Are you wearing wool today?

By Maggie Chaplin

Are you wearing wool today? You may have to think about it, but two hundred years ago the answer would almost certainly have been, “yes” with no hesitation necessary. The likelihood is that at this time of year you’d have been wrapped up in wool from your underwear to your overcoat. Your scarf, shawl, headgear, socks, stockings, night shirt, blankets – all would be wool. There was no goretex, polartec, thinsulate, lycra, modal or any of the other wearable man-made materials we know today.

This month sees the end of the Chinese Year of the Sheep, but in the Four Shires sheep are still important every year. For centuries the Cotswolds and West Oxfordshire were at the centre of a once incredibly wealthy wool producing industry, largely because the landscape is made up of open grasslands and hill pasture that’s ideal for breeding and grazing sheep. Although the demand for wool has dropped with the advent of a range of versatile man-made fibres, and the price of a fleece barely covers the cost of shearing, we are still in the midst of sheep country.

Processing of sheep’s wool in Britain goes back thousands of years and probably developed as a part of man’s response to the challenge to survive. Ancient man used the pelts and skins of various animals for protection and warmth, but the sheep in particular proved useful because you could harvest its wool and it would keep growing, and it wasn’t necessary to kill the animal until you needed the meat. In our centrally heated lives it’s sometimes hard to appreciate that for our ancestors, keeping warm and protected from the elements was often almost as important for staying alive as finding food – in the short term, sometimes more so.

The early sheep didn’t have the luxuriant coats of today’s specialized breeds.  They would have been similar to the primitive native breeds such as Soay or Manx Loughtan, which are small, hardy, horned, and have pigmented coats that moult so shearing wasn’t necessary. As breeds were developed for improved wool characteristics the self-shedding property was largely lost and sheep now need to be sheared to collect the wool but also because modern fleeces are dense and heavy. This is usually done in early summer. Later in the season overheating and fly strike are real risks in unshorn animals.

The most prized fleeces are those that consist of long fine wool like that of the ‘Cotswold Lion’ sheep. In the Middle Ages wool produced in the Cotswolds was considered the best in the world and the area became very prosperous because of it.

Shearing is a skilled procedure and today is usually carried out using electric clippers, which were first patented in 1868. The sheep is upended on a wooden board that can easily be cleaned, and it takes an expert no more than 2 or 3 minutes per sheep. The older type of hand shears are still often used to give a sheep’s rear end a quick tidy up at any time of year.

In the Middle Ages the sheep would have been bathed in a sheepwash pool a few days prior to shearing, but now with mechanisation it’s much easier to clean the wool afterwards. This process is called scouring and is necessary to remove the mud, seeds, thorns etc that get caught in the coat, as well as to separate the lanolin, which when purified is a valuable byproduct for use in ointments and cosmetics. After a series of baths in hot water and detergent the fleeces are rinsed, squeezed through rollers and dried. They’re now 30% lighter.

Scoured wool is clean but tangled, and needs to be teased out into loose fibres. Historically wool processing was a cottage industry and the job was done by hand either using the spiky seed heads of teasels or two boards or ‘cards’ covered in fine metal teeth that were pulled against each other across the wool to separate the fibres. Today carding is done by machine and a series of toothed rollers transform the tufts of wool into long continuous ribbons of loose filaments.

In the modern woollen mill, what happens next depends on the intended end product. If the wool is destined to be made into fabric it is combed or worsted to remove the short fibres. The resulting rope of wool called a ‘top’ is rolled into a ball ready for spinning. It will be spun more tightly and so be stronger than the yarn made from the mixed long and short fibres that will be used for knitting wool.

Thousands of years ago, man learned that he could make thread from yarn. This was possible because there are microscopic scales on the surface of wool fibres that tend to cling to one another enabling a thread to be drawn out. Early spinning was a slow laborious process. The carded fleece was wrapped round the top of a stick – a distaff – that was held in the crook of one arm, whilst the strands of wool were gradually pulled out and twisted into a thread that was wound onto a spindle held in the other hand. Imagine doing that for ten hours at a stretch – a recipe for medieval repetitive strain injury? Once someone discovered that you could mount the distaff on a wheel to turn it, the job could be done ten times faster.

After the medieval invention of the spinning wheel little further progress was made until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. Although processing wool continued as cottage industry for a long time after that, mills sprang up that achieved not only speed of production but consistency of output. The word homespun came to signify plain or coarse.

Spun yarn is versatile. It can be knitted, braided, plaited or woven. It’s unclear when weaving first began, but certainly thousands of years ago. A simple loom consists of a frame to keep a series of parallel threads taut (the warp) so that the weft (transverse yarn) can be interlaced, then pressed down firmly to gradually build up a sheet of fabric.

Over centuries looms became gradually more sophisticated to speed the process and to enable patterns to be built up, but one needs to remember that all those wonderful intricately designed medieval tapestries were woven by hand. Each one represents hours and hours of intensive work, often in poor light and without the benefit of ergonomically designed seats. It wasn’t until the 18th century that looms were power driven. Today they go beyond that. Modern high speed looms are computerised and can achieve complex patterns that would be impossible for hand weavers.

Because in ancient times wool was washed ‘on the sheep’ there were many impurities in the fabric when it came off the loom. To get rid of these it was placed in a vat containing human urine (used for its ammonium content) and be pounded by men stamping on it with their bare feet! This process called fulling also encouraged the fibres to interlock and produce a stronger, softer material. Later, in the Middle Ages, fulling or tuck mills were built and the pounding was done mechanically by water-driven wooden hammers. The fabric was then thoroughly rinsed.

Once clean, the fabric could be dyed. For thousands of years natural dyes were used, but from 1856 chemical colourants became available. These were cheaper, easier to produce and the colour range practically limitless and easier to standardise. The fulling and dyeing were often carried out at the same mill. The waste water would then be discharged straight into the water course!

The wet fabric was then put on a huge “tenter” frame to dry, suspended from hooks (on tenter hooks!) either in the open air or in a wind shed. The modern manufacturing process enables wool to be dyed at any stage of production, and it’s dried using heat.

Wool may not be as vital a commodity today as it was in the 15th century.  At that time the woollen industry accounted for about 50% of the British economy and the Lord Chancellor’s seat in Parliament was a symbolic woolsack. It’s not as important as in the reign of Charles II when 17th century Wool Acts decreed that bodies could only be buried in wool to maintain the consumption of British wool, but . . .

In 2010 a “Campaign for Wool” was launched in association with the British Wool Marketing Board to promote the use of wool. Its chief patron is Prince Charles. Despite the numerous cheaper alternatives, wool still has tremendous cachet. Bespoke tailors and outfitters work almost exclusively with woollen cloth, and off-the-peg retailers offer woollen garments in their higher end ranges. If you’re walking the dog or hitting the shops, you’re probably sporting man-made fibre, but if you want to make an impression or cut a dash, for sheer quality it has to be wool, no question. Are you wearing wool today?