A Ball of Wool

On my recent blog, The History of Postcards, published on 9th April 2021, I received a comment that said, “Hazel can make anything interesting, perhaps next week the history of a ball of wool!” Whilst this suggestion is undoubtedly a joke, it made me think. Is it possible to write an article about a ball of wool? Could it be an interesting topic to research? So after some thought and a few internet searches, my response to this comment is “Challenge Accepted!” 

From where does wool come? Most people will say sheep, which is true, but wool is also obtained from other animals, including goats, oxen, rabbits and camels. The history of wool begins around 6000 BC, where archaeological evidence in Iran suggests people kept sheep for their wool. Fragments of woollen garments dating to circa 3000 BC exist in the Middle East, but the animals arrived in Europe much later, where the oldest wool textile, found in a Danish bog, dates to c. 1500 BC.

To remove the woollen fleece from the sheep requires a pair of shears. These may resemble a large pair of scissors or, more recently, a power-driven toothed blade similar to human hair clippers. Yet, the first shears did not appear until the Iron Age (c. 1500-500 BC). Before then, people collected the wool by hand, either plucking it straight from the sheep or using sharp bronze combs.

Around the time of the Roman invasion in 55 BC, the British Isles had a thriving wool industry, which helped clothe the majority of people in the country. Soon, wool joined linen and leather as the most common clothing textiles in Europe. Other fabrics, such as cotton and silk, arrived later from India and China, and only the most wealthy could afford such luxuries.

By the 1st century AD, European people bred sheep specifically for wool production. As Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) explained in his encyclopedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History), some areas were already selectively breeding the animals to produce superior fleeces. Pliny claimed Apulian wool, collected from sheep in the heel of Italy, was the “most esteemed”, often used for making cloaks. He explained that although shearing sped up the wool collecting process, some countries still preferred to pluck it from the animal.

Pliny also described the various colours of wool found in different areas of the world. In Southern Italy, sheep tended to have white fleeces, but in the north, black sheep frequented the Alps, and Erythræan or red wool came from countries bordering the red sea. Wool gathered in Istria, a peninsula shared today by Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy, was not as suitable for making garments, whereas sheep in Egypt produced the best wool for embroidery. In Gaul, they used fleece to make carpets and felt. They also dyed the wool to create beautiful patterns, although black wool did not take any colour.

A fair in Champagne in the 13th century

With so many varieties of wool, the fabric soon became a tradeable commodity. In the 12th century, traders flocked to “Champagne Fairs” in the French county of Champagne, where they sold many textiles and spices. Usually, they held six fairs a year, with the first held annually on the 2nd January. The second took place on the Tuesday before “mid-Lent” and the third on the Tuesday before Ascension Day. The fourth fair, known as the “fair of St. John”, occurred on the Tuesday after St John’s Day (24th June), which celebrates the birth of Saint John the Baptist. The fair of St. Ayoul always took place on 14th September to mark the Exaltation of the Cross, and the final fair took place on All Souls’ Day (2nd November).

The Champagne Fairs made different qualities of wool available to other areas of Europe, and the trade became a serious moneymaker for much of the Southern continent. Italy remained the forerunner of wool production until the 15th century when English exports outranked them. As mentioned above, wool arrived on the British Isles with the Romans, but it was not until the 12th century that wool became Britain’s greatest asset.

Cistercians at work in a detail from the Life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, illustrated by Jörg Breu the Elder (1500)

Cistercian Abbeys around Europe were instrumental in the success of the wool trade. Known for their “enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit,” they “were catalysts for development of a market economy” for much of the 12th century. Cistercians owned a lot of farmland on which they grew crops and bred animals, including sheep. England, in particular, was indebted to the Order for starting a successful wool trade with other countries. The Cistercians sent raw wool to cities in Flanders, where it was dyed and refined into cloth. The income from this industry was significant for the English Crown, which imposed an export tax on wool known as the “Great Custom”.

Maltolt, meaning “bad tax” in Norman-French, is the name given to a series of wool taxes between 1294 and 1297. Taxes imposed in 1275 granted Edward I (1239-1307) a half-mark customs duty per exported sack of wool, but when the Anglo-French War began in 1294, the price increased. All wool gathered in England belonged to the king who charged traders 40 shillings per sack. Unhappy with the “Great Custom”, a group of noblemen wrote a series of complaints or Monstraunces to the king’s government. They claimed the Maltolt had driven the country to poverty amongst other grievances, forcing Edward to cease the taxes.

The Woolsack

By the 14th century, the wool trade was of great importance to the economy of England. Wishing to symbolise this, King Edward III (1327-77) suggested his Lord Chancellor should sit on a wool bale whilst in council. Now known as the Woolsack, the tradition has passed down the centuries and is still used today. The bale has been replaced many times, but in 1938 the House of Lords discovered the Woolsack stuffed with horsehair. Since reupholstered and filled with wool, the Woolsack is covered with red cloth and includes a backrest for more comfort. Since 2006, it is the Lord Speaker who sits on the Woolsack rather than the Lord Chancellor.

Although England was one of the largest wool exporters, they relied on other countries to turn the wool into garments and so forth. During the 14th century, Flemish weavers fled to England to escape taxes in Flanders, bringing with them their knowledge of weaving. Under their expertise, England could turn their wool into cloth, thus being able to trade both raw fleeces and textiles. By the time of the Black Death (1346-53), the most fatal pandemic to date, England accounted for approximately 10% of the wool trade.

The plague halted wool production, but by the 15th century, trade picked up once again. The English wool industry far surpassed the continent, and the government began to discourage exportation. When the Huguenots, French Protestants, fled to England in the early 16th century, they brought their weaving knowledge and expertise. With their help, the English industry became self-sufficient, no longer needing to send fleece abroad to transform into cloth.

Determined to be more successful than Flanders and Italy, England outlawed wool exportation. Nonetheless, this did not stop people from trying to ship the material to France. Known as Owlers because they worked predominantly at night, participants smuggled 480,000 pounds of wool a year across The Channel. They usually set off from Romney Marsh, sparsely inhabited wetlands in Kent and East Sussex, but the government soon found out, and those caught lost their hands as punishment.

In 1699, William III (1650-1702) issued An Act to prevent the Exportation of Wool out of the Kingdoms of Ireland and England into Forreigne parts and for the Incouragement of the Woollen Manufactures in the Kingdom of England. The act aimed to squash the growing woollen industry in Ireland and the American colonies. It also forbade the use of foreign wool, meaning shopkeepers in England could only sell clothing made from the fleeces of English sheep. The government wished to profit from the English wool trade without any other country benefiting from sales. Naturally, several people opposed this rule and wool was transported overseas by Owlers and sold on the black market.

Queen Bertha of Burgundy instructing girls to spin flax on spindles using distaffs

Until the 18th century, the wool industry relied on manual spinning wheels and looms to create cloth. Known as the “cottage industry”, many did this from the comfort of their own homes. The homemade garments, usually produced by women, were made from raw wool supplied by a subcontractor. The subcontractor often employed many women and families to produce cloth for a small amount of money.

Harris Tweed

Manual labour in the cottage industry was slow, but subcontractors usually had several workers, allowing them to make a steady profit. One notable brand, Harris Tweed, began its life as a cottage industry in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Islanders living on Lewis and Harris, the Uists, Benbecula, and Barra made a living as crofters, weaving cloth for personal and practical uses. The islands were often cold, so the inhabitants needed thick clothing, but they also sold fabric to the mainland for income. Using only pure wool from sheep on the islands, Harris Tweed is easily identifiable from flecks of colour made from natural dyes. Although the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century sped up cloth production, Harris Tweed is still produced by hand. The fabric is often sought after in the fashion industry and is used by many companies, including Hugo Boss, Topman, Nordstrom, Dr Martens, and Nike.

Handloom weaving in 1747, from William Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness

The Industrial Revolution (1750-1850) brought radical changes to wool production, almost putting cottage industries out of business. Many inventors built devices to help speed up the textile making process. Machines, such as handlooms, worked better for cotton, which is finer than wool. Soon the cotton industry surpassed the wool industry with over 900 factories in Britain by 1797. At that time, cotton made up 2.6% of Britain’s textile output, which increased to 17% in 1801. Wool, on the other hand, only rose from 10% to 14.1%.

Until the 18th century, textile workers used man-powered spinning wheels to turn wool into yarn (balls of wool). To lessen the manual labour, English inventor John Kay (1704-79) patented the flying shuttle in 1733, which halved the production time. Operated by one person, the frame used a series of mechanisms to spin the wool into long strands. In 1764, Lancashire weaver James Hargreaves (1720-78) developed the spinning jenny, which allowed a single worker to spin up to eight spools of wool at a time. As technology improved, this increased to 120.

The first machine that did not rely on human power to work was the water frame, patented by Richard Arkwright (1732-92) in 1767. Initially used for cotton rather than wool, the machine’s mechanisms were powered by a waterwheel. Usually made from wood and fitted with buckets or blades, the wheels were attached to the walls of the mills and factories above a running stream. As the water flowed against the buckets or blades, the wheel turned, thus powering the machines inside. The downside to this invention was its reliance on water flow. They required fast-moving streams that would not dry up in the summer months. This requirement limited the number of places suitable for such mills.

A Roberts self-acting spinning mule

For places without access to suitable water streams, Samuel Crompton invented the spinning mule in 1779. Although this involved manual labour, each machine held 1,320 spindles, significantly increasing the output of the textile industry. By 1825, inventor Richard Roberts (1789-1864) improved production further by patenting the self-acting mule. After starting the mule by hand, each mechanism caused a chain reaction so that the machine continued moving for a length of time. The self-acting mule grew popular and gradually replaced the previous machines. Roberts invention was a vital piece of equipment until the mid-20th century when electric looms became favourable.

Engraving of Ned Ludd, Leader of the Luddites, 1812

Sadly, the introduction of machines cost many people their jobs. Factories needed fewer people to spin the wool, increasing unemployment. In 1812, a secret organisation called the Luddites protested against the Industrial Revolution, destroying textile machinery in the process. Led by Ned Ludd, a weaver from Leicester, the Luddites met at night on the outskirts of industrial towns to plan their attacks. After entering the town, they smashed machines and sent death threats to factory owners before escaping through secret getaway chambers.

“I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey; but never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return, in the very heart of a Christian country.” So said Lord Byron (1788-1824) in the House of Lords regarding the Luddite Riots. The British Army frequently clashed with the Luddites, arresting many participants who faced a mass trial in York in January 1813. Parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act, which made machine sabotage a capital punishment. At least 60 men were found guilty and sentenced to either execution or penal transportation. Fearful of this new law, the Luddite organisation disbanded.

Despite their methods of protest, the Luddites made a valid point about the Industrial Revolution. Traditional textile industries, particularly those in East Anglia, suffered greatly. Instead, large cities, such as York, developed into industrial areas, taking work away from people in small towns and villages. Transporting criminals to the colonies also backfired on the British economy. Those sent to Australia found jobs raising sheep and producing wool. By 1845, the Australian wool industry surpassed Britain, even providing wool for British factories.

The history of balls of wool or yarn is less precise than wool in general. It is assumed manufacturers first wound the spun wool into balls or skeins to avoid knots and snags many centuries ago, but it is uncertain when wool became commercially available in this manner. Today, balls of wool come in all colours and sizes and are used by those who knit for a hobby as well as clothing factories. Yet, knitting was not always a hobby but a necessity. Before cheap clothing stores, women made garments from scratch to clothe their families. The oldest knitted artefacts are socks dating from 11th century Egypt, although evidence suggests the technique predates archaeological evidence.

Madonna Knitting, by Bertram of Minden 1400-1410

Archaeologists have discovered knitting needles and crochet hooks in the Middle East dating back to the 3rd century AD. In Europe, the earliest evidence of this skill comes from 13th-century Spanish tombs in the royal Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas. Records suggest Christians hired Muslim slaves to produce knitted garments, but in the 14th century, it became a respected skill amongst all women. Several paintings from the 14th and 15th century depict the Virgin Mary knitting clothes for her son, Jesus Christ.

Long before the Industrial Revolution, inventors found ways to speed up the knitting process. In 1589, English clergyman William Lee (1563-1614) devised the stocking frame, controlled by a series of pedals and levers. Unfortunately, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) refused to grant him a patent because the woollen stockings were too rough for her royal ankles. This had no reflection on the machine but rather her preference for silk. Despite this rejection, Lee found success in France when King Henri IV (1553-1610) offered him financial support.

The Knitting Woman by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1869

Unlike the machinery invented during the Industrial Revolution, the stocking frame never found its way into factories. Instead, workers used them at home in their cottage industries, which only went out of fashion after the introduction of steam-powered knitting machines in the 19th century. Hand-knitting quickly declined in the clothing industry, but it increased in popularity as a hobby. Authors such as Jane Gaugain (d.1860) published books about this leisure activity, featuring many knitting patterns.

During the First World War, the government encourage women, men and children to knit clothing for allied soldiers. This included socks, hats, gloves and scarves because frostbite was as deadly as the enemy. The Red Cross published pamphlets to teach the unskilled how to knit. These were also sent to soldiers so they could repair damaged clothing.

After the war, knitting continued as a popular hobby, and knitted garments became fashionable. In the 1930s, families began knitting out of desperation during the Great Depression because it was far cheaper to make clothes than purchase them. Some knitters even sold their items to make money.

The Second World War sparked the Make Do and Mend campaign. As well as knitting for soldiers, the Ministry of Information published pamphlets encouraging households to limit waste at the height of rationing. The booklets provided instructions about darning socks, patching holes and making many items of clothing. Whilst this helped the country save on resources, it also boosted morale by making people on the “home front” feel they were doing their bit for the war effort.

During the 1950s and 60s, knitted clothing, particularly in bright colours, became haute couture. The government thought knitting was a useful skill and made it a part of the school curriculum, although only for girls. This changed after factories started using computerised knitting machines, allowing them to mass-produce knitted garments and sell them at low prices. By the 1990s, younger generations rejected the skill as an “old person’s thing”.

The 21st century is experiencing a resurgence in knitting, often inspired by celebrities and online craft blogs. The internet allows people to share their ideas and creations, which are far more inventive than the scarves and socks usually associated with the hobby. Magazines, websites, and videos provide everything beginners and advanced knitters need to know to create amazing outcomes, all of which start life as a simple ball of wool.

There ends the long and varied history of a mundane object. At first glance, a ball of wool may not seem an exciting topic, but after picking at the surface, a never-ending story unravels. So, dear reader, I hope I have lived up to your claim that I “can make anything interesting”.

My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!