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Shep-Wol-Hst-art - 7/27/13


"Sheep and Their Wool Throughout History" by Maistreas Siobhan nic Dhuinnshleibhe, OL.


NOTE: See also the files: sheep-lambs-msg, The-Sheep-art, B-H-Cheviot-art, livestock-msg, lamb-mutton-msg, merch-fleeces-msg, wool-clean-msg, felting-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



Sheep and Their Wool Throughout History

by Maistreas Heather McCloy, OL


Based on fossil remains and other archaeological evidence, it seems that wild sheep of four major types evolved in the mountains of Central Asia between ten and twenty million years ago.  These sheep generally had a longer, hairy outer coat and a softer, shorter wooly undercoat.  They would have shed their hair every spring instead of needing to be shorn like modern sheep, and they would have had a variety of naturally-colored fleeces instead of white fleeces that would provide camouflage and help them blend into their environment.  These early sheep would have migrated throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa, adapting to changing climates, terrain and food supplies as they entered new areas.


Scientists believe that sheep were first domesticated around 10000 - 8500BCE in the region of land bordered by the Persian Gulf and Black Seas and the Himalayans and Caucasus mountains.  These sheep would have been kept mainly as milking animals, but these animals had coats comprised of hair or kemp fibers rather than wool as we know it today.  It is estimated that sheep were not actually developing wool that was spinnable until 4000 BCE, but the wool produced at this point was shed periodically by the animal and not sheared.  The earliest fragments of wool fabric were found in Egypt and date to 4000-3500 BCE, and several pieces found at a German archaeological dig were dated from 1500 BCE to 1300-1000 BCE. During this time our primitive ancestors began to discover that domesticated animals could produce useable products without being slaughtered, and it is believed that selective breeding for traits such as meat quality and fiber were begun sometime during this period.   These sheep would gradually spread out into North Africa, Egypt, Greece and Italy, where they would be discovered and selectively bred by the Romans. Dyeing woolen fabric was an established occupation in Rome in 715 BCE, and by 200 BCE, the Romans had bred their native ewes with rams from Colchis to produce the Tarrantine breed, which is the ancestor of the modern Merino breed.


Italy, Spain, France and England were the major wool producers in Europe, and the economies of these four countries often rested heavily on their woolen industries and their importation of fleeces and fabric.  The competition existing between these nations based solely on wool production and importation is so prolific that it is impossible to impart the woolen history of any one of these countries without mentioning the influences made by these other countries.


In the port town of Cadiz, the Spanish were trading wool and woolen goods with the Phoenicians as early as 1000 BCE.  In Spain a Roman named Columella developed the Merino sheep sometime between 144-100 BCE.  Merino sheep, which have some of the softest wool in the world, were so prized for their wool that it was punishable by death to export them from Spain until the 1760s.


In 768 CE, Charlemagne made the first agreement with England to import wool produced in their monasteries. A little over 100 years later, Alfred the Great helped the development of an English woolen industry, and his mother was instrumental in establishing a network of cottage spinners throughout the country. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, York, Bristol and Exeter had become the major wool production centers in England, and Flanders the major wool-weaving center of Europe.


Henry I of England established the Scottish woolen industry on the river Tweed in 1111. He sponsored the first woolen cloth guild in England in 1120 and greatly advanced the textile skills of the nation by assisting Flemish weavers to relocate throughout the country and spread their knowledge throughout the villages and countryside.  In 1132 French Cistersian monks relocate to England and start wool production in their abbeys. In 15 years they have over 15,000 sheep in the flocks scattered between their 50 abbeys in England.


The woven woolen cloth industry in England grew so much that a guild for those that fulled woolen cloth was established in 1164.  England's woolen industry continued to expand and became such an important factor in the national economy that when Richard the Lionheart was captured by the Saracens in 1195 during the Crusades, English wool was sent as part of his ransom.  During this time Spain's woolen industry also became powerful due to the softness of it's merino wool, and increasing lengths of Spanish wool were imported by England. So much Spanish wool was exported to England that Henry III was forced to order all cloth containing Spanish wool to be burnt in 1221 in order to protect the English woolen industry. A little over 200 years later, England would once again outlaw the importation of woolen goods from any country in order to protect their national woolen industry.


In 1327 and for 50 years afterwards, Edward III earned the title of "Royal Wool Merchant" for his efforts to improve the national textile skills by offering asylum to all textile workers willing to emigrate to England.  Many Flemish weavers relocated to England and were able to establish separate industries for both spinning and weaving woolen and worsted wool products. Only 20 years later the woolen industry of England, as well as the rest of Europe, was hit hard by the succession of plagues that swept through the countryside.  During the Black Plague in 1349, sheep so outnumbered people that they ran rampant throughout the countryside.


The English woolen industry continued to have its ups and downs through the next 200 years, at times promoting exportation of English wool or preventing the importation of foreign wool in order to bolster the economy.  Wool became such a strong force in the national economy that Elizabeth I began the tradition of having nobles kneel on sacks of wool when swearing fealty in 1570, and the Lord Mayor of London and all members of Parliament sat on wool sacks as a poignant reminder that much of England's power rests on wool.


The Spanish wool industry also went through many changes during this time.  In 1490

Ferdinand V expelled the Saracens from Spain, including over 10,000 spinners and weavers in the Spanish wool industry.  At this time, it was estimated that Spain had over 16 million sheep. The Spanish began to import sheep to the "New World" 50 years later, much to the dismay of England who had long coveted their prize merino flocks.  So great was their envy that prize sheep were available in Mexico and South America but not England that when they finally defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, they made importing live Merino sheep to England one of the terms of the treaty.  The Spanish agreed, but managed to delay delivery of their prized merinos for almost 200 years due to a variety of excuses involving shipping, health of the sheep, and dangerous political and social climates in both countries.  In 1765 Spain finally sent the merinos promised in the Treaty of 1588 to England, however, the sheep failed to thrive due to the radical difference in climate between Spain and England.


England imported sheep to the colonies in America along with tobacco and other crops, forming the basis of the modern woolen industry in America. The first weaving and fulling mill was established in Rowley, Massachusetts between 1634 and 1638. England soon began to fear that the new woolen industry in the colonies might undermine the prominence of the industry at home, so a law is passed in 1654 forbidding English textile workers to emigrate to America and thus take their industrial textile secrets with them. Some manage to sneak through and by 1665 American colonists have enough sheep and cottage industry producers to have a self-sufficient wool trade.  Due to the success of the colonial woolen industry and the constant threat from foreign wool, England soon found itself producing more wool fabric than it could sell.  Only two years later it passed the "Flannel Act" requiring all corpses to be buried in woolen cloth, but still the colonial wool production thrived.  By 1669 England tries to prohibit the colonies from trading "all woolen manufacture whatsoever" but they manage to smuggle wool to Spain and France in exchange for wine and linen.  And despite England's best efforts, merinos land in America when George Washington imports merino rams in order to improve the flocks at Mount Vernon in 1770.


Once America gained its independence from England, the wool trade continued to flourish.  By

1850 New England is a major center of wool production and over 50,000 workers are employed in 1600 woolen mills in the United States.  By 1884 there are more than 50 million sheep in the US - only 5,000 less than the human population that year.  The industry is still growing today - by 1947 17 million pounds of wool were used in blanket manufacture alone at Chatham Manufacturing plant in Elkin, NC.  Two years later, they were importing fleeces from Argentina, Australia, Hungary, New Zealand, Scotland and South Africa in order to keep up with demand.   Today, wool accounts for only 5% of the world’s fiber consumption, but it is

still an important trading commodity.


Copyright 2011 by Heather McCloy. <siospins at charter.net>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org