Wool Growing and Manufacture

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WOOL GROWING AND MANUFACTURE. English, Dutch, and Swedish settlers introduced sheep raising into the Atlantic colonies early in the seventeenth century, and the practice became a familiar part of their economy, particularly in the North. Household manufacture of wool was widespread; cards, spinning wheels, and looms were standard equipment in many homes. Sheep were unimproved, the wool coarse, and the homespun rude but serviceable. Fulling mills, auxiliaries of the home industry, appeared early. Itinerant weavers were numerous, and weaving shops existed in most towns, although colonials who could afford them still imported woolen goods from England. English policy discouraged the growth of large-scale wool manufacture in the colonies. The American Revolution spurred efforts to expand both wool growing and manufacture.

Sheep Raising and Wool Production

Between the Revolution and the Civil War, the character of the wool industry changed substantially. The introduction of many Spanish merino sheep in the early nineteenth century enabled growers to provide a fine wool suitable to the needs of an expanding manufacture. By the mid-nineteenth century, modifications in the breed had produced a larger and less delicate American merino that had a heavier fleece. Wool production moved westward, and by 1860 Ohio, Michigan, and California (where the Spanish had introduced sheep in 1769) were among the five leading wool-producing states. Although the manufacture of wool was widely diffused, the great bulk of it was still located in southern New England and in the Middle Atlantic states.

Wool growing has long been of diminishing importance in the U.S. economy. Stock sheep numbered 51 million in 1884 and only 15 million in 1973, and since 1961 the number has declined annually. In the Wool Act of 1954 Congress sought by means of price support to encourage the annual production of about 300 million pounds of shorn wool, but the industry never met the goal. Imports of raw wool regularly exceeded the domestic clip. For most of the twentieth century the sale of sheep was the chief source of income from sheep raising; in 1969 only one-quarter of the farm income derived from sheep came from wool. Breeding has reflected the changing emphasis. Although sheep are raised in all the states, about three-quarters of the stock sheep in the mid-1970s were in South Dakota, Texas, and the states of the Far West, where operations were on a larger scale than elsewhere. The development of man-made fibers substantially reduced the mill consumption of scoured wool per capita, and by 1971 it was only nine-tenths of a pound. The downward trend in wool production indicated the greater profitability of other econoc activities, a predictable development in a populous, urbanized, and industrial country.

Wool Manufacturing

Despite the increase in American flocks, raw or manufactured foreign wool still accounted for most of that fiber consumed in the United States during the mid-1800s. Household manufacture steadily declined during the Industrial Revolution as hundreds of mills powered by water or steam sprang up and as transportation improved. By 1860 the manufacture of woolens represented the largest capital investment (in 1,260 establishments) within the industry, carpet manufacture was well established, and the worsted industry was a lusty infant. Imports were large, while the market for the domestic product was confined to the United States.

The Civil War brought to both growers and manufacturers an unprecedented demand and prosperity. With cotton in short supply in the North, civilian demand for woolens increased as military needs skyrocketed. Wool production soared, and a new merino craze developed, profitable to eastern breeders. Entrepreneurs built new mills, enlarged old ones, and turned cotton machinery to wool manufacture. The war's end found farms and factories with enlarged productive capacities and the government with a huge surplus of clothing.

After 1865 U.S. wool manufacture faced numerous challenges such as population growth, improved transportation, business cycles, changing demands and fashions, public trade policy, wars, foreign and domestic competition, and the development of increasing numbers of man-made fibers. An outstanding development during the fifty years after 1865 was the rise of the worsted industry to a position of dominance over the carded wool industry. The growth of the ready-to-wear clothing industry changed marketing methods. The average size of wool manufacturing plants increased, whereas the number declined sharply. Most of the small, scattered local mills ceased production. By 1914 the American Woolen Company (organized in 1899) controlled thirty-six manufacturing plants and produced more than half of menswear worsteds and woolens. That company and many others gave way in turn to new corporate structures.

After World War II the southern Atlantic states became major producers, and by the 1960s and 1970s their mills consumed more wool than those of New England. Imports were of major concern to the industry, and Japan became the leading exporter of woven wool fabrics to the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. American exports, although not negligible, represented a small part of U.S. mill output. The greatest threat to American wool manufacture in the twentieth century was competition from man-made fibers, the production of which became significant in the 1920s and increased enormously during the 1960s, leaving no branch of wool manufacture unaffected. By the 1970s the relative position of wool in the American world of carpets, yarns, knit goods, and woven fabrics was weaker than ever.

The Wool Industry and Trade Policy

Wool growers and manufacturers have been deeply involved in the perennial debate over the formulation of public trade policy. Protection from foreign competition has been the goal of both groups. Before the 1860s, growers and manufacturers did not cooperate because most

manufacturers opposed the imposition of wool duties. In 1864 the National Association of Wool Manufacturers was formed, and in 1865 the National Woolgrowers' Association was established. Because it represented both agricultural and manufacturing interests and because its political influence was widely distributed, the alliance successfully secured high duties on imports of both wool and woolens and, to a considerable extent, made the tariff schedule concerned with these duties "the keystone of the arch of protection." During the making of the Payne-Aldrich tariff (1909) and the years of debate that followed, Schedule K became the most publicized tariff schedule in U.S. history. In 1971, President Richard M. Nixon, under great pressure, negotiated agreements with Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong limiting their exports of the manufactures of wool and man-made fibers to the United States. Although protection has played a significant role in the history of wool growing and manufacture, it has been only one of several major influences.


Cole, Arthur Harrison. The American Wool Manufacture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1926.

Crockett, Norman L. The Woolen Industry of the Midwest. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970.

Molloy, Peter M., ed. Homespun to Factory Made: Woolen Textiles in America, 1776–1876. North Andover, Mass.: Merrimack Valley Textile Museum, 1977.

Wentworth, Edward Norris. America's Sheep Trails: History, Personalities. Ames: Iowa State College Press, 1948.

Harry JamesBrown/c. w.

See alsoCarpet Manufacture ; Industrial Revolution ; Manufacturing, Household ; Tariff ; Textiles .