Friday, December 6, 2013

It's the wooly season....

Sheepskin was probably the first "fabric" that early naked Human Beings used for clothing. The original vintage clothing...
Back in 10,000 BC when humans first started to domesticate wild sheep, they didn't have the curly curly sheepy fur. It was more like goat hair. Early humans ate sheep meat, and drank sheep milk and learned to make sheep cheese.

They made the sheep hides into clothing, and so the first human clothing was very likely made from sheepskins.
Early humans surely noticed the sheepskins tended to shed rain....and stay warm. This is true because of the lanolin on the wool. And wool dyes very well also.
Wool doesn't burn, it smolders which makes it easy to test in a burn test to determine the diff between acrylic sweaters and wool sweaters, for instance. It is lightweight, versatile, and hard to wrinkle. Any wrinkles just seem to fall out after hanging it up...and it resists dirt and spills (rather waterproof), and is long long long wearing.... important for your vintage long johns...

when we say Wool, we mean the curly shorn fur from sheep, the fleece.
The first accepted date of woven cloth started before 10,000 BC, in the Paleolithic era.  

Early sheep also grew both coarse and fine wool in the same fleece so sheep were improved by human talents of selective breeding. Too much variation in types of fleece, had to be eliminated or minimized by selective breeding.
This process of breeding sheep for the fine curly coats we think of today, started about 6000 BC in the area we now know as Iran.

By about 4000 BC evidence of prolific wool trading began around the Mediterranean Sea.  From there the wool trade spread across the Middle East, Egypt, Africa, Asia, and north to Russia and Europe.
The history of spinning wool into yarn and making clothing and blankets and cute little hats, and shoes and all manner of useful goods is a fascinating trip down the rabbit hole.

Knitting seems to have appeared sometime in the 11th century (AD).

you could start here with

Wool can also mean cashmere from cashmere goats, and mohair from mohair goats, and from ox, and of course angora from rabbits.... and maybe from other kangaroos and camels. But we're gonna stick to sheep's fleece in this discussion.  Part 2, the knitting industry, and the American sheep and wool industry is another blog post, coming soon.

 funkomavintage photos of vintage labels with wool and mohair content.
But wool isn't hair...wool fleece is crimped, it stretches well and recovers its shape. When humans figured out how to spin wool into threads, or yarn, then they really had something! With the yarn you could then weave..and knit.....and that my friends is something that made Ugly Christmas sweaters possible.

In the beginning, cloth weaving was a home affair, done by all the family members assigned to special tasks, Whole regions of weaving areas became famous.... woven carpets from Iran, Flemish weavers, and so on. Cloth weaving moved from small home production to more organized factory production, still one weaver on one loom, at a time.
The medieval loom wove millions of yards of cloth by hand until 1733, when John Kay invented the`flying shuttle' which was moved across the warp, by a mechanical method, and the weaver no longer had to move it from side to side to weave, and many jobs were lost. Even if your name was Weaver, you probably had to go....... into another line of work.


Then a few years later in  1767, Mr. James Hargreaves, a weaver himself,  invented the spinning jenny. Spinners had used a wheel and a spindle to create yarn, but the Jenny had many spindles so only a few spinners were needed to run a 100 or more spindles at one time.  Home and cottage weaving was on its way out....and.... At the beginning of the nineteenth century Watt's steam engine caused a catastrophe or  was a godsend......depending on if you were a worker or the boss.
Woven  wool blankets for your vintage Winnebago...

or a black and white plaid woven wool coat....

When Romans invaded  the British Isles in 55 BC there was a thriving wool industry. The British wool industry and trading continued to thrive in spite of Saxon, and Norman invasions.
 By the 12 century wool cloth was the dominant industry in the south and along the eastern districts of England, and that helped with trade to what we know as modern day Europe.

Today's Unions are based  on trade guilds that lasted for hundreds of years to keep the standards high for excellent quality wool fabrics and knits. and to guarantee good work by experienced craftsmen. Guilds also caused problems for home weavers. There was a wool-trading market in Flanders, where export taxes were assessed on wool products. By the 13th century, when wool was probably Britain's most important industry, politics and wars caused problems.

Flemish master weavers moved to Britain, to Worstead, and North Walsham, and over time, the guilds made peace, and the Flemish could share their weaving talents. Because of that, the British wool export trade in the first half of the fourteenth century was a time of prosperity for English wool farmers, and increased English cloth production.  But the epidemic of the bubonic plague ...the Black Death...  in 1349, killed so many people, that sheep roamed free and made many more sheep. Farmland to grow food laid idle for years, turned to sheep grazing.
 `Sheep have eaten up our meadows and our downs, Our corn, our wood, whole villages and towns.' ...wrote a poet at the time.
Sheep farmers need grassy pastures, lots of land, and yarn-making requires huge amounts of soft water for washing, scouring and dyeing, and a source of power, which was supplied by rivers, wheels and devices for centuries before modern electricity.
Long fibers of wool go to make worsted wool , (named for the town of Worstead),   and creates a fine smooth hard-surface wool fabric, with little fuzzines.
The shorter wools mainly go to make carpets and other utilitarian objects, nubby tweeds and yarns for knitting. 

a few words quoted about Harris Tweed.....  

‘Woven with love and care’

The rare character and beauty of Harris Tweed is attributable to the fact that is the only fabric produced in commercial quantities by truly traditional methods anywhere in the world. The long, barren archipelago on the far north west tip of Europe is home to every dyer, blender, carder, spinner, warper, weaver, finisher and inspector of Harris Tweed. No part of the process takes place elsewhere. For hundreds of years these islands have produced a special tweed...Harris Tweed.

The wool trade and industry and home cottage and small farmers and traders had survived many changes, political decrees and pestilence and all manner of upheaval.
Once the Flemish helped revive the wool industry in the 14th century, the sheep farms, the shearing, the spinning and the weaving and knitting had remained nearly the same for 300 years in Britain, until modernization. 

The Industrial Revolution of 1750-1850 brought new inventions to power,  mechanize and speed up the spinning and weaving process. Suddenly, everything changed .... from the flying shuttles that displaced weavers, to the spinning jenny that displaced spinners, to the arrival of steam engines and electrical power, and each change displaced more and more workers.

Ned Ludd and Luddites here

1812 witnessed organized violent protests against upheaval and unemployment, and carried out by groups of working class people.
The Luddite riots destroyed factories and machinery, not because they hated machines, but because they feared the government and the wool, weaving and knitting industry would not help them to keep jobs, or to retrain or recover talents, lost income and jobs.
It was a short-lived protest for fair treatment, not an anti-technology protest movement.

 Flemish sheepshearers c. 1500, wikipedia pic

My friend Nich is an itinerant sheepshearer.... when he's not being a smarty-pants English teacher...

here's a little sheepshearing demo....

Today, wool is beloved again.... Britain's Prince Charles is leading a movement to appreciate wool, particularly British wool.  "It is natural and renewable, it has a far smaller environmental footprint and is far less flammable than man-made fibres and it is fully recyclable.
He wants "to persuade people that this natural fibre is infinitely more 'sustainable' than artificial fibres made from oil derivatives." quoted in the Vogue September edition of 2010.