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A Brief History of Wool Production in Great Britain

by Deborah Reader

01 Oct 2019


A Brief History of Wool Production in Great Britain


Sheep have been with us since early man, who lived in these islands from nearly 12000 years ago and who domesticated the wild sheep living around them. At first, the sheep would have been used just for their milk and their meat, and as they died, a use was found for the skins and their fleeces. Primarily to keep them warm, the skins would have been fashioned into primitive cloaks, shoes and blankets, the rich lanolin content of the wool keeping them dry. We can only imagine, one dark night, early man or woman sitting around a fire, playing with a piece of fleece that had come loose. Twisting it and turning it in their fingers, a small long uneven string would have been formed and a new use was born.
About 4000 years ago, during the Bronze Age, early man found that weaving this ‘long string’ produced a cloth which could be fashioned into better clothing, albeit thick and uneven. Over time, new techniques were discovered and brought into use. To start with, wool would have been harvested from the sheep by natural means, taken from the sheep’s back by hand or rubbed with harsh briars or bronze combs. Shearing by cutting began in the Iron Age, about 3000 years ago and the wool collected was easier to process. Wool itself had progressed from the rather hairy variety of Stone Age sheep to a finer woollier product, all achieved by careful selection and breeding amongst the naturally evolved species of animal.
The wool was combed and spun, now producing a smoother yarn and by the time these islands were invaded by Julius Caesar, in 55BC, the wool industry had become big business, the cloth fine and beautiful and having come from the warmth of Italy, the invaders saw how good the cloth was in keeping out the inclemency of the British weather. It was exported to Rome where it was described as spun like a cobweb.
The arrival of the Saxons in around 400 AD nearly destroyed the industry, but by the 700s, Britain was again exporting this precious woollen fabric to Europe and by the 12th Century wool had become the staple of English commerce, forming the backbone of the medieval economy. It was such an important asset to the Treasury that in 1377, King Edward III banned wool imports and encouraged Flemish weavers to settle in England. Their skills and the export of raw wool and woollen cloth ensured that the wool industry thrived and, by the mid 1600s, the income derived from wool exports accounted for nearly 70% of foreign trade and allowed for great prosperity in English farming.
Despite setbacks in the 14th century caused by war and disease, wool manufacturing continued to expand. Spinning and weaving techniques had vastly improved and the English cloth became the envy of the world. Throughout the next three centuries England dominated the wool industry and mechanisation brought about by the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, although causing havoc amongst traditional wool processors, nevertheless enhanced the production of woollen products by speeding up processing, thereby producing not only finer cloth but also increasing productivity.
Sheep themselves have changed over the centuries. They are very adaptable creatures, making themselves at home in a variety of landscapes, some tough and barren, some softer and greener. From these environments have emerged many breeds of animal, and by careful breeding, selection and care, we now have a huge variety of sheep, producing some of the world’s best wool.
Sheep are obviously still bred for their meat, but the wool trade has not lost its importance. There are still nearly 100,000 wool producers in this country and nearly half of the wool shorn annually is exported. It is to these people we must give thanks for the many and varied specialist yarns which we enjoy today.

Deborah Reader
Happy Berry Knitting

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