views updated May 17 2018



As with many discoveries of early man, anthropologists believe the use of wool came out of the challenge to survive. In seeking means of protection and warmth, humans in the Neolithic Age wore animal pelts as clothing. Finding the pelts not only warm and comfortable but also durable, they soon began to develop the basic processes and primitive tools for making wool. By 4000 b.c., Babylonians were wearing clothing of crudely woven fabric.

People soon began to develop and maintain herds of wool-bearing animals. The wool of sheep was soon recognized as one of the most practical to use. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, wool trade prospered. The English had become proficient in the raising of sheep, while the Flemish had developed the skills for processing. As a result, the British began to sell their wool to the Flemish, who processed the raw material and then sold it back to the English.

The ambitious British soon realized the advantages of both producing and processing their own wool. As Britain began to prosper, it sought to enhance its position by enacting laws and embargoes that would stimulate its domestic production. Some laws, for example, required that judges, professors, and students wear robes made of English wool. Another law required that the dead be buried in native wool. When the American colonies began to compete with the motherland, the English passed a series of laws in an attempt to protect their "golden fleece." One law even threatened the amputation of the hand of any colonist caught trying to improve the blood line of American sheep.

Today, wool is a global industry, with Australia, Argentina, the United States, and New Zealand serving as the major suppliers of raw wool. While the United States is the largest consumer of wool fabric, Australia is the leading supplier. Australian wool accounts for approximately one-fourth of the world's production.

What for centuries was a small home-based craft has grown into a major industry. The annual global output is now estimated at 5.5 billion pounds. Though cotton is the number one plant used for fabrics and the number one fiber overall, the number one source for animal fiber is still wool.

Raw Materials

While most people picture only sheep when they think of wool, other animals also produce fine protein fiber. Various camels, goats, and rabbits produce hair that is also classified as wool.

In scientific terms, wool is considered to be a protein called keratin. Its length usually ranges from 1.5 to 15 inches (3.8 to 38 centimeters) depending on the breed of sheep. Each piece is made up of three essential components: the cuticle, the cortex, and the medulla.

The cuticle is the outer layer. It is a protective layer of scales arranged like shingles or fish scales. When two fibers come in contact with each other, these scales tend to cling and stick to each other. It's this physical clinging and sticking that allows wool fibers to be spun into thread so easily.

The cortex is the inner structure made up of millions of cigar-shaped cortical cells. In natural-colored wool, these cells contain melanin. The arrangement of these cells is also responsible for the natural crimp unique to wool fiber.

Rarely found in fine wools, the medulla comprises a series of cells (similar to honeycombs) that provide air spaces, giving wool its thermal insulation value. Wool, like residential insulation, is effective in reducing heat transfer.

Wool fiber is hydrophilicit has a strong affinity for waterand therefore is easily dyed. While it is a good insulator, it scorches and discolors under high temperatures. Each fiber is elastic to an extent, allowing it to be stretched 25 to 30 percent before breaking. Wool does, however, have a tendency to shrink when wet.


While some of the characteristics of wool can be altered through genetic engineering of sheep, most of the modifications of design are implemented during the manufacturing of the fabric. Wool can be blended with any number of natural or synthetic fibers, and various finishes and treatments can also be applied.

Different types of fleece are used in producing wool. Lambs' wool is fleece that is taken from young sheep before the age of eight months. Because the fiber has not been cut, it has a natural, tapered end that gives it a softer feel. Pulled wool is taken from animals originally slaughtered for meat and is pulled from the pelt using various chemicals. The fibers of pulled wool are of low quality and produce a low-grade cloth. Virgin wool is wool that has never been processed in any manner before it goes into the manufacturing phase. This term is often misunderstood to mean higher quality, which is not necessarily the case.

These wools and others can be used in the production of two categories of woolen fabrics: woolens and worsteds. Woolens are made up of short, curly fibers that tend to be uneven and weak. They are loosely woven in plain or indistinct patterns. Usually woolens have a low thread count and are not as durable as worsteds. They do, however, make soft, fuzzy, and thick fabrics that are generally warmer than their counterparts.

The mechanization of the woolen cloth industry provides a heady example of the extent of nineteenth-century industrial change. Every step of the process, except shearing the sheep and sorting the wool into different grades, was mechanized between 1790 and 1890. Only the organic aspects of shearing live animals and the value judgments required of human sorters resisted mechanical replication until the twentieth century.

Growth of the American woolen trade was based on more than mechanical change, however. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, American sheep provided wool that was quite satisfactory for "homespun," the rough, durable cloth woven by hand on looms owned by professional weavers who set up shop or moved from town to town with their looms. But domestic cloth was overshadowed in quality by imported material.

Several varieties of sheep bred in England and Europe produced wool vastly superior in quality to American-produced wool. The importation of breeds such as the English Southdowns and Spanish Merinos improved domestic quality and allowed the American woolen industry to compete with the best imports.

The Merino sheep, in particular, with their deeply wrinkled folds producing large quantities of wool, caused a stir among American farmers in the early part of the century. A few "gentlemen farmers" avoided Spanish export restrictions and imported some Merinos. As wool prices rose during the embargo of 1807, a "Merino craze" occurred that pushed the price of fine wool and purebred animals to record levels. Then, in 1810, an American diplomat arranged the importation of 20,000 purebred Merinos, and the woolen industry from Vermont to Pennsylvania to Ohio was changed forever.

William S. Pretzer

Worsted fabrics are made of long, straight fibers with considerable tensile strength. They are usually woven in twill patterns and have a high thread count. The finish tends to be hard, rough, and flat. Also, the insulation value is normally not as high as woolens. Worsted fabrics also tend to be more expensive than woolens.

The Manufacturing

The major steps necessary to process wool from the sheep to the fabric are: shearing, cleaning and scouring, grading and sorting, carding, spinning, weaving, and finishing.


  • 1 Sheep are sheared once a yearusually in the springtime. A veteran shearer can shear up to two hundred sheep per day. The fleece recovered from a sheep can weigh between 6 and 18 pounds (2.7 and 8.1 kilograms); as much as possible, the fleece is kept in one piece. While most sheep are still sheared by hand, new technologies have been developed that use computers and sensitive, robot-controlled arms to do the clipping.

Grading and sorting

  • 2 Grading is the breaking up of the fleece based on overall quality. In sorting, the wool is broken up into sections of different quality fibers, from different parts of the body. The best quality of wool comes from the shoulders and sides of the sheep and is used for clothing; the lesser quality comes from the lower legs and is used to make rugs. In wool grading, high quality does not always mean high durability.

Cleaning and scouring

  • 3 Wool taken directly from the sheep is called "raw" or "grease wool." It contains sand, dirt, grease, and dried sweat (called suint); the weight of contaminants accounts for about 30 to 70 percent of the fleece's total weight. To remove these contaminants, the wool is scoured in a series of alkaline baths containing water, soap, and soda ash or a similar alkali. The byproducts from this process (such as lanolin) are saved and used in a variety of household products. Rollers in the scouring machines squeeze excess water from the fleece, but the fleece is not allowed to dry completely. Following this process, the wool is often treated with oil to give it increased manageability.


  • 4 Next, the fibers are passed through a series of metal teeth that straighten and blend them into slivers. Carding also removes residual dirt and other matter left in the fibers. Carded wool intended for worsted yarn is put through gilling and combing, two procedures that remove short fibers and place the longer fibers parallel to each other. From there, the sleeker slivers are compacted and thinned through a process called drawing. Carded wool to be used for woolen yarn is sent directly for spinning.


  • 5 Thread is formed by spinning the fibers together to form one strand of yarn; the strand is spun with two, three, or four other strands. Since the fibers cling and stick to one another, it is fairly easy to join, extend, and spin wool into yarn. Spinning for woolen yarns is typically done on a mule spinning machine, while worsted yarns can be spun on any number of spinning machines. After the yarn is spun, it is wrapped around bobbins, cones, or commercial drums.


  • 6 Next, the wool yarn is woven into fabric. Wool manufacturers use two basic weaves: the plain weave and the twill. Woolen yarns are made into fabric using a plain weave (rarely a twill), which produces a fabric of a somewhat looser weave and a soft surface (due to napping) with little or no luster. The napping often conceals flaws in construction.

    Worsted yarns can create fine fabrics with exquisite patterns using a twill weave. The result is a more tightly woven, smooth fabric. Better constructed, worsteds are more durable than woolens and therefore more costly.


  • 7 After weaving, both worsteds and woolens undergo a series of finishing procedures including: fulling (immersing the fabric in water to make the fibers interlock); crabbing (permanently setting the interlock); decating (shrink-proofing); and, occasionally, dyeing. Although wool fibers can be dyed before the carding process, dyeing can also be done after the wool has been woven into fabric.


The use of waste is very important to the wool industry. Attention to this aspect of the business has a direct impact on profits. These wastes are grouped into four classes:

  • Noils. These are the short fibers that are separated from the long wool in the combing process. Because of their excellent condition, they are equal in quality to virgin wool. They constitute one of the major sources of waste in the industry and are reused in high-quality products.
  • Soft waste. This is also high-quality material that falls out during the spinning and carding stages of production. This material is usually reintroduced into the process from which it came.
  • Hard waste. These wastes are generated by spinning, twisting, winding, and warping. This material requires much re-processing and is therefore considered to be of lesser value.
  • Finishing waste. This category includes a wide variety of clippings, short ends, sample runs, and defects. Since this material is so varied, it requires a great deal of sorting and cleaning to retrieve that which is usable. Consequently, this material is the lowest grade of waste.

Quality Control

Most of the quality control in the production of wool fabrics is done by sight, feel, and measurement. Loose threads are removed with tweezer-like instruments called burling irons; knots are pushed to the back of the cloth; and other specks and minor flaws are taken care of before fabrics go through any of the finishing procedures.

In 1941, the United States Congress passed the Wool Products Labeling Act. The purpose of this act was to protect producers and consumers from the unrevealed presence of substitutes and mixtures in wool products. This law required that all products containing wool (with the exception of upholstery and floor coverings) must carry a label stating the content and percentages of the materials in the fabric.

This act also legally defined many terms that would standardized their use within the industry. Some of the key terms identified in the Act are:

  • Wool. Refers to new wool. Can also include new fiber reclaimed from scraps and broken threads.
  • Repossessed Wool. Material that is obtained from scraps and clips of new woven or felted fabrics made of previously unused wool.
  • Reused Wool. Wool obtained from old clothing and rags that have been used or worn.

The Future

The current widespread use and demand for wool is so great that there is little doubt that wool will continue to maintain its position of importance in the fabric industry. Only a major innovation that encompasses the many attributes of woolincluding it warmth, durability, and valuecould threaten the prominence of this natural fiber.

Where To Learn More


Botkin, M. P. Sheep and Wool: Science, Production, and Management. Prentice Hall, 1988.

Corbman, Bernard P. Textiles: Fiber to Fabric, 6th ed. McGraw-Hill, 1983.

Ensiminger, Eugene. Sheep and Wool Science. Interstate Printers, 1970.


Hyde, Nina. "Fabric of History: Wool," National Geographic. May, 1988, p. 552.

Ryder, Michael L. "The Evolution of the Fleece," Scientific American. January, 1987, p. 112.

Dan Pepper


views updated May 17 2018


Wool is one of the oldest textile fibers used by humans. The term wool is generally used to describe fiber obtained from sheep or lambs. Legally the hair of a few other animals can also be called wool because its qualities are similar to sheep's wool. The United States government allows the fiber from alpaca, camel, llama, vicuña, Cashmere goat, and Angora goat to be labeled as wool, but these can also be labeled by their own fiber names.

Sheep were first domesticated in Central Asia about 10,000 years ago to provide a ready source of meat, milk, and hides for clothing. As humans worked with the hair from the sheep hides, they found that twisting thin strands of wool fiber together forms a continuous length of yarn. As time went on, they discovered that interlacing the yarn would form a fabric. Once yarn and fabric production were part of the knowledge base of humans, fabric became a second skin. The oldest surviving fragments of wool cloth were found in Egypt and date between 4000 and 3400 b.c.e.

The early, wild species of sheep had a two-layer coat. The coat closest to the body was a short wool undercoat of fine, downy fiber. This was protected by long, coarse

and straight guard hair. Since some sheep had better-quality fiber than others, people selected sheep for breeding that provided more undercoat and less guard hair. In the early 2000s, the majority of sheep growing wool for clothing produce mainly undercoat fiber.

A wool fiber is made up of three layers: the cuticle, cortex, and medulla. The cuticle is the outer layer of over-lapping scales that comprises about 10 percent of the fiber. The cortex provides the bulk of the fiber, about 90 percent, and is composed of millions of long cells held together by a strong natural binding material. The cortex has two types of cells that behave differently to give wool fiber the characteristic "crimp" or waviness when a fiber is viewed from the side. The medulla, when present, is found in the middle of the cortex, and is a latticework of air-filled cells. A fiber with a large medulla is weak and doesn't dye easily.

Wool Production

Shearing. When human beings first used wool fiber, they gathered fiber that was shed from the sheep during their spring molt. As humans domesticated the sheep, they bred them to resist shedding so that the wool could be removed when it was convenient. In the early twenty-first century, the first step in wool production is removing the wool from the sheep by shearing (cutting). Once off the animal, the fleece of one sheep is bundled together with the clean side in.

Teasing Out the Meaning of Wool Fiber Terms

Hair vs. Wool:
Technically, hair differs from wool. Hair is a coarse and straight fiber, whereas wool is a fine and crimpy fiber with a scaly surface.
Fur fiber vs. fur:
Fur fiber describes the hair of any animals other than sheep, lamb, Angora goat, Cashmere goat, camel, alpaca, llama, and vicuña. If hair or fur fiber is attached to the animal skin, it is also referred to as fur.
The coat of fibers from one sheep is called a fleece.

Grading and sorting. Each fleece is examined, graded, and sorted. The tangled and dirty parts of the fleece are removed and the fleece is graded for fiber fineness (diameter), length, crimp (a uniform waviness), color, kemp (thick hair fibers that dye poorly), strength, and elasticity. The finest wool's diameter is between 10 and 20 microns (one micron equals 1/20,000 of an inch). Fine wool is soft, like the fiber in a cotton ball, and is most luxurious. Coarse wool tends to be stiff and bristly, making it best for carpet. The length of wool fiber varies from 1 to about 14 inches. Fine combing wools measure 2.5 inches or more in length and coarse wools around 1.5 inches. While there are as many colors of sheep as there are colors of dogs and cats, white is the most common and has been the most valued over time. Sorting separates the individual fleece into various qualities, with the shoulders and sides giving the best quality and the legs the lowest quality.

Scouring. Wool needs to be cleaned of natural impurities before it is processed further. Impurities include a greasy substance called lanolin that oils the wool fiber and helps the sheep's coat shed water. Other impurities are dirt, vegetable matter, and perspiration or suint (pronounced swint). The wool is scoured by washing it with a detergent solution that carries the oil and dirt away from the wool. If some of the lanolin is left on the wool fibers to provide water repellency, it is called grease wool.

Blending. Sorted fleeces of a particular quality are thor-oughly mixed together, in order to obtain a desired consistency of wool quality. Other types of fibers, such as spandex or nylon, may be added during this step to achieve an intimate blending of the fibers before they are spun into yarn.

Stock Dyeing. Clean fiber can be dyed before spinning it into yarn. This is referred to as stock dyeing. Dyed fiber may then be blended to obtain a yarn with a heather effect, which has many colors of fibers.

Carding. In order for an even yarn to be made, the fibers must be separated, spread into a uniform thickness, and encouraged to lie relatively parallel with one another. The carding step produces a continuous strand of untwisted fibers that are eventually drawn into a finer diameter strand before twisting the strand into yarn.

Woolen system. When a soft, fuzzy texture is desired in fabric, the woolen system of yarn production is used. In this process, the fiber is carded several times. Wool fibers of differing lengths and types may be processed with this system. Cloth made from yarn spun on the woolen system is correctly referred to as woolen. Typical fabrics include tweeds, sweater knits, and flannel.

Combing (worsted). In order to get a smooth and uniform textured fabric, the fiber must go through the combing process. Combing makes the fibers straight, in a parallel order. It removes short fibers and almost all of the foreign matter from the fiber matrix. Combed yarns are finer, cleaner, stronger, and more lustrous than carded yarns. Examples of worsted wool fabrics are gabardine and serge.

Spinning. The final step in the process of making yarn is spinning. This draws out the fiber mass, thinning it to the desired diameter, and then stabilizes the strand by twisting the fibers into a yarn.

Yarn dyeing. Coloring the wool in the yarn stage before it is woven or knitted into fabric is called yarn dyeing. Dyed yarn produces plaids, checks, and other color-effects in weaving and knitting.

Weaving. Interlacing two or more sets of yarns at right angles to one another forms a woven fabric. Both woolen and worsted yarns can be used in the weaving process. Fabrics made with woolen yarns can be classified as woolens, and those made with worsted yarns may be classified as worsteds.

Knitting. Inter-looping one yarn or a series of yarns forms a knitted fabric. Either woolen or worsted yarns may be used in the knitting process, but woolen yarns are most commonly used. Garments may be knit into shape or flat knitted fabric can be created, which must be cut and sewn into a garment.

Piece dyeing. After a fabric is woven or knitted, pieces of a fabric can be immersed in a dye bath to give color to that fabric. Piece dyeing generally results in a solid color fabric. If yarns of differing fibers are included in one fabric, multiple color effects are possible.

Finishing. A completed fabric needs additional treatment before being acceptable for use by consumers. Numerous finishes can be done to wool fabrics, including: mending to repair damage done in the weaving or knitting process, wet finishes to control shrinkage and to make the fabric more dense; napping to brush-up a fuzzy surface; and singeing (burning) to eliminate long yarn ends. Wool fabric is given a final press to smooth out the wrinkles from previous finishing processes.

The Properties of Wool

The natural qualities of wool are the reason it has been continually used for thousands of years. Its superior properties have not been totally duplicated by textile scientists. Wool remains a masterpiece of nature and provides a standard by which other fibers are compared.

Resiliency and elasticity. Wool fiber is resilient and elastic. It can bend 30,000 times without breaking or being damaged. Its natural elasticity is due to the cortex cells that naturally coil like springs to form crimp. The elasticity makes it comfortable to wear, because it conforms to the shape of the body and helps wrinkles disappear from wool garments when they are allowed to rest. Wool's resiliency is shown when it stretches and returns to its original shape. Dry wool fiber can be stretched about 30 percent without any damage. Wet wool can stretch between 60 and 70 percent, but is weaker, so washed wool must be handled carefully. The resiliency of wool helps it to wear longer and maintain its good appearance longer than many other fibers.

Comfort. Wool clothing provides superior comfort during both hot and cold weather. Its complex cellular structure enables it to absorb water vapor, but repel liquid. As wool absorbs the body's water vapor, a dry layer of air is left next to the skin to hold in body heat, thereby keeping the body warm. The crimp in the wool fibers keeps each fiber apart from one another, resulting in little pockets of air trapped between the fibers. This trapped air acts as a very good insulator.

Wool is comfortable in hot weather because it helps keep the body cooler by absorbing perspiration vapor from the body. The evaporation of perspiration allows the body to naturally cool. The crimp that helps keep the body warm in cold weather blocks out much of the out-door heat with its insulating barrier of air pockets. This helps the body maintain an even temperature.

Wool's insulating properties protect against sudden changes of temperature and let the body breathe. While wool can absorb moisture, it repels liquids. The scales on the outside of the fiber keep the liquid on the surface of the wool fabric. If it rains, it will take some time before the raindrops penetrate wool clothing, so wool keeps the wearer drier. When wool eventually gets wet it releases the heat and keeps the wearer warm. Wool can absorb up to 30 percent of its own weight in moisture before feeling really damp.

Flame resistance. Wool is naturally fire resistant because it absorbs water vapor from the air. While wool will eventually burn, it will not support a flame. Once the flame source is removed, wool self-extinguishes and an ash is left that can easily be brushed away. Wool does not melt when burned, so it won't stick to the skin.

Resistance to static electricity. Because of wool's ability to absorb moisture from the air, its tendency to build-up static electricity is low. Wool garments are less likely to "spark" and cling to the body. Wool resists dirt and stays cleaner longer that other materials because static electricity doesn't attract dust from the air. Furthermore the scales of the wool keep dirt from penetrating the surface. These same qualities make wool easier to clean.

Felting. Felting occurs when wool fibers interlock with each other when they are subjected to a combination of heat, moisture, pressure, and agitation. The scales lie in one direction on the fiber, making it move more easily in one direction than another. This is the differential friction effect (DFE). As wool fiber is moistened, rubbed, and warmed, the fibers' scales become locked together. Felting allows wool fiber to be made directly into a fabric without first being made into a yarn. It also allows wool fabrics to be finished with a process called "fulling," a controlled form of felting. "Fulling" makes a fabric thicker and more densely packed. Wool's ability to felt makes it tricky to wash, as heat, moisture, and agitation will encourage felting and permanent shrinking will occur.

See alsoAlpaca; Angora; Camel Hair; Mohair; Worsted .


Fournier, Nola, and Jane Fournier. In Sheep's Clothing: A Hand-spinner's Guide to Wool. Loveland, Colo.: Interweave Press, 2001.

Harmsworth, Tom, and Graham Day. Wool and Mohair. 2nd ed. Victoria, Australia: Inkata Press, 1990.

Kadolph, Sara J., and Anne L. Langford. Textiles. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, Pearson Education, 2002.

Ryder, Michael L., and S. K. Stephenson. Wool Growth. London and New York: Academic Press, 1968.

Internet Resources

The American Wool Council. Wool Fabrics Fact Sheet. Available from <http://www.sheepusa.org/wool/genwool/woolfabrics.html>.

Federal Trade Commission. Threading Your Way Through Labeling Requirements Under the Textile and Wool Acts. Available from <http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/buspubs/thread.htm>.

The Woolmark Company. Natural Properties. Available from <http://www.woolmark.com/about/naturalproperties.html>.

Ann W. Braaten


views updated May 23 2018


Wool is the hair fiber of domesticated animals, primarily sheep, but also goats, camels, and llamas. It is an heterogeneous product that has been used in the manufacture of clothing and carpets for many centuries. Its heterogeneity largely derives from different breeds of each animal and climatic variations between geographic regions. The fineness of the fiber, measured by its diameter in microns, is regarded as an important quality indicator, but other factors include its length, yield, lightness, color, softness, breathability, naturalness, elasticity, and nonflammability. Among the many fabrics produced from wool are chenille, felt, flannel, gabardine, melton, serge, tweed, and worsted.

Around 1450 England and Scotland were the main sources of raw wool that supplied the fine-cloth manufacturers of continental Europe, particularly in Spain, Burgundy, Flanders, and Italy. In the following century, English manufacturers challenged the continental dominance. Unfinished undyed broadcloths drove a three-fold expansion in English cloth exports in the first half of the century. Thereafter, expansion came through the production of the "new draperies"—light, colorful, fashionable worsted products, which were exported to many parts of Europe including Germany, Italy, and Poland. By contrast, many of the continental manufacturers fell into decline, suffering the fallout from religious and political conflict, particularly in the Low Countries, and from the high cost and regulation of urban industry and its labor supply by the medieval guilds, for example in Florence and Venice. The expanding British woollen industry drew heavily upon rural production in the household. This bypassed guild and municipal regulations, and had lower production costs and a more flexible workforce, enabling a concentration upon the cheaper and popular new draperies. The West Country, East Anglia, and the West Riding of Yorkshire dominated English production. Key institutions sustained the rapid expansion of English production: large-scale middlemen coordinating the receipt of growers' wool and passing it to exporters; and the Merchants of the Staple, a powerful and influential organization with a monopoly over wool exports.

Contemporaneous changes occurred in the sources of raw wool. By the end of the sixteenth century, Spanish merino wool was considered the best quality available. Careful breeding and selection improved Spanish merino strains in the fifteenth century, while the rapidly expanding merino flock was protected by the powerful Mesta organization. The Mesta was a national organization of sheep farmers, which, under royal sanction, had extensive powers to coordinate wool production and export. It grew out of similar local bodies in medieval Spain but was in decline by the eighteenth century as opposition grew to its extensive powers and ancient rights. The quality of the merino stock was additionally attributed to extensive transhumance migrations as far afield as 400 miles, which were facilitated by extensive pasturage rights. In spite of attempts to forbid the export of merinos, various legal and illegal exports of livestock occurred. German merino flocks grew rapidly after 1765, when the king of Spain presented 300 merinos to his relative Prince Xavier, the elector of Saxony. German wool challenged Spanish output in major European markets by the end of the century, and thereafter, the merino spread to other European nations and to America.

Sources of supply and centers of production changed rapidly in the nineteenth century. Europe supplied most of its own raw wool at the beginning of the century, but pressures of population, agricultural production, and urban and industrial expansion weighed heavily on Western European nations. The solution came with the expansion of the sheep flocks of Southern Hemisphere nations. In particular, Australia, originally viewed as a dumping ground for British convicts, showed immense promise as a raw-wool producer. The merino was introduced into Australia in 1797; by 1821 there were 100,000 sheep, rising rapidly to 13 million by mid-century. Wool production reached 19 million kilograms by 1850, 210 million by 1890, and 446 million by 1939. Improved sheep breeding with merinos, particularly from the late 1820s, enabled exports of high-quality Australian wool to grow rapidly. The first wool exports from Australia to Britain occurred around 1807 to 1808, and by the 1830s were increasing by 32 percent per annum. Australia rapidly became the largest wool producer and exporter, followed by New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, and Uruguay. The major Northern Hemisphere producers all became net importers, including Britain, the United States, Germany, France, Italy, and Russia.

Simultaneously, the pattern of manufacturing demand for wool was changing significantly. The English woollen industry was undergoing significant alterations in its size and structure in the second half of the nineteenth century. The rapid expansion of worsted production in mid-century was due to changing fashions and the introduction of new machine technology. Of particular note was the successful mechanization of the combing stage of worsted production from the 1850s, which led to a large rise in demand for long merino wools from Australia. In addition, the severe and extended depression of the industry from the mid-1870s prompted a search for cheaper sources of supply; at this time wool prices were lower in Australia than in London. The second major demand change was the growing importance of non-British buyers. The textile industries of continental Europe, particularly in France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, followed a pattern similar to Britain's of growth, concentration, and stagnation. U.S. demand also increased, although tariffs, a large domestic sheep industry, and consumer preferences in favor of cotton constrained its share. The Japanese market grew more rapidly. Military demand from the Sino-Japanese (1894–1895) and Russo-Japanese (1904–1905) wars provided the early stimulus, aided by the removal of a 5 percent import tariff on wool in 1896. By the early 1930s Japanese buyers were the third-largest consumers of Australian wool. By the end of the twentieth century the largest retail consumers of wool were China, the former Soviet nations, Japan, Germany, the United States, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

Although most demand has been for high quality merino, coarser wools have been used in the manufacture of blankets and carpets, particularly sourced from China, India, Syria, Russia, and Iraq. At the other end of the quality scale, cashmere is produced from cashmere goats, a very high-quality wool used in fine clothing. Like the coarser goat's hair and mohair, it is particularly sourced from China.

The demand for wool has faced opportunities and threats through the twentieth century. The expansion of man-made fibers has encroached upon traditional uses, particularly rayon from the 1920s and noncellulosic fibers such as nylon and types of polyester from the 1950s. At the same time, the number of wool or wool-mix products has grown extensively to include insulation materials, filters, sporting balls, piano key hammers, felt pens, hats and linings, flags, table and chair covers, duvets, and tapestries.

Wool has traditionally been sold by public auction and by private treaty. Sale by public auction at Garraway's coffee house in Cornhill, London commenced in 1821, before shifting to the Wool Exchange in 1875. By the end of the nineteenth century the wool market began to relocate to the main supplying countries of Australia and New Zealand, prompted by the actions of powerful broking houses and reflecting the geographic diversification of demand and improved international transport and communications. Wool sales remained solely a physical auction market until the introduction of a London futures exchange in 1953 and a Sydney futures market in 1960, and the subsequent development of internet sales such as Woolnet in New Zealand since 1999.

SEE ALSO Agriculture; Antwerp; Australia and New Zealand; Climate; Disease and Pestilence; Empire, British; Empire, Portuguese; Empire, Spanish; India;Russia;United Kingdom.


Abbott, Malcolm J. "Promoting Wool Internationally: The Formation of the International Wool Secretariat." Australian Economic History Review 38, no. 3 (1998).

Ashton, Dale; Brittle, Shane; and Sheales, Terry. Demand for Wool in a Changing World. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 2000.

Barnard, Alan. The Australian Wool Market, 1840–1900. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1958.

Jenkins, David T., and Ponting, Kenneth G. The British Wool Textile Industry, 1770–1914. Aldershot, U.K.: Scholars Press, 1987.

Ponting, Kenneth G. The Wool Trade Past and Present. Manchester, U.K.: Columbine Press, 1961.

Wool Taskforce. Diversity and Innovation for Australian Wool. Report of the Wool Industry Future Directions Task Force. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 1999.

Simon Ville


views updated May 21 2018


Techniques for the home production of cloth from natural fibers were common knowledge in early America. Like all fibers, wool had to be cleaned, combed, spun into yarn, and woven into cloth. The card, spinning wheel, and loom had a place in most homes, along with a flock of sheep in many pastures. Woolens were the most commonly used fabric for making clothing. During the colonial period fine woolens, such as broadcloth, were imported from Britain, but the girls and women of America's households produced most of the rougher homespun and flannel.

Wishing to suppress any competition, Britain passed laws aimed at preventing woolen production in the colonies. The laws barred textile machinery and machine operators from leaving Britain and, for a time, prohibited the importation of sheep or wool into America. However, most colonists used whatever coarse wool they could obtain from their existing sheep to fill their household needs.

The boycotts of the pre-Revolutionary years and the war itself encouraged greater home textile production and, by necessity, decreased reliance on British textile imports. At the same time, the Continental army desperately needed woolens for uniforms. American households could not begin to fulfill that need, and the slaughter of many sheep to feed the army made matters worse. A lively wartime trade in smuggled British woolens ensued. When the war ended, Americans resumed the importation of fine British woolens but bought considerably less of the coarser grade. As a patriotic gesture, George Washington wore a domestic homespun suit for his inauguration as president.

Carding, the laborious hand-combing process, was the first wool production task to be mechanized in the new nation. People increasingly took advantage of mechanical advances to produce finer cloth. Carding machines were developed in Britain and probably smuggled to America; they were operating in New England by the late 1780s. Householders brought their wool fiber to carding mills for machine processing and then took the processed fiber home for spinning. In 1810 more than seven hundred wool-carding mills were operating in New England alone. Improvements to the spinning wheel considerably sped up home production of wool yarn as well. After weaving cloth at home, people brought their home-produced woolen cloth to local fulling and finishing mills.

Although a commercial mill began producing woolen cloth from homespun yarns in Connecticut in 1788, the enterprise lasted just a few years. Not until Colonel David Humphreys imported a flock of fine-wooled merino sheep from Spain in 1802 did domestic flocks begin to improve and commercial woolen manufacture become economically viable. Whereas American-grown wool was relatively coarse, merino wool fibers were finer and better suited to the new spinning machinery from Britain. Humphreys began woolen production in a Connecticut factory in 1806. Others soon followed, and by 1812 at least two dozen woolen mills were operating in the United States. The Embargo Act (effective 1807–1809) and the War of 1812 (1812–1815) again cut off foreign trade and further boosted domestic woolen manufacture. One estimate values factory-made woolens during this period at about $19 million a year.

The estimated total factory production in 1812 of 200,000 yards accounted for only about 4 percent of all American woolen production. As late as the 1820s, two-thirds of all woolens in New England were still homemade.

The gradual introduction of merino sheep and improved machinery, aided in 1828 by a hefty tariff on woolen imports, led to the expansion of woolen manufacturing in America. By 1830 it was well established as a profitable industry.

See alsoNew England; Textiles Manufacturing; Work: Domestic Labor; Work: Women's Work .


Dunwell, Steve. The Run of the Mill: A Pictorial Narrative of the Expansion, Dominion, Decline, and Enduring Impact of the New England Textile Industry. Boston: Godine, 1978.

Rivard, Paul E. A New Order of Things: How the Textile Industry Transformed New England. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2002.

Roberta Wiener


views updated May 18 2018

wool / woŏl/ • n. 1. the fine soft curly or wavy hair forming the coat of a sheep, goat, or similar animal, esp. when shorn and prepared for use in making cloth or yarn. ∎  yarn or textile fiber made from such hair: carpets made of 80 percent wool and 20 percent nylon 2. a thing resembling such hair in form or texture, in particular: ∎  the soft underfur or down of some other mammals: beaver wool. ∎  a metal or mineral made into a mass of fine fibers: lead wool.PHRASES: pull the wool over someone's eyes deceive someone by telling untruths.DERIVATIVES: wool·like / -ˌlīk/ adj.ORIGIN: Old English wull, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch wol and German Wolle, from an Indo-European root shared by Latin lana ‘wool,’ vellus ‘fleece.’


views updated May 14 2018

wool many go out for wool and come home shorn proverbial saying, late 16th century, meaning that many who seek to better themselves or make themselves rich, end by losing what they already have.
pull the wool over someone's eyes deceive someone by telling untruths.

See also much cry and little wool.


views updated Jun 11 2018

wool Soft, generally white, brown or black animal fibre that forms the fleece of sheep. Wool is also the name of the yarns and textiles made from the fibres after spinning, dyeing and weaving. The fibres, composed chiefly of keratin, are treated to remove a fat called lanolin, which is used in some ointments.


views updated May 18 2018

wool OE. wull = MLG., MDu., wulle, wolle (Du. wol), OHG. wolla (G. wolle), ON. ull, Goth. wulla :- Gmc. *wullō :- IE. *wḷnā, whence Skr. ūrnā, OSl. vlǔna, L. lāna, beside vellus (:- *welnos) fleece.