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Why we all love wool in winter: the history of the ultimate cosy natural fibre.

history of wool

The history of wool

Wool is a wonderful and versatile natural fibre and for centuries sheep and their fleeces have been an integral part of the British landscape and commerce.

Compared to the animals we know today, wild sheep  were hairy rather than woolly and became domesticated some 9,000 to 11,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence from Iran  suggests the first selective breeding of woolly sheep may have begun around 6000 BC, with the earliest woven wool garments having only been dated to 2,000 or 3,000 thousand years later.

history of wool

The easy mobility of sheep allowed the Persians, Greeks and Roman empires to distribute and therefore introduce sheep and their fleeces across Europe, and throughout the Roman period, there is evidence that wool fleeces became superior through further selective breeding.

During the 12th century, Greek weavers were sent to Italy as slaves after the Norman conquest of Greece which stimulated the Italian weaving industry to extraordinary work. It continued to be one of the centres of weaving excellence until the 16th century when the arrival of silk superseded it.
In the 13th century, the wool trade became the economic engine of Northern Europe  and central Italy. In Britain the monastic orders were at the centre of wool production as they had accumulated vast tracts of land during the previous two centuries while prices were low and labour still scarce.

history of wool

Raw wool was baled and shipped from  ports on the North East coast of England to the textile cities of  Flanders, Ypres and  Ghent, where it was dyed and worked up as cloth.
At the time of the  Black Death, English owned textile industries accounted for only 10% of English wool production. The textile trade grew rapidly during the 15th century, to the point where the export of wool was discouraged. Over the centuries, various British laws controlled the wool trade or required the use of wool even in burials. The smuggling of wool out of the country, known as  owling, was at one time punishable by the cutting off of a hand.

history of wool

The importance of wool to the English economy can be seen in the fact King Edward III insisted the Lord Chancellor should sit on a wool bale in Parliament to show its central role in the economy. Even today the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords  sits on a chair called the “Woolsack’’.

In 1789, two Spanish Merino Rams and six ewes arrived in South Africa after they had been gifted by the Spanish King to the Dutch. They had not enjoyed the North European climate but thrived in South Africa. Later their descendants were sent further afield to Australia and became the basis of their thriving sheep industry. Australia’s early economy was based on wool production and they supplied Bradford which was at the centre of the industrialised, mass production wool industry in the 19th century. Australia is still the main producer of fleeces but is now closely followed by China.

history of wool

Having been superseded by many man-made fibres, wool now accounts for only 3% of world textiles. However, it remains a fantastically versatile material with amazing natural properties. Being a breathable fibre, it can regulate itself to individual body temperatures. When it is cold, it can wick moisture from the skin and insulates to trap dry, warm air, and when it is warm, it lets in air which helps remove heat and moisture from the body. Not only that, it is water and dirt resistant, flame retardant and naturally anti-allergenic. Despite competition from man-made fibres, wool remains hard to beat as the ultimate cosy material for winter.

We are now stocking a new range of gorgeous 100% lambswool throws – have a look here.

 

 

Dormitory create timeless, exquisite bedlinen. Crafted in our own workshops we combine traditional techniques with the best luxury European fabrics.

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Meet the Founders – Sue and Cathy, of Dormitory luxury bed linen

Sue Graham and Cathy Marriott are the co-founders of luxury bed linen producers Dormitory. They also have an online specialist linen shop with their own product and a range of carefully edited bed, bath and living products. Here I asked them how they got started, how they work, and what they like in the world of interiors. 

How did you first meet?  

We both started working as sales assistants at Liberty in their Linen Department many years ago, straight from university after studying for different Art Degrees. We both went on to become Buyers there.  

How did Dormitory come about?  

After leaving buying, we were both consulting for some major home brands and decide to join forces on a couple of projects when, in the midst of a pitch to a well-known department store we were asked if we could also produce and supply the ideas we were presenting. Without hesitation we said yes. It was only when we got outside we thought “gosh, what have we got ourselves into?” but by then our brains were racing and we were committed. 

Was retail a good training ground?

Without doubt! When we first started, buyers were true product specialists and you had to know your stuff.  Retail is also really hard graft but very creative and proactive. If we see retail experience on a potential employee’s CV we know they will be great workers. 

Can you describe Dormitory’s ethos?

We truly love textiles and are not interested in churning out cheap tat that will fall apart after a few washes. We pride ourselves in producing a well-crafted product using quality materials. Other items we sell on our website do, we believe, follow that same ethos. 

Do you export your products? 

We have sold our product all over the world and have worked on projects from retail collections to palace refurbishments. It is always exciting working on collections for other markets, often you can work with colours and materials that just wouldn’t work here. 

What is your favourite design?

Cathy: I have just painted my bedroom a soft pink and have taken home a set of Brunswick in Flint. The dull green works really well against the sweetness of the walls. I am also thinking of taking a set of the Empress in green for winter when I love the cosiness of cotton sateen. 

Sue: I have a real thing about investing in classic pieces to form a strong base and then experimenting. I have a dark blue bedroom but with very classic white Brompton percale on my bed but its then dressed with some of my odd finds. Antique cushions, vintage bedspreads I’ve experimentally dyed. I would always suggest trust your own judgement and don’t follow fashion slavishly. 

brompton white

What sort of bed do you have?

Cathy: I have an antique headboard which I found locally and was going to paint but the wood grain is so nice I ended up leaving it as it is. 

Sue: My husband and I are both tall so need a large bed which has been made extra long. Luckily, finding sheets to fit is not a problem as we stock them! 

What did you last buy for your home? 

Cathy: I have had wires for wall lights sticking out of my sitting room wall for a year and just yesterday finally found some vintage French 1950’s sconces on ebay. 

Sue: I bought a fantastic solid wood table, that I’d found in Belguim, for the kitchen. It took 6 men to carry it in but it does seat 12 so is perfect for dinners. 

What is your best tip for making a bed look good? 

Cathy:  Don’t be mean with pillows. A good bed needs to look plump and ready to jump into. Euro square pillows are great for adding some height and are perfect for Sunday morning sitting with the papers in bed. 

Sue: Buy the best quality you can afford. The better the quality and finish the longer it will last after numerous washes. Classic, luxury bed linen can always be updated with up to the moment accessories and throws. 

What trends are coming in linen?

“Cosy” seems to be the buzz word this Autumn and, with an increasing interest in the benefits of sleep, comfort really is of paramount importance. We have already seen a growth of interest in washed linen and a more casual and informal style of bedding. Now it really is going to be all about the tactile qualities of linens and creating the perfect winter nest. There is also more colour around, mixing and layering contrasting tones sometimes in unexpected combinations. 

Sustainability is also another long running trend for us. Far better to buy one set of beautiful bedlinen that will last than continually buying poor quality sets that have to be replaced regularly.  

Do you enjoy running your own business?

Over the years there have been plenty of times when we’ve thought we must be mad. However, as soon as you think about another job you soon realise that doing something else just isn’t an option. Essentially, we just love linens and the creative process. There is nothing more exciting than being at the inception of a new product and following and controlling all the stages, till it is in the hands or ‘bed’ of your customer.  As to the rest, it is all manageable and with the help of the best people round you, all solvable just as long as there is a plentiful supply of tea!  

Plans for 2018

We’ve got quite a lot of travelling and sourcing planned for 2018, North Africa and Madagascar for new textile and embroidery ideas as well as returning to our usual European haunts. We will try to find more time next year to just design and progress with some ideas that have just remained on the drawing board this year. 

We will be working on items nearer to home in Scotland and Sussex. Lots of new ideas for the bed as well as launching a table linen and accessories collection for outside dining next spring. 

 

 Interview by Jay Curtis

Dormitory has just launched their new website with some fabulous new products for Autumn. Check it out here.