A Little History of Wool
Wool, of course, has been famed throughout history. You’ve probably heard of Homer’s magical and heroic tale of the Golden Fleece and although we’ll likely never know whether was a true story - it sure does make for a good yarn!
Sheep are valued for their fleeciness, however that wasn’t always the case. People started keeping sheep at least 9000 years ago but in those days, the wild sheep that were first captured had more hair than wool! Over thousands of years though, humans selected the woolliest sheep, possibly starting in Iran 6000 years ago, gradually breeding the varieties that we see today.
The soldiers of Ancient Greece used wool felt to line their helmets and later on the Romans used it to bolster their breastplate armour.
Don’t believe what you see on the telly - the Vikings overwhelmingly wore wool and linen, often in bright colours. By Anglo-Saxon and Viking times, wool had become so prevalent that almost every ordinary person, whether man woman or child knew how to spin wool with a little wooden whorl. If they had another job, they would often spin in their spare time, such was the demand. Even the god Odin himself was said to wear a wide-brimmed felt hat when travelling in disguise.
This importance only increased in the Medieval period, when wool became a major export commodity. The value of wool to the nation was officially acknowledged by the introduction of the Woolsack in Parliament. A large sack stuffed with bits of fleece from every part of England and Wales was placed so that the Speaker could sit upon it during government business. It’s still there to this day - albeit now filled with wool from the whole of the British Commonwealth!
As production started to pick up in England, the industry began to move over to textile production, dying and other forms of treatment. At this time, other places in Europe became important to the breeding of sheep, particularly Spain (where the Merino breed originated) and Southern Italy.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, production of all textiles expanded massively in England. West Yorkshire became the world centre, not just of woollen cloth manufacturing but also the making of finished garments. Alpaca fabric became popular worldwide after Sir Titus Salt used it to great success by employing new weaving techniques in the 1830s. In fact the model town of Saltaire - named after him - was built from the proceeds of his trade. Nowadays, the huge Salts Mill is an art gallery and shop and is home to modern digital enterprises.
Sheep seem like such benign little creatures don’t they? But did you know that they were responsible for the deaths of dozens of people during the Wild West years? Not directly of course! But the introduction of sheep onto the open ranges in Texas, Arizona, Wyoming and Colorado enraged some of the existing cattle barons, who wanted the land just for themselves. And so began the Sheep Wars, which involved around 120 different engagements and left some 54 dead between 1870 and 1920. You’ll be happy to know that things have calmed down considerably since then and the US is still one of the world’s major producers of wool!