Sherpa is a type of textile made of polyester or a blend of polyester with other fibers. It is a popular alternative to shearling.
I get asked this question every now and then, especially when the weather starts to turn. Given the state of the climate, I’ll probably be asked this question less and less over time so I’ll go ahead and answer it now. I love researching new things.
Is it vegan or vegetarian? Sherpa is usually vegan and vegetarian. It’s cruelty-free when it’s 100% polyester or polyester combined with cotton or synthetic fibers (e.g. acrylic). But “sherpa” is sometimes used to refer to a fabric composed of a blend of synthetic fibers and wool (usually cashmere).1
Hence, when wool is combined with polyester, sherpa is non-vegan. But, this seems to be a rare occurrence, and I’ve yet to run across any tags or labels on sherpa products that mention wool in the mix.
What we’ll do here is look at the main reasons most sherpa is considered vegan.
Why Sherpa Is Usually Vegan and Vegetarian
Sherpa Contains Polyester
Sherpa is often 100% polyester but can be part of a blend with other fibers incorporated.
Polyester is a category of polymers, which are molecules with a structure consisting entirely or mostly of a large number of similar units bound together. The category is characterized by having esters (a type of functional group in organic chemistry) bound to their main chain.2
Polyester is always considered vegan, because they’re either chemically synthesized (industrially), or are present in naturally occurring plant-based substances like cutin (waxy polymers that are part of the plant cuticle).3
So, polyester is vegan because it’s chemically synthesized for industrial use, and it’s plant-based when it exists in the natural world.
Sherpa Often Contains Acrylic
In the event that the sherpa is not 100% polyester, it can be made by incorporating acrylic fibers. The fibers are synthesized from a polymer known as polyacrylonitrile which is produced using acrylonitrile.4,5
Among other materials, it’s often incorporated into sweaters, boots and boot linings, hoodies, gloves, hats, athletic wear, blankets, carpeting, roller brushes, area rugs, upholstery, wigs, and hair extensions.5
Anyway, it’s vegan because it’s synthetic and petroleum-derived. Acrylonitrile (the precursor) is a type of fiber produced as a byproduct of the petroleum industry by reacting specific coal or petroleum-based chemicals with certain monomers. I.e. it’s a fossil fuel-based fiber and thus never animal-derived.
Sherpa Can Contain Cotton
I haven’t found cotton in much of the sherpa I’ve run across, but it’s supposedly a fairly common fiber to be incorporated with polyester in making sherpa.
Cotton is always vegan, as it’s a soft, fluffy fiber that is plant-based—it grows around the seeds of certain cotton plants.6
The fiber is almost entirely composed of cellulose, which is a tough plant fiber that makes up much of the cardboard-like high-fiber food products we eat.
It May Look Authentic, but it’s Not
Well, it’s authentic sherpa, I suppose.
Because sherpa resembles wool in appearance but is typically made from polyester, cotton, or acrylic, it’s often called “faux shearling”.
It looks very realistic which is why folks often have a hard time believing it’s cruelty-free. Not all sherpa looks ultra-realistic, as it’s often dyed bright colors. But, it can be made to look extra real—just check out Ryan Gosling’s coat in Blade Runner 2049.7
If you find yourself wearing an extra realistic coat made of sherpa, you might want to avoid visiting vegan restaurants and meetup groups, because you might just get paint thrown on you by a PETA activist.
Anyway, it gets its name because it resembles the wool-lined garments worn by the Sherpa people, a population native to mountainous regions of Nepal and the Himalayas.
It was made to resemble sheep’s wool, as it mimics the bumpy texture.
It Doesn’t Require Wool Fibers for Insulation
As mentioned above, sherpa can be made by incorporating sheep’s wool with cotton and synthetic fibers. But, this is an exception to the rule. In researching this article, I found sources claiming that wool can be present, but never found any examples.
Obviously, I’ve yet to search every nook and cranny of the web, and I’m sure there are wool-containing examples of sherpa products on the market. So, as astute vegans and vegetarians, we should always check tags and labels.
Anyway, the good news for vegans and vegetarians is that sherpa not only resembles wool in appearance but in insulation. Sheep wool is obviously very insulating, which is why sheep need the stuff.
The faux-sheepskin fabric known as sherpa makes a great lining for coats and jackets because it surpasses the performance of sheep wool in freezing temperatures.
Because it’s synthetic and performs so well, it means manufacturers will prefer the textile to natural wool and shearling, due to cost-effectiveness.
So, all those blankets, hats, mittens, slippers, and lined boots you see are often free of wool.
Benefits of sherpa over wool include:1,7
- It’s more affordable than sheepskin
- It mimics the look of wool, but without cruelty
- It doesn’t deform or wrinkle easily when exposed to high temperatures (i.e. dryers)
- It’s easier to clean and dries quickly
- It’s extremely comfortable, breathable, and fluffy
- It’s strong, yet more elastic than wool
- It’s resistant to damage from mold, insects, and chemicals
- The loft (thickness of quilt batting) makes sherpa quilts and sherpa-lined products extra warm.
- It’s even better at insulating than shearling
- It’s less bulky than shearling (despite being better insulating)
It’s important not to take this kind of technology for granted given the inhumane nature of the wool industry.
Again, sherpa is used to replace shearling.
The term “shearling” is what it sounds like. It describes a lamb (young sheep) that has had only one shearing.
As a material, shearling refers to the skin from a recently shorn lamb that’s been removed and tanned with the wool left on.8
So, it’s leather and fur all in one—i.e. about the furthest thing from vegan you can get.
The skin of a shearling lamb is removed, tanned, dyed, and processed with the wool still intact. This process creates a material with leather or suede on one side and soft wool on the other side.9
Let’s just be glad they have alternatives today.
And again, always check the tag/label to ensure no animal fibers are incorporated into the sherpa.
That’s it for the vegan status of sherpa. Thanks for reading.
- Sherpa Fabric Is Suitable For Lining Fabrics and Winter Accessories. Unitex – https://www.unitex-factory.com/sherpa-fabric/
- Polyester. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyester
- Cutin. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cutin
- Polyacrylonitrile. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyacrylonitrile
- What Is Acrylic Fabric: Properties, How It’s Made and Where. Sewport – https://sewport.com/fabrics-directory/acrylic-fabric
- Cotton. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotton
- Shearling Vs. Sherpa: Which Is Better? Author Staff – https://news.orvis.com/products-we-love/shearling-vs-sherpa-better
- Shearling Definition. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shearling
- Shearling. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shearling