The History of British Wool
Astronauts wear wool for comfort in the confines of their spacecraft. Wool protects mountain climbers and polar scientists, the sailors who navigate single-handed the oceans of the world and men 'who strike oil in Alaska. It is a fibre fit for heroes-and for more ordinary folk. As modern as moonflight, and as ancient as the hills.
The story of wool began long ago, before recorded history when primitive man first clothed himself in the woolly skins, of the wild sheep he killed for food. He had discovered a durable fabric which gave him what nothing else could give: protection alike from heat and cold, from wind and rain. A versatile fabric which kept him cool in the heat of the day and warm in the cold of the night, which could absorb moisture without feeling wet.
Man can never match it. No other material, natural or man-made, has all its qualities. But man can refine and improve wool. He has done so by selective breeding of sheep and by incorporating in wool fabrics such qualities as shrink resistance, durable creasing and pleating, mothproofing, shower-proofing and stain-proofing.

Science and technology have kept wool in the forefront of fabrics, adapting to modern needs without impairing its virtues. Wool is part of Britain's history and heritage, more so than any other commodity ever produced in these islands. It was woven into cloth here in the Bronze Age which began about 1900 BC. But in historical terms this is comparatively recent. Elsewhere in the world, primitive man had domesticated the sheep in 10 000 BC.

Wool in history
The sheep could be milked (and still is, in many parts of the world). When it shed its fleece this could be spun and woven into cloth. Man soon realized that to kill the sheep for its meat alone was a waste of food and material. And once he became a shepherd with the help of his friend the dog- probably the only animal to be domesticated before the sheep- he soon devised a method of producing clothing from the fleece.
Even before 10,000 BC wool cloth was being spun and woven by the tribes of northern Europe. To spin it they took the wool in one hand and drew it out, twisting it into a thread with the fingers of the other hand. The result was a thick uneven yarn. Later, a crude spindle was developed by fitting a stone or clay ring to the end of a short wooden stick. The ring acted as a flywheel and enabled the drawn-out yarn to be wound on to the spindle. This method of spinning was used for thousands of years and is still used by peasant communities in various parts of the world.
Weaving is the criss-crossing of threads of wool to make cloth. The first loom consisted of a beam from which lengths of yarn (warps) were hung and weighted at the lower end by stones. The `weft' yarn was threaded to and fro across the suspended `warp' yarns in an over-and-under action, like darning a sock. As with spinning, this system was used for thousands of years.
There were now two implements: one for spinning, and one for weaving spun wool. The loom was the first to be improved. The warp threads were laid out horizontally across a frame instead of being suspended vertically from a beam. Then alternate warp threads were tied to sticks (healds) which were raised and lowered in turn. Through the aperture formed between the two sets of warp threads the wooden needle carrying the weft thread could be passed in one motion, thus avoiding the laborious 'over- and- under' action. Later still, the needle was hollowed out into a 'shuttle' so that it could carry within itself a reel of weft thread, as it does in a modern loom.
By the time the Romans invaded these islands in 55 BC the Britons had developed a wool industry and this was encouraged by their new masters. Roman emperors cherished British woollen cloth-'so fine it was comparable with a spider's web'.
The Saxon invasions in the fifth century nearly destroyed the industry. But it is known that in the eighth century Britain was exporting woollen fabrics to the Continent and after the arrival of the Norman conquerors in 1066 the industry expanded.By the twelfth century wool was becoming England's greatest national asset. Cloth making was widespread, particularly in the large towns of southern and eastern England nearest the Continent.
But the greatest wealth came from exports of raw wool. Kings and their ministers keenly appreciated the revenue that resulted from exports and export taxes-and for the power it gave to the king who could grant, or withdraw, concessions to the wool towns and to the industry.
Weaver’s trade guilds, powerful for hundreds of years, were founded to guarantee good work by experienced craftsmen. The `Staple' was established-a mart where raw wool for sale abroad had, by law, to be sent and where the export tax levied by the king could be collected. The Staple was originally located in Flanders-an important textile manufacturing area-but was later withdrawn to England where a number of ports became Staple towns.
The peak of production was reached in the thirteenth century. Then the wool trade declined for a long period because of political strife.

In 1331 King Edward III encouraged Flemish master weavers to settle here. They and their descendants were to play a part in the final ascendancy of English cloth.

The export trade in raw wool recovered and the first half of the fourteenth century was a time of prosperity for English wool farmers But it was overshadowed by the long war with France (export taxes on wool were one of the principal means of financing the war) and by bubonic plague (the Black Death) which in 1349 decimated the population. In many villages as much as three-quarters of the population died. This led to an increase of the sheep flocks, for there were not enough people left to cultivate the land for arable crops.
`Sheep have eaten up our meadows and our downs, Our corn, our wood, whole villages and towns.' ...wrote a poet at the time.

Despite setbacks, raw wool exporting expanded, and so also did manufacturing of wool fabrics. This was becoming both specialized and localized. The West Country had three advantages-extensive sheep pastures, a supply of soft water for washing, scouring and dyeing, and water-power to drive milling machinery. Similarly, the Pennine districts of Yorkshire and Lancashire had soft water, and water power from steeply graded streams.

In East Anglia there was soft water but no hills or fast-running streams to provide power for `fulling' mills. Fulling, or milling, is a shrinking process which makes the fabric firmer and its surface more compact. Instead, East Anglia used the long, fine wool from its native sheep breeds to produce a cloth which did not require the fulling process. This was the type of cloth we today call 'worsted'-after the Norfolk village of Worstead. For four hundred years East Anglia dominated the worsted trade, with skills inherited from the Flemish settlers of 1331.

Cloth from English looms quickly achieved an international reputation. From being primarily a raw wool exporter, England became in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries a manufacturer and exporter of cloth. At the end of the fifteenth century England was `largely a nation of sheep farmers and cloth manufacturers'. The next two centuries saw continued expansion of the industry despite conflicts at home and abroad.

In the sixteenth century Huguenot weavers, persecuted in France, sought refuge here and brought their skills with them. England began to surpass Flanders in woollen manufacture which, by the end of the seventeenth century, comprised two-thirds of the value of her exports.
Radical changes lay ahead, in the geographical disposition of the industry, in labour use and in manufacturing processes. By 1770 output of worsted from the West Riding of Yorkshire equaled that of East Anglia. The cloth manufacturing `conurbation' began to take shape-Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield, Wakefield.
The Industrial Revolution of 1750-1850 caused upheaval. It ushered in new inventions stemming from the Lancashire cotton industry, to mechanize and speed dramatically the processes of spinning and weaving. Manufacturing methods, unchanged Since the revival of the trade in the fourteenth century, were now superseded. Mechanization had been opposed in the past and it was again. In the Luddite riots of 1812 equipment was destroyed by organized bands of workers, who feared they would lose employment.
But machinery won the day. The older industries in such areas as East Anglia, where opposition had been most bitter, declined and never recovered. They were overtaken by Yorkshire where machinery was more readily accepted. The younger industry jumped ahead and never lost its lead, supported by abundant supplies of cheap coal to generate steam and, later, electrical power. Other important manufacturing centres developed in Scotland, famed for its tweeds; and in the West Country which specialized in production of high quality woven carpets.
Growing wool
There are nearly one thousand million sheep in the world and some thirty million are in the United Kingdom. But these figures tell only part of the story, for the influence of British breeds is world wide.

Sheep can adapt themselves to an extraordinarily wide range of environment. In this country there are about forty recognized breeds, suited to the varieties of climate, soil, herbage and terrain encountered here. Some of the more famous of these breeds form the foundation stock in all those parts of the world where sheep are significant-notably in the great grassland countries of the southern hemisphere.

So the skill of British breeders has had widespread effect, stemming from the eighteenth century when the great Robert Bakewell of Leicestershire pioneered new techniques not only in breeding but also in husbandry. Bakewell's work represented a great leap forward, but he was not the first in the field. It has taken centuries of selective breeding and cross-breeding to produce the sheep of today.

A first requirement was to improve the natural coat of the sheep. This contained not only wool fibre but hair and `kemp'-a fibre unsuitable for dyeing. These had to be eliminated or minimized by selective breeding. Early sheep also grew both coarse and fine wool in the same fleece so here was another requirement-to breed sheep which grew one or the other kind of wool.

British breeds produce mostly coarser quality wool-not to be regarded as inferior to fine wool but merely different. It is ideally suited for certain products such as carpets, tweeds and knitting yarns.

Our flocks may be roughly grouped into three main groups-short-wool and down; longwool and lustre; and mountain and hill. Hill and lowland sheep are complementary to each other. The flocks on hill and upland grazing (comprising three-quarters of the land mass of the United Kingdom) provide lambs for fattening in the lowlands and crossbred ewes to produce future fat lambs.

Meat production from fat lambs is more important to the lowland man but the hill producer can derive as much as a third of his income from wool. Breeders strive for the ideal-the animal that will meet the requirements both of the butcher and the wool manufacturer; one that will rear more lambs and have the milk to feed them.

Despite the demands of the meat trade, British wool today is better than it has ever been. Between one-third and one-half of the home wool clip is exported annually. There are about 90,000 wool producers in the United Kingdom producing nearly 40 million kg of fleece wool a year. All of it is sold through our own, producer-operated British Wool Marketing Board which can carry out for the individual sheep farmer what he is unable to do by himself-programmes and policies for fleece improvement, better presentation, organized marketing and wool sales promotion.
The Board arranges for the wool sent in by farmers to be graded into national grades suited to particular manufacturing requirements. Farmers are paid according to the grading of their wool, which the Board sells to the trade at auction. It is a tribute both to the excellence of our wool and to the efficiency of our marketing system that British wool regularly commands the highest price in the world for its type.
Wool manufacturing
The two main types of woven cloth are woollen and worsted. The yarn for woollen cloth is usually made from short-fibred wool and during processing the individual fibres are thoroughly intermingled. In the worsted process, which uses the longer-fibred wools, the individual fibres are separated and laid approximately parallel to each other.

Weaving is not involved in all types of wool fabrics. Knitted fabrics are made with a single, continuous yarn (instead of two-warp and weft-as in woven cloth) and the threads are interlooped. Felt-probably the first-ever wool fabric-is made by intermingling the wool fibres and compressing them into a sheet.

Because of the different purposes for which it is suited, raw wool must first be graded and sorted-long wools for the worsted trade, short wools mainly for the woollen trade, the tough springy wools for carpets and so on.

Whatever the final requirement, wool must next be cleaned in a soap solution to remove its natural grease and dirt. Machinery is then employed to extract seeds and burrs and other foreign matter which may remain.

Short wools are passed through `scribbling' and `carding' machinery which produces 'slivers'-thin continuous ropes of wool-which in the spinning process are drawn out and twisted into yarn. The longer wools for worsted production are put through a 'comb' which produces ropes of parallel fibres known as 'tops'. These are then drawn out into finer and finer threads in the spinning process.
Before weaving, the yarn which is to form coloured cloths is dyed. Then on to the modern, high-speed power loom which can create an inexhaustible variety of weaves and patterns. There are a number of finishing processes. Woollen cloth must be shrunk and felted by being passed through rollers and soap solutions. The nap (surface) is raised by passing the cloth through drums set with the heads of teasels (spiky plants) and then cropped by a kind of mowing machine. Raising and cropping are not needed for worsted where the aim is to display, rather than conceal, the weave pattern.
Despite the development of complex and elaborate machinery, the basic principles of spinning and weaving machines are the same as when primitive man first twisted raw wool into yarn between his fingers and then, on his crude loom, wove it into cloth.

The medieval loom remained substantially unchanged until, in 1733, John Kay invented his `flying shuttle' which was driven mechanically to and fro across the warp without having to be thrown 'by the weaver. Automatic spinning followed. Sir Richard ArkWright’s roller-spinning machine was horse-driven at first and later, by water power, when it became known as the waterframe. In 1767 James Hargreaves, a Blackburn weaver, invented the spinning jenny, with multiple spindles mounted side by side. With this development one spinner could operate as many as 120 spindles at a time.

Samuel Crompton's spinning mule combined the principles of both the water-frame and the jenny. The spindles were no longer stationary but mounted on a movable carriage. This travelled away from the rollers, drawing-out the wool threads which at the same time were twisted by the spindles to impart strength--a principle still used on spindles all over the world.
Other machines were invented for preparing wool for weaving. They included the combing machine, used in the worsted industry for combing the long wool fibres parallel and removing the short fibres; and the carding machine for opening out, blending and straightening the wool fibres after cleansing.
Eventually power was applied to all the mechanical processes. By the beginning of the nineteenth century Watt's steam engine was in the Yorkshire mills. By the end of the century hand loom weaving had practically disappeared. The way now lay ahead for continuing development-added refinements, improved quality and increased speed of manufacture which have made wool today, as in the past, the most valued fabric in the world.
The modern wonders of wool
Wool is the most versatile textile fibre known to man and its uses are legion. Apart from its inherent natural virtues, it is also a really ,easy care' fabric thanks to modern scientific achievements.
The moth grub-really only dangerous to wool materials which are stored or infrequently laundered-has been beaten by treating wool with various mothproofing agents. These leave the character of the wool unchanged and last the lifetime of the garment, however frequently washed.
Similarly, wool garments and fabrics can now be permanently shower-proofed and stain-proofed. Shower-proofing, while allowing the fabric to shed water from the outside of the garment also allows the skin to breathe and exude water vapour. It is achieved through the use of waxes and silicones applied by various methods to the wool.

Stain-proofing does not make it impossible for grease and other stains to mark the fabric. But the stains can be removed with a household solvent cleaner without leaving the usual unsightly ring.

All-wool fabrics can now be durably creased or pleated-men's wool trousers and women's wool slacks and skirts can keep smart creases in all conditions of wear and weather. Another process enables wool fabrics to be washed and drip-dried with only the minimum of ironing.

For more information about Wool or it's history, please contact:-

British Wool Marketing Board
Wool House
Roysdale Way
Euroway Trading Estate
West Yorkshire

Copyright: Seven Sisters Sheep Centre 2015