Wool has been part of Britain’s history since sheep were first domesticated thousands of years ago. Our countryside has been shaped by the farming of sheep for their fleeces and for food and, from the rolling Downs of Southern England to the wilder uplands of Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Cumbria, we see the legacy of centuries of grazing on our landscapes.
In the Middle Ages wool production became a major industry and over the centuries its importance to the British economy led to significant social changes caused by the enclosure of land for sheep and the clearance of parts of the Scottish Highlands to allow landowners to graze sheep where people previously farmed.
Alongside the farming of sheep there developed supporting industries to shear sheep, collect, wash and process the wool and make it into yarn for knitting and weaving. In Scotland and Northern England particularly, cloth production employed thousands and drove the development of machinery to card, spin, warp, weave and knit wool in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.
Nowadays sheep are reared mainly for meat, but there is still a significant British wool industry which survives in the face of competition from outside the UK and from other fibres, both natural and man-made. Many argue that we should be favouring wool over other fibres. While the production of all fibres, both natural and synthetic, has adverse effects on the environment, there is a balance to be struck and consumers are increasingly seeking products with the least impact on our fragile planet. Artificial fibres are made from petrochemicals, do not degrade quickly and their microscopic fibres enter the food chain. Wool has the advantage of being biodegradable, breaking down quickly when disposed of, making it arguably the fabric with the least environmental impact.
Finally, wool itself has many natural properties which favour it as the raw material for clothes, cloth, knitwear and other products. It evolved over millennia to keep sheep warm and dry and now fulfils the same functions for humans. A natural insulator, it’s breathable, resilient and elastic, hard wearing and odour resistant.
In the next feature I’ll look at some of the British brands that continue to make use of these nature properties of wool to make everything from cloth and knitwear to insulation and furnishings.
A selection of images showcasing the Blending, Carding and Warping process of the wool fibres by one of the last remaining vertical woollen mills in Great Britain, Abraham Moon & Sons Limited.
Images from Abraham Moon and Sons Limited showcasing the Treading and Twisting, and Weaving process at their woollen mill in Guiseley, Yorkshire. They have been crafting fine cloths with care and precision for 180 years.
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