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A Magic Square

Clara Parkes
Clara Parkes
4 min read
A Magic Square

Get ready, I'm about to wax poetic about a $28 square of fabric. Before you say I've lost my mind, hear me out.

It's been over a year since I've packed a bag and gone anywhere. Maybe you haven't either?

But when I did travel, I prided myself on being able to pack light. During my last book tour, I lived out of a carry-on bag for nearly a month—and not one of those spacious wheelie bags that has to be gate-checked, but a wee handheld carry-on that slips in the overhead bin of even the tiniest of commuter planes. No missed connections or lost luggage for me!

Even with space at a premium, there's one thing I have always packed: a pretty piece of cotton fabric, sometimes just a dishtowel, other times a napkin. It depends on my mood. But this simple cloth is useful in a million ways, from serving as an impromptu tablecloth to padding fragile items or mopping up a spill. It's also a grounding reminder of home, a declaration of care and comfort and constancy.

Enter Wool

But now, the Seattle-based Tom Bihn—maker of my beloved carry-on bag and all my other portables—has introduced something even I hadn't thought of: a Shepherd's Wool Utility Cloth.

That's right, a rugged, everyday, multi-purpose cloth that's very intentionally been made of wool.

The Premise

While it might seem silly to rhapsodize over a 27-inch (70cm) square of hemmed wool fabric you could basically do yourself, the mere idea of this, and the way Tom Bihn executed on that idea, excite me. Imagine your trusty, go-everywhere cotton bandana, but with a four-season upgrade. That's the basic premise.

Using 23.5-micron wool from Australia and New Zealand, the utility cloth was woven in Selkirk, Scotland, at the Ingles Buchan textiles mill. This mill specializes in tartans, it knows how to do sturdy and well-wearing.

For a major North American maker of ultra-durable bags and backpacks (and bags for knitters) to add a wool product is noteworthy. For Tom Bihn to call it a "utility cloth" is a refreshing rebranding of the icky plastic "utility" rags used for mopping up roadkill or motor oil. (Speaking of which, wool is also excellent for cleaning up oil spills. More about that another time.) And for Tom Bihn to take the time to explain the provenance of the fabric, down to the half micron, moves the public forward in a positive, more informed direction.

It's a Bird! It's a Plane!

What do you do with this cloth?

Could be a scarf, a tablecloth, a coaster, or a bandana (although at 23.5 microns, some may feel a prickle). Or perhaps you need a lightweight lap warmer, a makeshift curtain or hat, a seat cover, a bottle wrapper, or all sorts of other things. While writing this, I discovered that the cloth also does a good job of keeping your laptop from overheating on your lap.

Multipurpose Magic

The utility in this simple piece of fabric comes from the myriad innate qualities of the fiber itself. Wrap the cloth around something and it cushions it (thanks crimp!) and provides efficient thermoregulation for whatever's inside, hot or cold. It also keeps things dry, since, as we all know, wool can absorb up to a third of its weight in moisture before it starts to feel wet. I'll have a hard time using this to mop up anything but water.

The cloth also acts as a silent, cordless air filter, with the wool capturing volatile organic compounds from the air and locking them away within the fibers.

And the real secret weapon, one that blows away the cotton dishcloth and bandana alike? This humble piece of well-made fabric is also a small but effective personal fire extinguisher. It alone won't put out a housefire, but wool's high nitrogen and water content make it an ideal material for smothering small fires before they become big ones. It'll extinguish before it ignites.

It feels far too soon to be talking about travel. Which is fine, since Tom Bihn sold out of the first run of seven colors and won't have more until the end of May. But maybe, armed with this little piece of magic, I'll feel safer when it is time to venture back out into the world.

Clara Parkes

Wool is life. I make The Wool Channel go.