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German Wool Fabric & Manufacturing of WWII
By Raymond A. Velasco, revised by Dietrich Steiger


The wool used for the domestic production of Germany Army uniforms issued from 1933 to 1945 was a plain weave or "half twill", heavily felted wool with a fabric weight of 16-17 ounces.

Weave

In garment making, there are three basic weaves or derivatives thereof used on most fabrics; satin, plain and twill. Of the three, the plain weave is the simplest and the most common of all of the weaves.

In a plain weave there is a distinct checkerboard pattern formed when the lengthwise warp yarn passes over, under, over, under the crosswise filling yarn. This weave is not as strong as the twill weave, thus causing the garment being easily torn, wrinkled, and wears much quicker than the other weaves. As a plus, “plain weave” fabrics are not as absorbent as twill or satin woven fabrics because of the tightness of the weave making them perfect for shedding moisture like light rain.  Plain weave wool was used on German Army uniforms throughout the war, including tunics, trousers, overcoats, and field caps.


German "half twill" (the large square gray area to the left)

Around 1942-43 and continuing through the end of the war, another type of weave became prevalent which we have termed a "half twill".  The vertical or warp yarns exhibit a 2/2 twill pattern of over two, under two.  The horizontal or warp yarns however alternate between a 2/2 twill and plain weave (over one, under one) each row.  This creates a very distinct pattern with advantages of both weaves.  At some angles and distances, it has a distinct vertical banding in blocks of two as seen in the below photos of original wool samples which have lost their nap.  At other angles it can have a very diagonal appearance, most commonly attributed to and often confused with 2/2 twill.  The images below of original later-war German garments will hopefully lend some assistance in identifying this weave.  Each eye sees a bit differently, but the first and last photo tend to exhibit the vertical banding effect while the center displays a more horizontal banding of the exact same fabric.

At the time of this article revision (2019) the above "half twill" weave has been the most commonly used on reproduction wool garments for at least the past 5-8 years.  Some manufacturers continue to use a 2/2 twill weave, though thankfully it is becoming less prevalent.  Until the nap wears down (or is artificially removed in an aging process) it is very difficult to determine whether a garment is 2/2 or "half twill".  To date, after collectively examining hundreds of original wool items in person and in detailed photos, we have not found a domestic German wartime production wool garment which used a 2/2 twill weave.  There are a few extant original items made domestically from limited stocks of foreign production wool, some made in occupied territories using wool available in that area, or re-worked foreign uniforms which did have a 2/2 twill weave, but this is such a vast exception that any who value the common portrayal would avoid the use of such garments.

Composition

The composition of wool fabric used for German field blouses was wool fiber with viscose filler (viscose rayon). Prior to the first shots fired in Poland in 1939, the best quality German field blouse wool that could be had was 85% wool to 15% viscose rayon mix. This changed for the worse as the war progressed. Viscose rayon content increased when the war started. The first major increase of viscose rayon in wool was around March of 1940. This increase set the percentage of wool to viscose rayon at about 50%-50% and made its introduction into service in the Model 40 and Model 41 field blouses and various other garments. This worsened throughout the war and the composition ultimately reached 15% wool to 85% viscose rayon/recycled fiber on fabric made after 1942. Later fabric included recycled fiber from old, worn uniforms or from clothing donations made for the war effort. This viscose rayon/ recycled fabric filler lead to a quite inferior and unattractive wool as compared to the wool that was manufactured prior to the Battle of France in 1940.

Cellulose fiber production had and still has a very strong presence in Germany because of the abundance of trees. The Germans knew that they can synthetically manufacture any fabric, silk, cotton, wool with this material and did not have to worry about sourcing raw silk, cotton or wool for fabric production. We better know cellulose-based fabrics (depending on chemical process) as rayon, viscose rayon and acetate. Referred to as “dissolving pulp,” the cellulose is produced from specially processed wood pulp. Rayon is purified cellulose converted chemically into a soluble compound. This compound is then passed through a spinneret to form soft filaments that is thus converted into almost pure cellulose. Rayon is referred to as a “regenerated cellulose fiber” because of this conversion from a soluble compound into cellulose fiber. Viscose rayon is manufactured by converting the cellulose to xanthate. The xanthate is dissolved in caustic soda and thus regenerating the cellulose from the product as it is extruded from the spinneret. Most rayon is made in this process and is seen in the diagram to the right. Dated to the early 1900’s, most of this type of rayon production was done between 1925 to around 1955.

Even though the Germans used viscose rayon as filler in wool production, its main drawback was its lack of tensile strength. Wet cellulose, like paper, has no pull (tensile) strength and is easily torn apart. The same is true with any fabric that is manufactured with a high cellulose-based fiber content. The seams tend to give way when the garment gets wet or a folded edge on a hem like a cuff or collar would begin to wear quickly and create holes. The reason why German army field blouses went to a six-button front after the battle of France is due to the increase of viscose rayon content with wool. The SS really did not care about this dilemma and still retained the five-button front on later field blouses.

Late in the war the loss of wool content became so noticeable as to become the butt of a joke among the rank and file soldiers, who jibed "hey don't urinate on that tree, I may have to wear it tomorrow".

Color

The idea that Feldgrau was one specific color is an absolute myth. From sea foam green to almost brown grey, the field gray color of the German field blouse was all over the map but did stay within a general range. There are many mitigating factors that caused this, including a lack of a defined “feldgrau” palate, different companies manufacturing dye for wool fibers, different companies dying fibers, different companies spinning yarn, the natural heathering effect in woven wool, the increase of viscose rayon, the increase of recycled pulped up fabrics, repeated washing/drying, and fading due to elemental exposure.  In the striking photograph below, taken by Chris Pittman of original tunics in his personal collection and shared here with his permission, one can see the wide range of "correct" Feldgrau shades in wartime use.

The Germans “stock dyed” their wool. This process is where the wool fibers are dyed and then spun into yarn for weaving, creating a heathered appearance (This is where you can see distinct color fibers and the color is not uniform throughout the garment). The German’s did not “package dye” (dying the yarn after being spun), “piece dye” (dying the fabric after being woven), or “garment dye” (dying the garment after being sewn together) their field blouse wool.

   


Sources:
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Portions of this article were originally published at: http://lostbattalions.com/Resources/RayonArticle.htmlWe would like to thank Raymond A. Velasco & Ed Walton for allowing us to post this work here.

 

   
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