Sometime back in the eons of prehistory, a hunter killed a sheep and brought it home to make a mean mutton stew. His little family liked it so much that he decided he’d try to catch a few of those wooly critters and keep them around, so there would always be an ample supply of meat. His days of hunting pretty much over, he settled into a nice comfortable life as a shepherd. His wife soon discovered that sheep’s milk was pretty tasty, too, and began to make cheese. Then, some time later, her man needed a new cloak to protect him from the cold and rain as he sat and watched his sheep. Being an enterprising woman, she decided t give the wooly hide of last night’s stew-giver a try. And what she discovered was that the wool not only kept her man warm on those cold mornings, but it also kept him cool in the heat of the day. His new wool cloak also kept him drier than any other she’d made, as the wool seemed to whisk the moisture away. Aha! She thought, “This is fine stuff!” She began to pluck the wool from the sheep while they were still above ground and out of her stew pot. She twisted the tough fibers into long threads, which she then wove into cloth and dispensed with the idea of the hide, dead sheep and mutton stew to get a new cloak altogether. And the wool cloth industry was born!
Now, it wasn’t really as simple as all that. It took thousands of years for all the “technology” of primitive wool cloth to be developed. Sheep were bred for the thickness of their wool, finally producing breeds with predictably useable, valuable fleeces. Shears weren’t invented until sometime in the Iron Age, so generations of sheep herders wives did actually have to pluck the wool from the sheep. By 1500 BC, though, wool cloth was the staple of European fashion, being worn by high and low-born alike, as the sheep were plentiful and the fabric easy enough to make and care for.
The Romans somewhat perfected wool cloth, as they perfected so many other existing technologies, specifically the breeding selection needed to produce Tarentum wool, the finest quality wool in the known world. Roman soldiers marched off to conquest wearing wool cloaks, carrying wool blankets with woolen socks, underclothes and other garments in the packs or on their bodies. Many of the ancient people they conquered (or tried to anyway) also wore wool. The Celts dyed their wool and wove their cloth into the forerunners of the tartans beloved by their Scottish and Irish descendants today.
The spinning wheel arrived sometimes between 500 and 1000 AD, doing away with the time-consuming hand spindle, and allowing for much finer even yarn to be produced.
Medieval Europe saw the expansion of the wool trade, with many countries’ economies carried on the backs of sheep, such as the Medici’s of Florence and the entire economy of England. The mechanization through water mills of one of the most time-consuming tasks in wool making – fulling or felting – also occurred sometime in the Middle Ages. England’s raw wool was the finest to be had, and until the Black Death, kings and their kingdoms flourished on the taxes earned from its export. Eventually, England developed its own wool textile industry, and exporting of English wool was even made illegal for a time. Weavers from Flanders and France arrived to add their expertise and English wool cloth began to be exported in greater quantities than the raw fleeces. Tweeds and worsteds were invented at this time. After the Restoration in 1666, English wool cloth was considered so fine, it began to compete with silk on international markets. One of the complaints among the American colonies against the Crown was that they were not allowed to trade their wool with anyone else. In 1797, 13 Merino sheep were exported to Australia, and that country’s wool industry was born.
The Industrial Revolution brought about the end of many traditional wool cloth practices, and introduced many new ones. Mills could be run by water, and the mechanized factories could turn out cloth faster and more efficiently. The mechanized looms could produce even more intricate patterns than the traditional hand looms, and with wool’s quality to take dyes quicker, better and “truer” than other fabrics added to the expansion of available patterns and styles. The spinning jenny could allow one spinner to operate as many as 120 spindles at one time, greatly increasing the amount of yarn produced. Powered carding machines and other mechanized tools soon replaced every portion of the labor-intensive hand preparations, and many of those skills were nearly lost.
Wool cloth continues to develop, both in usage and in manufacturing processes. The astronauts wore woolen suits to combat the freezing temperatures of space. A new type of woolen suit has been developed in Japan that allows the owner to shower it down in his bath at home, hang it to dry for a few hours, and then wear it again without need for dry cleaning or ironing. Sheep selection and breeding are also continuing their development, providing the future of wool fabric with new, endless possibilities.