What is Wool? History of Wool
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History of Wool

Modern sheep

The most interesting thing about wool is that sheep didn't always have wool, or not enough to notice. When people first started hunting sheep, they hunted them for their meat.Sheep hair was more like deer hair is today, short and thick, not long and fine and curly. Like goat hair.

Then around 10,000 BC people in West Asia began to domesticate sheep (tame them) and take care of them, so there would always be plenty of meat around. At this point they began to use the milk from the sheep also, either drinking it fresh or making it into cheese. When they had killed a sheep, of course they would also make the skin into leather, and maybe leave the hair on to make it warmer, like a fur coat. But still there was no wool as we know it today.

brueghel shearing sheep
Man shearing a sheep, about 1550 AD (Brueghel)

Some time not too much later people also began to make clothes, instead of just wearing furs. Since they had sheepskins around, one of the fibers they used was sheep hair. They noticed that although none of the sheep hair was really any good for spinning, because it was too thick and brittle, some of the hair from the stomach, the underside of the sheep, was better than the rest. And people began breeding the sheep that had the most good hair together, trying to get some hair you could spin. It took thousands of years, many many generations of sheep, but by about 5000 BC, people could begin to spin wool.

Sheep being sheared for their wool on the Isle of Skye, Scotland

Wool has a lot of advantages over vegetable fibers. It is easier to prepare it for spinning: you just cut it off the sheep and comb it out. It is easier to spin than cotton or flax, and quicker. It is warmer - that's why sweaters are made of wool, and sometimes socks, and blankets. (Though this is also a disadvantage in very warm climates like Egypt). Lanolin is a kind of natural oil on the wool makes it shed water, so it is a good fiber to wear if you will be out in the rain (as shepherds often are). And you can dye wool more easily than flax, so you can have clothes in pretty colors and patterns.

The main center of wool production in antiquity was Central Asia, where the cold winters made wool a favorite material. Scythian shepherding nomads made wool into felt blankets, boots, and yurts. The Scythians and Sogdians, like the medieval Turks and Mongols, also wove wool into clothing, and created knotted wool carpets for their floors. They sold these carpets, and all their wool production, west into China, south into India, and east into Europe.

People in ancient Greece and Rome, and in northern Europe, also wore a lot of wool clothing. They wove and sold wool clothing, blankets, and rugs to people further east and south, in the rest of the Roman Empire. This trade continued through the medieval period too; people in medieval Britain and Italy, especially, raised a lot of sheep for wool. The best British wool was sold to be spun and woven in Italy, and then Florentine and Venetian traders shipped thewoolen cloth across the Mediterranean to the Islamic Empire.

Learn by doing: find wool clothing in your house
What about hemp cloth?
What about linen cloth?

Bibliography and further reading about the history of wool:

Warm As Wool, Cool As Cotton, by Carter Houck (1986). For kids - includes the history of these fibers.

World Textiles: A Concise History, by Mary Schoeser (2003). For adults.

Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years : Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber (1995). Not for kids, but an interested high schooler could read it. Fascinating ideas about the way people made cloth in ancient times, and why it was that way.

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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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