Just look at sheep, and it’s no wonder our ancestors thought to make use of their fluffy coats thousands of years ago. From sweaters to socks, wool can be found in all manner of apparel, known for its comforting warm. Here’s a look at one of the world’s most historic fabrics.
Ancient peoples in Asia Minor travelled with flocks of sheep used for food, shelter and clothing as far back as 10,000 years ago. By the age of the Roman Empire, large numbers of sheep (often thousands) marched alongside legions as they conquered Europe and Britain. The Romans, as far back as 50 AD, built wool plants to produce the sought-after fiber, such as the mill in modern day Winchester.
The wool trade would later grow in the medieval era, stimulated by the Saracen and Norman conquests, and become an integral part of the economy in places like England, Spain, Florence, Genoa and Constantinople. In England, the trade was so important that the presiding officer of the House of Lords sat on a chair stuffed with wool called the ‘woolsack’, while in Spain the export of sheep was outlawed until 1786-an offence punishable by death. Desirable breeds of sheep like Merinos became valuable commodities and were often bought in large numbers by the wealthy in order to cross them with their own flock. King Louis XVI famously imported over 300 Merino ewes to cross with his own Rambouillet breed on his estate in France.
The wool trade later helped finance expeditions to the New World, where it flourished despite imperial attempts to disrupt it. Harsh, oppressive punishments were dealt out by the British Empire to anyone engaged in wool trading in the colonies, further inciting the population towards revolution.
The demand for wool gradually declined following the Second World War with the increase in popularity of cotton, polyester and nylon, as well as the development of synthetic fiber. Today, the wool industry is still worth billions of dollars, with the major producers of the world being China, Australia, and New Zealand-a country where sheep outnumber people by approximately 7-1.
A Golden Fleece
The legendary Greek epic Jason and the Argonauts tells the tale of the quest for the Golden Fleece, and although the story is a fictitious myth, mankind has been actively seeking to raise sheep with desirable traits for thousands of years. There are estimated to be over 200 different distinct breeds of sheep in the world today from Merinos and Shetlands to Dorsets and Targhees. One individual sheep can produce as much as 30 pounds of wool in a single year and they are extraordinarily adaptable, thriving in a variety of environments. Sheep graze on grass and other short roughage and do well in monoculture pastures-often consuming invasive plants like spotted knapweed and cheatgrass. They are, however, big eaters and can overgraze. On account of this, as well as predation from mainly coyotes, flocks must be tended to by a shepherd-sometimes aided by a trusty border collie.
From Fleece to Fabric
A sheep’s coat of wool is known as its fleece and each fleece or collection of fleeces (called a ‘clip’) is graded based on the length of individual fibers, the average fiber length and the amount of contaminants, dirt or vegetable matter. Fleece from a fine wool sheep has a smaller fiber diameter and is therefore more valuable and whiter fleeces are preferred as they are more easily dyed. Because of its bulk, wool retains heat, holds air and readily absorbs moisture.
The process by which a sheep’s fleece is removed is called shearing and is primarily done by hand. Specialists known as shearers cut the wool coat off the sheep using scissor-like instruments called shears. Expert shearers can shear up to two hundred sheep per day and many alternate between continents in order to continuously work in the springtime (the season when most shearing is done).
When the wool is first cut off the sheep it contains a greasy wax called lanolin, secreted by the animal to keep it water-resistant. This grease is removed by ‘scouring’ the fleece, either in a warm bath or with chemicals, before the fibers are passed through a series of metal teeth in order to straighten and blend them into slivers-a process known as ‘carding’. The fibers are then spun together into yarn before being woven into fabric to make warm socks, sweaters, or blankets.
More than being loveable animals, sheep have provided humanity with warm, comfortable clothing for thousands of years. If you’re not already feeling like buying a wool sweater it just so happens that, according to the Chinese calendar, 2015 is the Year of the Sheep.