Know Your Fiber: A (Very) Brief History of Wool

Posted on January 02 2018

Know Your Fiber:  A (Very) Brief History of Wool

Welcome to a (very) brief history of wool sheep! Wool is an amazing fiber, with qualities that make is unique among all other natural fibers – we’ll be discussing that a bit at the end of this article. First, though, a bit of history. There are over 1,000 distinct breeds of sheep in the world today, and it all started in the Middle East.

Archaeological evidence indicates that humans first began to domesticate sheep between 11000-8000 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia. These sheep were bred from the wild mouflon of the region, and were mainly raised for their meat, skins, and milk. Small statues found in Iran showing wooly sheep have been dated to around 6000 BCE, and it is assumed that it was around this time that sheep began to be raised and bred by Persians for their wool. The earliest wool clothing found has been dated to between 4000-3000 BCE.

Trading in wool was quite profitable for these early Persians, and it wasn’t long until sheep as well as wool was traded across Africa and Europe. Sheep first came to Africa via Egypt, and to Europe near what is known today as Marseille, France. At the time that sheep first arrived in Europe, the people of Europe were still living in Neolithic cultures.

Once sheep landed in Europe around 6000 BCE, their popularity as livestock began to spread. By 4000-3000 BCE, domesticated sheep had made it all the way to Scandinavia. However, by 1000 BCE, England and Spain were known known as the primary producers of wool in Europe. Sheep were an important part of both Greek and Roman cultures, and it is quite likely that the spread of the Roman Empire over parts of Europe only reinforced the importance of keeping sheep for wool. Archaeological evidence shows that the Romans had a large wool processing factory in Winchester, England around 50 CE. As popular as wool was among people in Europe, fine-wooled sheep did not really appear in that part of the world until Spain began to import ancestors of Merino sheep from Morocco.

Sheep first arrived in the Americas with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, followed by another shipment of sheep by Hernán Cortés in Mexico in 1519. These sheep are thought to have been Churras, and spread throughout Central American and the southern parts of North America. These sheep were introduced to the Navajo in the late 1500s, and the modern Navajo-Churro breed of sheep is directly descended from these first Churra sheep brought over by the Spanish.

Sheep did not arrive again in North America until they came to Virginia in 1607; unfortunately for these sheep, they were all eaten due to a famine. The next sheep to arrive in 1609 fared better, and by the 1640s there were over 100,000 sheep in the thirteen British colonies. By the 1800s, sheep began to move westward, along with immigrants and others determined to make a home for themselves in the western parts of North America. By the 1940s, there were upwards of 55 million sheep in the United States. However, these numbers began to decline in the following decades. Today, there are less than 5 million sheep in the United States.

Today, China and Australia are the top wool producers in the world. Sheep first came to China and Mongolia around 3000-2000 BCE. Most of the sheep in China are raised on the plains in the northern part of the country. Today, China provides over 386 metric tons of wool per year to the world. China is closely followed by Australia, which first imported Merino sheep in 1797. Australia is well known today for its high quality and large quantities of Merino and other wools, and produces over 382 metric tons of wool per year.

As many wool fans know, wool is an all-natural wonder fiber. Thanks to its molecular structure, each wool fiber is essentially a tiny little spring with amazing stretch and resilience. When wet, wool fibers can be stretched up to an additional 50% of their length, and while dry up to an additional 30%. And yet, once dry and released, will return to close to their original length. Wool’s flexibility also makes it an amazingly durable fiber. A single wool fiber can be bent more than 20,000 times without breaking; cotton will break after about 3000 bends.

Wool is also a wonderful temperature regulator. As a hygroscopic fiber, tiny pores in wool allow it to absorb water vapor, protecting the skin in both cool and warm weather. In heat, wool absorbs perspiration, keeping a layer of dry air next to the skin. As the vapor captured by the wool evaporates, the person wearing the woolen garment is cooled by the evaporation process. In damp and cold weather where evaporation doesn’t occur, wool breaks the hydrogen bond of water to generate heat. This is why, especially in the Northwest, wool is recommended for people who spend a lot of time outdoors! Wearing cotton for an extended period out in the cold and damp is a guaranteed recipe for hypothermia, but wool will keep that hypothermia as bay since it is warm even when damp.

Wool is also is known for its felting properties. With heat, moisture, friction and pressure, the scales on the wool fibers interlock, shrinking the fabric to create a tough and durable material that is used in hats, jackets and other clothing, as well as in art and in industry. Some yarn and clothing manufacturers send their wool through a special process called Superwash, which applies a microscopic resin to the wool fibers that prevents felting from occurring. Superwash wools are frequently used for socks and other garments that are intended to be machine washed.

In addition to all that fabulousness, wool also takes dyes very uniformly and can be dyed with both acidic and basic dyes. Also among its positive traits, wool is flame resistant – it will simply char and stop burning once removed from a live flame.

Wool is hands-down the most popular fiber for our customers here at Northwest Yarns! Stop in or visit us online anytime to stock up on this amazing fiber, available as both fiber ready for spinning and as yarn ready for crafting. Have more questions about wool? Feel free to stop in or drop us a line and ask away!

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