The history of wool is almost synonymous with the history of man.
Many different theories abound about why humans wear clothes. Primitive man wrapped himself in wool more for warmth than modesty. Modern man’s obsession with clothing stems from a multitude of reasons: from societal expectations through to decorative, comfort, protection, identification and fashion. Archaeology and art help us learn more about what our ancestors wore when.
Wool has been part of the equation ever since Homo sapiens first donned garments. The earliest woven woollen items date back thousands of years BC. The website The History of Clothing suggests the first woven wool garments date from 402 to 300 BC.
Those familiar with Greek mythology would know the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. It details Jason’s quest in search the Golden Fleece, which came from a winged golden ram; a holy ram of the God Zeus. He needed to retrieve this precious fleece to seize back his father’s kingdom and be returned to his rightful throne. Whether a literal or metaphorical symbol, it possibly indicates that sheep and wool were considered of value many centuries BC.
Sheep were moved throughout the Persian, Greek and Roman empires feeding and clothing citizens along the way. Selective breeding for superior fleece began as far back as Roman times. Throughout mediaeval times, the wool trade became serious business. In the Renaissance period in Europe, wool was the most popular fabric for all classes.
Wool’s history is rich and complex. Throughout the ages, it’s been impactful in trade, economics, and fashion.
After the Norman conquest in the 12th century, enslaved Greek weavers were sent to Italy where they took Italian weaving to the next level.
The wool trade became the economic engine of northern Europe and central Italy during the 13th century with the monastic orders in Britain being at the centre of wool production. Raw wool was baled and shipped from the north-east of England to the great Flemish textile cities of Flanders, Ghent, and Ypres. When the Flemish weavers fled the Spanish invasion and settled in England they lent the UK wool industry their expertise giving it a great boost.
It is said that King Edward II (1307-1327) had the Lord Chancellor sit on a wool bale in Parliament to signify how important wool was for the economy. To this day Lord Chancellor’s seat in the House of Lords of the Parliament of the United Kingdom is stuffed with wool and called the ‘Woolsack’.
The textile trade grew rapidly during the 15th century. It was also the time when Spain and England started to prohibit exports of sheep and wool. These economic protectionism measures were a far cry from a free market. They were a direct attempt to control trade and keep the wealth squarely in their pocket.
When cotton from India threatened the economy, England responded by introducing the Calico Acts (1700, 1721). These Acts banned the use of cotton for clothing or domestic purposes and were intended to protect the wool and silk industries.
The textile industry moved out of the home into factories during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. With machines able to produce better quality fabric, faster for less money, the textile industry went from being a cottage industry to one of mass production.
Wool hit the fashion high stakes after the First World War when Coco Chanel produced a dress from fine wool jersey. Today fashion designers work with the most innovative wool fabric to produce quality wool apparel, which highlight wool’s natural benefits.
At the Wonder of Wool: Ancient Fiber to Modern Marvel exhibition at the now closed The American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, it took a fascinating look at the significance of wool in our culture. It highlighted the diversity of wool and shattered many misconceptions about it.
The myth that wool is only to keep you warm was busted when you saw how the Bedouin desert nomads wore wool because it kept them cool. In fact, until the 20th century, it was popular to wear wool year round.
The advent of synthetics in the 20th century gave wool production a serious run for its money. The hype around synthetic fibres saw the production of wool fall. But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, innovation in wool production led to a revival in popularity. Premium fibres, which are extremely fine, have been developed for use in many types of apparel from classic men's’ suits to sportswear, and just about everything in between.
Wool remains irreplaceable.
No man-made fibre has been able to replicate the amazing benefits and qualities of this sustainable textile. Wool regulates and insulates, reduces body odour, is hypoallergenic, fire resistant, water repellent, UV and stain resistant, and is long lasting. It’s had its ups and down over the centuries, but it’s stood the test of time and is here to stay.