history of wool

Fewer textiles have a longer and more intimate relationship with European, Semitic, and near-east peoples than the humble woolen garment. Wool was the preferred outerwear for literally thousands of years, featuring in the pre-Abrahamic histories, the ancient Greeks and Romans, the kingdoms of the middle ages, the renaissance period, all the way to the industrial revolution.

Wool, and by extension the sheep, has served as an important cultural icon for these nations, reflecting its great importance.

wool history

What Is Wool?

In its most basic definition, wool is an animal fiber consisting of protein combined with a small portion of fat (lipids). This combination makes wool unique among other textile fibers and gives it the benefits we know it for.

Wool can come from a variety of animals. The most common being the sheep, with other notable animals including goats and camelids (camels, llamas, alpacas). Alpaca wool and cashmere are interesting textiles and deserve their own articles.

Wool In Pre-History

Sheep are one of the earliest domesticated animals used for agriculture. There is evidence to suggest that they were first domesticated from about 11,000 to 9,000 BC. Ancient remains have been found in sites across Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

history of wool

The first domesticated sheep were more hairy than woolly. The wool or fleece was a short insulating layer under the long protective hair of the animal. For the first several thousand years sheep were mainly raised for their meat, skins, and milk. Woolly sheep began to be developed around 6,000 to 5,000 BC, with evidence that by 3,000 BC they were common around the Mediterranean and Near East.

history of wool

The earliest known European wool textile has been dated to 1500 BC. Given the lengths of time involved, it is very rare to discover the physical remains of wool textiles. However, it is not a stretch to assume that wherever the woolly sheep went, basic textile-making went as well.

Wool In The Ancient World

Wool was one of the primary textiles of the ancient world. Its durability, insulating properties, and relative ease of raising made it a favored garment for high and low society.

Wool was very useful in a variety of climates. In the cold, it was a great insulator of body heat, but in the burning sun, it didn’t transfer the warmth to the wearer. This is why cultures like the Sumerians in Mesopotamia wore woolen tunics and coats, as well as the Celts in Gaul and the British Isles.

wool history

The Greek and Roman toga is a famous example of a woolen garment. In general, loose, wide, woolen clothes secured to the body with some sort of belt would’ve been a very common style of dress. An inner garment of some sort of vegetable fiber with an outwear of wool was also popular, and this style would continue well through to the modern era.

wool history

Wool performs well in moist and wet climates, particularly when a portion of the natural oils is left in the fleece. This grants the processed fabric a mildly water-resistant property. This effect explains why wool was generally more popular the further north you went. In comparison, places like ancient Egypt and India though aware of wool generally preferred their native flax and cotton fibers respectively.

The Medieval History Of Wool

Wool continued to be an essential part of life in the middle ages. Wool was particularly important in the cottage industries that grew across Europe, as it was far easier to raise and sheer several sheep than plant and maintain an equivalent crop of fibrous plants.

wool history

The use of wool was much the same as in the previous era. The styles of dress did change slightly, mostly depending on which culture the people had adopted/belonged to. Those retaining the heritage of the Roman Empire generally kept the same style of longer tunics (Tunica and Chiton) for both sexes, while those populations of Franks, Anglo-Saxons, and Goths preferred shorter tunics and trousers (very similar to the modern day) for men and simple dresses for women. Depending on the location these clothes could be made of a variety of cloth, wool being one. But without a doubt, wool was still the preferred garment for harsher conditions and outerwear.

wool history

Later into the Medieval period, and certainly in the High Middle ages and Renaissance Period, wool was supplanted in high society by more exotic fabrics. Cotton, silk, and woven and dyed cloth became much preferred. Homespun wool garments still clothed the majority, again benefiting from being an easy source for the peasantry.

history of wool

Wool In Modern Times

With the death of the cottage industry and the birth of the industrial revolution, textile manufacturing became the domain of giant factories. These factories were fed with great imports from across the world. This began the long decline of wool.

history of wool

Wool did supply much of the raw materials for the early factories, but quickly supply limitations became a problem. Even with the additions of the great herds in Australia, which quickly came to dominate the international wool trade, wool was simply too expensive to grow to clothe the masses.

Over the decades wool transitioned to being mainly used in formal suites, specialty clothes, coats, and the like – the tunic having been replaced by the cotton shirt for the majority of everyday wear.

The Future Of Wool

Wool now only comprises roughly 3% of the global textile market. However, its value is disproportionately higher than the other textiles. It is used, much as it has always been, for outwear, protective wear, blankets, carpeting, insulation, and the like.

Wool performs well against fire, making it the preferred material for firefighters and for carpeting in hazardous areas.

In overall production weight, China produces the most wool in the world. Australia and New Zealand bring up second and third, supplying the majority of the valuable merino variety.

This chart illustrates the continued decline of wool production since 1973:

history of wool

Wool, as one of the earliest and most significant textiles in history, has one of the least optimistic futures of the textiles we’ve looked at. However, it is hard to believe that wool won’t continue to have a place among the timeless and respected fashions of the world.

I hope you enjoyed this quick article on the history of wool. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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