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A Gripping Yarn: How Great Britain was built from the backs of sheep

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sheep on a hill in the lake district england

How wool is made and its amazing history in Great Britain

You may not realise it, but wool is a major deal. Behind all those lovingly knitted Christmas jumpers, oh-so-sophisticated cashmere sweaters and fetching bed throws is a long, proud history of British wool-making. Believe it or not, over the hundreds of years that Britain has been producing and trading wool, this seemingly harmless fabric has started wars, formed alliances and clothed many backs against the glorious British weather. Even in the House of Lords, wool has made its mark … or seat –– the Lord High Chancellor sits a square bag of wool (called the ‘woolsack’) as a reminder of how important wool has been to Britain over the years. Who knew that wool was so important? Well, us, but we are experts in wool clothing, after all.

 

How is wool made?

We don’t know about you, but we like to know where our fabrics come from and how they’re made. There’s something about knowing where that your clothing comes from that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. So, how is wool made? Well, let us tell you, my friend.

 

First, the wool has to be sheared from the sheep (duh). Sheep are sheared once a year, normally in springtime. Once the fleece has been sheared from the sheep, it has to be graded and sorted. This is when the fleece is categorised based on its overall quality. After the wool has been sorted, it then has to be cleaned because, being outside animals, the raw wool from a sheep contains a fair amount of sand, dirt, grease, and dried sweat. Lovely.

 

To get rid of all these bits of dirt and muck, the wool is scoured in a series of alkaline baths to make it squeaky clean. Next, the fibres are passed through a series of metal teeth that straighten and blend them into slivers. This is called carding, which removes any remaining dirt left in the fibres. From there, the sleeker slivers are compacted and thinned through a process called drawing.

 

The wool is then formed into threads by being spun together to form one strand of yarn. Since they cling and stick to one another, it is fairly easy to join, extend, and spin wool into yarn. After the yarn is spun, it is wrapped around bobbins, cones, or commercial drums. At this point, the wool yarn can be woven into fabric. And there you have it, expertly woven wool!

 

archie foal mens wool jumper

The history of wool

So you now know how wool is made. But if you really want to know your stuff, then you’ll need to dust up on your history. Whether it’s to impress a date, to dominate your local pub quiz or simply to congratulate yourself on your extensive know-how, the following nuggets of information will come in handy.

 

Sheep are man’s best friends

Once upon a time, back when we lived in huts and had to walk further than the corner shop for our food, some intuitive fellow had an epiphany. He (or she, who knows) had the groundbreaking realisation that sheep could be used not just for milk and meat –– turns out, their wool could be used to make rather useful clothing to keep them warm and dry. Since that lightbulb moment, sheep and wool became integral parts of our society.

International expansion

By 10,000 BC, primitive tribes were using wool to make durable clothing that protected them from the harsh climates. It wasn’t long before this way of living spread across the world. Because sheep could be moved around easily with the help of the first sheepdogs, shepherds began to migrate across unknown and unexplored lands, taking their walking wardrobe with them. It wasn’t long before shepherding reached the exotic location of the British Isles.

The beginnings of an industry

By the time the Romans came to Britain in 55BC, Britain had developed a thriving wool industry. With thanks to the encouragement from the Roman invaders, wool was soon being traded in foreign lands, becoming our most valuable tradable commodity. By the 13th century, wool was the driving force of the economy due to the growing demand for woven fabrics. Wool was where the money was. Anyone who had land, had sheep –– from peasants to the bigwig landowners. Even the Church was in on it, as the monasteries played an active role in the wool trade.

A cloth-making revolution

Up to the 14th century, all the raw wool produced was exported to foreign looms where it was expertly spun into clothes by weavers in the cloth-making capitals of Bruges, Ghent and Ypres. However, by the end of the 14th century, wool weaving became a home-grown skill due to Flemish weavers fleeing war by migrating to Britain. Because of this, small country villages in Norfolk, Suffolk, the West Country, the Yorkshire Dales and Cumberland became the foundational hives of Britain’s wool industry. They learned and cultivated the expertise learnt from the Flemish weavers to produce top-notch woollen fabrics. Suddenly, we became wool-weaving masters.

 

 

 

 

 

Put your money where your sheep are

Sheep and their wool were so important in fact, that by the 15th to 18th centuries monarchs would ban exports of sheep and raw wool as a show of power and to benefit from its prolific trade through taxes. It’s the medieval equivalent of cigarette taxes. Eventually, someone thought of the idea of moving wool-weaving from small villages in the middle of nowhere to the cities. During the Victorian era, Lancashire and Yorkshire cities such as Leeds led the cloth-making industrial revolution as transport routes and mechanised mills fed the ever-expanding trade to the growing British Empire.

A legacy continued

The mills’ heyday continued well into the twentieth century, until the 1960s when Asia took over as the market’s main supplier of fabrics. But although a lot of high street disposable fashion still have the ‘Made In China’ mark, the legacy of the British wool industry continues. Today, remnants of the booming wool industry continue to make British woollen fabrics. The likes of Hainsworths, Abraham Moons and Halley Stevenson have honed their wool-making skills to weave high quality, premium fabrics over generations, right here in Britain. And their legacy is set to continue (hooray!). More and more people are ditching the herd for higher-quality woollens from respected names that they can trust. Can you blame them?   

 

At Archie Foal, we are not sheepish about our love of well-made fabrics. That’s why our collection is made using premium, British-made textiles created by experts right here in the UK. After all, nobody should endure poorly-made clothing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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