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.
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 It continued to be one of the centres of weaving excellence until the 16th century when the arrival of silk superseded it.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.
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.
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.
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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