History of Wool


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The remarkable history of wool

The remarkable part of the history of wool is that once there was no wool, and there were no sheep!

Ancient man adapted other creatures until more than 4,000 years ago. Our forebears reared animals which produced a form of wool.

But how they did it, what animals they used, and for that matter how on earth they came to know about (or virtually invent) wool, remains a mystery.

What's even more bewildering is the presumed ancestors of the gentle animal they named the 'sheep', lived far from ancient man. Of course this was back in the days when the world appeared much larger, than it does today.

We do know a significant number of modern sheep came from Mouflons, wild grazing animals of Mesopotamia. Their descendants survive today in the mountains of Sardinia and Corsica. In terms of the fleece, a more obvious forebear of today's sheep is the Argali, a wild horned sheep from Siberia.

Yet the problem of pin-pointing the ancestors is made more difficult because the merino appeared first in Spain, possibly 3,000 years ago. It is often regarded as the archetypal sheep, with its long fleece and hardiness. The evidence of early wool producing comes from far apart places too. The earliest piece of surviving woollen cloth was found in Denmark. Tests showed it was manufactured 3,500 years ago. Another piece was discovered in ancient Greece.

Farming these early sheep turned humans away from a complete dependence on hunting. It was an important revolution. By rearing grazers, food was always only a short walk away. Not only was uncertainty over the success of a hunt ended, men could choose the quantity of the meat too. Consequently, these early sheep were developed for both meat and their skins - as pelts and for wool. To cater for modern-day needs of course, sheep are now bred mainly for wool. In Europe, the meat of sheep comes mostly from lambs.

Another sheep-inspired revolution was on the way. When sheep were culled for the table their skins were available either for use whole, for garments and carpets, or for shearing. However, farmers wondered about shearing live sheep, and found the animal's natural docility made that entirely possible. So man began to enjoy seasons of wool from the same animal. This was of benefit to sheep of course, because they were allowed a much longer life.

Although this happened very long ago, it certainly announced the beginning of the wool industry.

The new sheep proved themselves to be amazing wool machines. As long as there were pastures for food, the animals grew their coats, and the more farmers barbered them, the more they provided.

Having plenty of wool is one thing, but what were these pioneering shepherds to do with it? Not so long before, comparatively speaking, there was no such thing as wool, and man had to learn how to use this amazing new commodity.

Of course they did and quickly, going by historical findings. Shreds of woven fabric found in Babylonia - Babylonia is said to mean Land of Wool - have been dated back to about the very beginning of the wool industry.

In the raw, wool is greasier than yesterday's fish and chip wrappers, and about as attractive. Grasp some wool though, and the first quality that surprises you is an extraordinary capacity for holding heat. Early man understood right away that they were onto a winner for clothing!

But first they had to devise a way to use the wool. Their methods were so right, they are still in use today. However, the whole wool industry process is now controlled by state-of-the art computers.

The first need was to find a way to dispose of the heavy grease. The answer was an early form of detergent. Next, a way had to be found to comb the wool into threads. Clever people, they discovered what came to be called carding brushes - which are still used today. These are boards with nail-like teeth which strip the wool into manageable fibres, like long hairs.

And once the degreasing was done, and it was turned into these tresses, man discovered a second unexpected wonder of wool. It became incredibly soft. These were the perfect qualities for clothing and bedding - warmth and gentleness. Sheep were certainly in the world to stay.

The next step was to turn the collections of wool into strands which could be woven. A twisting device was needed, and the first of the prototypes of the famous Spinning Jenny was built. It used another amazing invention, the wheel, though on a tiny scale, and soon the spinning wheel became part of our social history.
The spinning wheel was quickly improved over the years. The large hand-turned wheel, was used to drive smaller wheels, which in turn drove the spindle.
Spinning produced a long yarn ideal for weaving. This meant an enormous variety of clothes could be tailored. So this new-fangled animal called sheep, was responsible for a whole variety of trades - including the spinner, the dyer, the weaver, and the tailor.