Wool is a natural fiber that grows on the bodies of sheep. Since ancient times people have used wool to make their lives more comfortable for shelter and in clothing, floor coverings and decoration.
Animal skins have been used for clothing since prehistoric times and sheep have been domesticated, primarily for meat and milk, since around 9000-7000 BC. By then, the prehistoric breed, which had a hairy rather than woolly coat, had developed into an animal that was closer to the domesticated sheep we have today.
The first sheep reached the United Kingdom about 3000 B.C. when the Stone Age settlers were crossing the English Channel. By 1000 BC the Greeks had further developed the animal into a number of different breeds and had acquired the ability to process wool into cloth. By the seventh century BC, the Phoenicians were trading woollen spun goods with Britain, which they had acquired from the Israelis in exchange for tin and raw wool. This trading in raw wool marked the early origins of the wool industry in England.
By 1000 BC the Greeks had further developed the animal into a number of different breeds and had acquired the ability to process wool into cloth.
By the time Caesar's Roman legions had occupied Britain in 55 BC, spinning and weaving wool was long established, and a weaving factory was built inWinchesterfor shipping fine woolen garments back to Rome. With the arrival of the Saxons, the industry declined and flocks were destroyed. But the Vikings, and subsequently, William the Conqueror, introduced new sheep breeds into Britain. These became the most important descendants of the world's coarse wool-producing sheep. After 1066, the woolen industry was re-established in Britain and was of major importance for the next 900 years. The first Guild of Weavers dates back to 1080.
In this new era, the Roman town of Winchester was no longer the center of the industry. Instead, it had moved Southwest, around Bristol and Exeter, where the Cotswold breed, a breed still living today (although now reduced to approximately 1000 breeding females), gave its name to the region. Geographical diversification followed when, in 1111, Henry I introduced a textile industry on the Tweed River, which separates England from Scotland, a name that is still associated with wool textiles even today. Another name that has been preserved, dates back to the thirteenth century when Worstead in Norfolk (a parish in England and a noted early site for manufacture of cloth made from worsted yarn) became an important center for spinning wool (worsted wool – long-staple, combed wool fiber that is spun into yarn).
By this time, expertise in weaving and finishing wool had shifted to Flanders in France where English wool was converted into fine textile materials. Some of it was then shipped back to England for retail sale.
By the middle of the fifteenth century, wool production was the most important industry in Britain, and indeed, the famous Woolsack, upon which the Lord Chancellor sits in the House of Lords, was installed by Edward III as early as 1350, lest Parliament should ever forget how important the industry was to the country. By the reign of Elizabeth I, wool represented four-fifths of Britain's total exports.
By decree, funeral shrouds had to be manufactured from wool, wool caps had to be worn, and women had to wear flannel next to the skin. Exporting sheep was punishable by death.
By the early eighteenth century, specialized breeds were being developed; breeds that are still important today. By the end of the century, the wool manufacturing industry was so vast that it became necessary, for the first time, to begin importing wool.
With the industrial revolution, the UK wool textile industry became established in Yorkshire. Indeed, Yorkshire became the center of world trade, where wool grown around the world was bought and sold at the Bradford Wool Exchange.
Columbus brought sheep to Cuba and Santo Domingo on his second voyage in 1493, and Cortez took their descendants along when he explored what is now Mexico and the southwestern United States. Navajo and other Southwest Indian tribes are famous yet today for their magnificent woolen rugs and colorful wall hangings.
Britain's Empire and colonies became major suppliers and the wool producing capabilities of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa became increasingly important.
Despite the fact that England tried to discourage a wool industry in North America, a few smuggled sheep had multiplied to about 100,000 by 1665. Massachusetts even passed a law requiring young people to spin and weave. Traditions and folklore grew with the industry. Spinning duties fell to the eldest unmarried daughter in the family, hence the term “spinster.” Spun yarn was wound on a reel (weasel) which made a popping sound when a given yardage was reached. "Pop goes the weasel!"
King George III of England made wool trading in the Colonies a punishable offense. Cutting off the offender’s right hand was the chosen punishment. This policy, together with other oppressive actions including the Stamp Act of 1765, which required that revenue stamps be affixed to all printed matter and official documents in the Colonies, helped incite the Revolutionary War. Despite the King’s attempts to disrupt wool commerce, the wool industry flourished in America.
Both Washington and Jefferson maintained flocks of sheep; both were inaugurated in woolen suits. New inventions like the spinning jenny, combing machines and water-powered looms, expanded the industry rapidly. Sheep moved West with civilization and beyond; at the turn of the 18th century small flocks in the hands of pioneers started the industry in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Australia and South Africa in particular became important in the supply of fine soft wool from the Merino sheep, a breed that could not survive in Britain, as was discovered in 1787 when several rams and 36 ewes, presented by the Spanish throne to George III, all failed to survive the cold, damp climate. The Merino is believed to have originated in North Africa around the eighth century AD. From there it was taken to Spain and, by the 1450s had become the basis of a flourishing wool industry.
The Australian Merino sheep produces fine soft wool for clothing.
Elsewhere in the world, production was also flourishing. Two rams and four ewes given by Spain to the Dutch in 1789 established the great South African production industry, which survives to this day. This stock provided the basis for the Australian industry whose sheep population exceeds 100 million, consisting mostly the fine-wool Merino breeds from the South African flock.
New Zealand, which has a climate more like that of Britain, has considerably fewer Merino flocks and specializes (like Britain) in Crossbred wools. These wools are coarser and more suitable for carpet. Considerable research in New Zealand has resulted in further development of breeds of particular fleece characteristics that will be discussed later.
New Zealand cross-bred wools are coarser and more suitable for carpet.
American wool has many uses. In addition to its well-known uses in clothing, fabrics, yarn, felt and carpet, American wool is used to make insulation, rug pads, baseballs and tennis balls. Some of the major wool processors in the United States include Burlington, Pendleton, Forstmann and Chargeurs.
U.S. mills must purchase Australian and New Zealand wool in order to meet their wool needs. Australia provides mostly finer wool, which is used in making apparel while New Zealand provides mostly coarser wool, which is used in making numerous industrial and home interior products. Although the United States buys Australian wool, it is not even in Australia's top 10 destinations.
China and Hong Kong are the largest wool buyers, regardless of where the wool is produced. Together, the two countries annually purchase approximately 20 percent of the world's wool clip. Italy is the second largest user of Australian wool, purchasing approximately half as much as Australia and New Zealand combined.
Down through the ages, two protein fibers had been used in carpet and rugs. They are wool and silk. Wool dominates the carpet and rug market; however, silk has been used to a limited extent in carpet, and it is used as the primary fiber or accent fiber in many high-value rugs that are considered works of art.
Sheep are as versatile as the fiber they produce. All parts are used; they provide tender, delicious meat and wool is a renewable resource. Sheep thrive in all 50 states and most nations of the world, often in rough, barren ranges, or high altitudes where other animals cannot survive because of lack of vegetation. Sheep can survive and flourish on weeds and vegetation other animals will not eat, therefore they convert to protein a group of natural resources which would otherwise be wasted. Sheep fill our food and fiber needs today just as they have for centuries.
Today, most wool used in clothing is produced in Australia from Merino sheep. Most wool used in carpet is produced in New Zealand from cross-bred sheep.
1J Gordon Cook, Handbook of Textile Fibers I, Natural Fibers, Merrow Publishing Co Ltd, 1993.
2G Meadows, Sheep Breeds of New Zealand, Reed Books.
3The American Sheep Industry Association, Inc.