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
||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
|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,
||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.
||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.
|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
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
||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
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
Euroway Trading Estate