Humankind has sheep to thank for more than 12,000 years of food and shelter. The main product of sheep — wool — has been used since prehistoric times as primitive loin flaps, and has stayed with us over millennia, evolving into pleated trousers and argyle cardigans.
The first wool garments were simple tunics made of sheep pelts. Around 3500 BCE man developed crude mechanisms for spinning and weaving fleece into wool, most likely an innovation borne from observing spider webs and birds’ nests. This breakthrough had far-reaching effects. The warmth of wool allowed prehistoric man to extend the sprawl of civilization far and wide, beyond hospitable warm climates. The Romans, in their quest for world domination and empire, brought their sheep along, spreading herds throughout Italy, Spain, North Africa and England. Sheep were transferred to the New World in two waves, first with the explorations of Christopher Columbus and second during the colonial era. Today, an astonishing 80% of the world’s wool comes from Australia.
The process from sheep to sweater starts with raising and shepherding healthy animals free of disease. The “sheep year” begins in October when rams are bred with ewes. Only one busy ram is bred with a group of ewes to keep records tidy and prevent cross-breeding. After about six months of gestation, lambs are born in mid-March or early-April.
Sheep are usually sheared once a year before giving birth in the spring, before the Southern Hemisphere’s summer cold sets in. There is currently a shortage of professional sheep shearers around the world, prompting the development of shearing schools to carry forth the practice. A skilled shearer can finish the job quickly and remove the fleece in a single, intact piece with minimal discomfort for the animal. On small farms, shearing can be done by hand with scissors or blades, but increasingly the use of electric shears or even robotic mechanisms in combination with specially designed corrals are being applied. These days, technology and science has improved the situation for both shearers and sheep, as the animals are injected with a protein called Bioclip that makes the fleece more easily removable and lessens breakage of the fleece fibers.
Once the sheep is sheared, the fleece is cleaned to prepare for processing and spinning. Body oils, dirt and yellow discoloration are removed by mechanically scouring the fleece in water or solvent. The wool is scoured and squeezed up to six times, and subjected to forks and suction at each level in order to homogenize the fibers for a uniform material.
After the wool is washed and scoured, it is carded: essentially combed through with wire teeth. Carding is a mechanized process where the wool is fed into a series of spinning spools or drums covered with small metal pins. This step removes any remaining undesirable substances from the fibers. The combing process also helps to align the short and long fibers in preparation for the final step of spinning.
High-quality soft wools include lambswool, Merino and Shetland wool. With fleece prized for its long and soft, yet strong, fibers, the Merino sheep is the most popular breed for clothing. Scratchy textiles may be due to the quality, type or treatment of the wool–for example if it is boiled or worsted.
A Merino sheep is bred to have wrinkled skin, which produces piles of surface area and yields more fleece per inch. In recent years, animal rights group PETA has targeted the Australian wool industry in particular for “mulesing”, a brutal practice developed over 70 years ago by John Mule to keep flies from nesting in the sheep’s skin. The process involves cutting off chunks of skin from around the sheep’s tail — without anesthesia — in order to prevent fly-attracting moisture from gathering in the wrinkled skin folds. It’s the cheapest way to deal with skin flies, but vile enough to prompt major clothing manufacturers, including the mega-stores like H&M, to sign a ban and redirect business to mulesing-free venues.
The perceived shady dealings of big business and a desire to get back to a simpler, more transparent manufacturing process has gotten some wool supporters involved in the production of their sweaters from step one. With the resurgence of knitting in the last ten years or so, some true devotees bypass purchasing yarn from the local hobby store and go straight to the source, buying untreated fleece right off the back of a freshly sheared sheep. Once these die-hard knitters get their fresh fleece home, they scour the wool in their washing machines and card with a hand-carder, which looks very much like a rectangular ping pong paddle with tiny metal teeth. Manual spinning wheels can be purchased for the home, with pigment dying done in a Crock-Pot.
Homespun sweaters are hardly the exclusive purview of those drifting off the grid. High fashion has ventured into chunky knits and thick fisherman’s cables. According to common lore, sweaters were originally knit by despondent sweethearts of fishermen sent off on long sea voyages. The sweaters were knit with patterns and cables that identified the fisherman’s clan if his body ever washed ashore.
Wool was chosen in these cold, wet regions for its warmth, breathability and water-repellency. Unlike fur or hair, wool fibers have a microscopic outer layer that prevents water from penetrating. At the same time, the fiber has the capacity to wick away sweat from the body, keeping the wearer warm and dry.
Wool has made its way from the rudimentary fleece tunic of prehistoric man, to the utility of fishermen, to the refined Chanel boucle jacket. Wool is a material that has been used worldwide and across thousands of centuries. Today, the naturally-occurring technology of this material is still prized. Amongst the ecologically conscious, wool is a sustainable as well as a biodegradable product. In the current apparel industry, wool easily blends with other natural or synthetic fibers and it is used in everything from Olympic sportswear to high-fashion.
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