and desorb moisture to and from the fibre. This is the science-ey bit… Every time wool absorbs moisture into the fibre a chemical reaction occurs and heat is created. This is known as the “heat of sorption”. When wool releases moisture through evaporation, cooling occurs as heat within the fibre is released. When water evaporates from the surface of the fibre it cools the fibre, as heat is expended from the surface to the water to change the water from a liquid into a vapour form. The latent heat (the heat absorbed by the water as it changes state) contains a considerable amount of energy and carries away more heat than if the same temperature liquid was simply removed physically. All textile fibres do this to a small extent, but wool and especially mohair (and merino) performs exceptionally well.

This is one of the reasons why wool fibres are comfortable to wear: they breathe for you, creating their own microclimate against the skin. This is often called wicking.

To provide its maximum cooling efficiency evaporation should occur within or at the skin surface and perspiration transferred through clothing in vapour form only. The structure of wool fibre assists in the body’s natural cooling mechanism of perspiration evaporation at the skin surface by preferentially encouraging the transmission of perspiration in vapour rather than liquid form (Benisek et al.,1987).

Caingorm Mohair Socks

My beautiful wife still modelling the Best Socks in the World!

And her dæmon Monty. 

Wicking gives comfort

When wool absorbs moisture, it produces heat. Surprised? True. So... if you go from a warm room into a damp, cold night wearing a wool jumper, the wool picks up water vapour from the air, heating every fibre and helping keep you warm. The opposite occurs when you re-enter the warm room – the moisture in your jumper passes into the atmosphere (evaporates), cooling you down. Tiny pores in the fibre’s cuticle cells allow water vapour to pass through the wool fibre. This makes wool comfortable to wear in both warm and cool conditions - automatically adjusting as the environmental temperature changes. This is why a wool blanket or wool duvet is comfortable under a much broader range of environmental temperatures than other blankets or duvets.

What about blisters?

Another great advantage of the slippery features of mohair is that the smooth fibres are soft on your feet. Explorers, adventurers and hikers have walked further on mohair socks with fewer blisters than in all other socks

The smooth fibre also lends it long life. When the fibres are rubbed together the lack of scales causes less friction and so there is less wear and tear. 

 

Dartmoor Mohair Trekking Sock

Mohair for long distance blister-free walking

Why is mohair different to cashmere?

Most mammals are dual-coated - protected by two coats. An outer coat of coarse "guard hair" is mechanical protection for the animal; beneath this is an inner coat of much finer thermally insulating hair, often called down which is much softer and easily damaged and is protected by the guard hair.

Like sheep, Angora goats have bred over the years to produce only one highly developed inner coat with no outer coat. The fleece grows into long uniform corkscrew ringlets and curls, which provides thermal insulation and some protection. This is why Angoras appear to the casual observer more like sheep than other goats. Unlike Angoras, cashmere goats have both types of coat, and so the fine down is combed out from beneath the coarse guard hair instead of be shorn like a sheep or Angora.

Long staple: strong yarn

The fleece grows to around 6 – 9 cm long (the staple). This is much longer than cashmere down and the yarn that is spun from it, even when using the very fine kid-goat fibres, is stronger than the equivalent yarn spun from cashmere, alpaca, merino or other sheep's wool. 

Hard-wearing, yet soft

Because mohair is a stronger fibre than sheep’s wool, we can use a finer micron to spin yarn from it. A finer fibre makes a softer feeling yarn, but it is still strong. The smoothness reduces friction and wear and tear as the fibres pass more easily across each other, not being caught by microscopic scales, reducing felting.

All these features combine to give mohair the unique qualities that make it perfect for use in socks and lend it its name "Diamond Fibre".

Mohair, Merino or Alpaca?

Merino is famously gorgeous and can certainly be softer than mohair. It shares almost all the qualities of mohair but is not nearly as hardwearing so, even a coarser merino fibre will not last as long when knitted into a sock. The same is true of alpaca wool, another fibre which has broadly similar qualities to mohair. Famous for its soapy “handle” alpaca is wonderfully slippery to the touch and makes gorgeously soft and comfortable alpaca socks, throws and apparel. It is, however, not as strong a fibre as mohair, so it is less hard-wearing, and a pair of alpaca socks is better suited for the bedroom than the boot room. 

Angora Husbandry - is it cruel?

Keeping any animal can be cruel but it does depend hugely on how they are looked after. Well kept angoras enjoy their time on earth: they live long, happy and stress-free lives.  It is worth mentioning here that as long as angoras are shorn properly by a trained goat shearer it is a painless process. It's more difficult and slower than shearing a sheep and Angoras are more delicate and need to be treated with more care than sheep. Goats are sentient animals that have good memories and individual personalities; and even the grumpy old goats deserve to be treated with respect and decency. There have been some horror stories surrounding angora husbandry in South Africa, but the very vast majority of farmers recognise that keeping your goats happy and pain-free makes for a goat with a long life and a more productive one. Sarah and I took so much pleasure in being with our own tiny flock of Angoras with our small children, but we realised that as the Cornish climate became warmer and wetter, they were not well suited to living here, so we wound up our already small angora farming operation. Though sad to see them go, we felt it was the right thing for them.

Ok so Mohair is best

The main downside is the cost of the fibre. Like fine merino and alpaca it is not cheap. The best and finest fibre is shorn from a kid goat at about 1 year old, after this the price goes down as the age and fibre thickness goes up.  You might imagine that a kid goat doesn't produce much mohair and only produces it once. "Young Goat Fibre" is still fine enough for superb quality socks and this is the fibre we use in the yarn for our British made, hand-dyed and hand finished socks.

The smoothness that makes it kind to feet does also make it difficult to work with. Spinning the yarn is difficult as is knitting. It takes skill, time and the right machine. So larger sock manufacturers, who run fast modern sock-making circular knitting machines don't make them.

Wool Fibre sizes, by diameter in microns

The lower the number, the finer and softer the fibre. A micron is a millionth of a metre, or one thousandth of a millimetre. For reference, a human hair ranges from 17 - 181 microns.

Fibre

Microns

Alpaca

20-41

Angora rabbit

10-18

Camel

15-22

Cashmere

14-16

Merino

18-24

Mohair

23-38

Possum

12-14

Qiviut (Arctic Musk Ox down)

10-18

Vicuna

12

Yak down fibre

15-35

 

Some sheep breeds: sorted 

Merino

18-24

Rambouillet

18-24

Blue-Faced Leicester

22-25 

Icelandic

22-28 (55-65 outer)

Southdown

23-29

Finnish Landrace

23-31

Shetland

20-33

Shropshire

24-33

Leicester Longwool

37-46

 

 

 

2 comments

  • Linda Farmer: May 22, 2021

    Thank you for this article. I found it very interesting as I, like most people I suspect, don’t know much about different kinds of wool. Once people understand I think we are more likely to appreciate these wonderful fibres and buy them too.

  • Jane Franklin: May 22, 2021

    Wow, what a great article! It’s both interesting and informative.

Leave a comment

All blog comments are checked prior to publishing


Please confirm you are human by answering how much is:
Answer:*
x