We know very little about the history of wool production, in large part because wool is a biodegradable substance which is preserved only in unusual circumstances.
What appears to be clear is that humans began wearing clothing between 100,000 and 500,000 years ago. These would probably have been skins initially. The human body louse diverged from the human head louse about 170,000 years ago, indicating that the wearing of clothing was pretty well established by then (the body louse could not have evolved on naked, near hairless bodies). This predates our ancestors’ exodus from Africa, but does not preclude our having picked up clothing – and infestations – from previous exoduses. Sewing, probably using animal sinew or flax, is at least 50,000 years old, and may well have been invented by the Denisovans (Homo denisova/altai) rather than our human ancestors – the oldest complete sewing needles were found in the Denisova Cave in Siberia.
Sheep were domesticated between 9,000 and 11,000 years ago, probably for meat, skins and milk, as these primitive animals were more hairy than woolly. Hair helped slick off rain, whereas the wool – originally an undercoat – kept the animal warm. There is some archaeological evidence that sheep were beginning to be bred for wool in ancient Iran, around 6,000 years ago. Again, this may have been an attempt to breed for warm skins rather than for the wool. These primitive sheep, like many preserved primitive breeds today such as the Scottish Soay, shed their woollen undercoat in warmer weather. The wool would have come off on briars and against trees the sheep scratched themselves on, and could be pulled off (‘rooed’) by their caretakers.
So far, we have domestic sheep and sewing. At this point, I’m going to abandon facts and venture into speculation, because facts are pretty thin on the ground.
I think that it is almost certain that the first fabric made from wool was probably some form of felt. There’s two possible ways I think this could have happened:
- shed wool rolls about the ground, getting wet and scrabbled together into small felted balls;
- people take this shed wool and push it into their primitive boots for comfort. Through sweat and being walked on, the wool felts itself into a sock-like shape;
At some point, some clever-clogs (or socks) thinks “I wonder if I can do this deliberately?”, and voilà!, so to speak.
Now, felt is a pretty handy thing, you can make it in sheets, then cut it to shape and sew the pieces together to make a pretty decent winter garment – but it is thick, and a bit stiff, so it’s unsuitable for warm weather or for active wear.
Fragments of earliest-known surviving textile; found at Çatalhöyük; 6th millennium BC; Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey
The next stage, I think, would be weaving. Weaving has certainly been around for around 6,000 years, and reached an impressively high standard of 540 threads per inch in Ancient Egypt. However, before weaving, we need thread: and this is where 60,000 years of sewing comes in. Originally, sewing would have used naturally occurring short lengths of fibre, like animal sinews or flax xylems, perhaps even hair from those not-so-woolly primitive sheep. The hair, or kemp might be strong enough to use, but individual strands of wool are microns thick – far too fine to be of use. We now have the technology (sewing needles), but how do we get thread from wool?
I believe the next stage is a quantum leap from puffs of shed wool to thread, by means of boredom. Tending sheep is a dull business, even with plenty of Neolithic predators about. It’s hours, days, weeks of sitting around watching the woolly buggers eat, baa, and occasionally boink. I think some bored shepherd boy, or probably many bored shepherd boys and girls of all ages, in different places over thousands of years, got in the habit of picking up a piece of shed wool and twiddling with it. In the course of twiddling, they accidentally pulled some strands of wool together and twisted it – and, as wool tends to do, those strands stayed together, and just kept on coming, until the bundle of shed wool disappeared. I’ve done this with a ball of cotton wool while sitting bored in an A&E, waiting for an X-ray. It can be done with little to no attention or intention.
So now we have wool thread. It gets used for sewing. Then, someone has the bright idea of weaving with wool thread. And this happened between 6,000 and 3,500 years ago: the oldest woollen cloth dates from 1,500 BCE, amongst the belongings of the Bredmose Woman bog-body. Only 500 to 1,000 years afterwards, Huldremose Woman died wearing glowing woollen plaids:
But that’s just weaving. Where does knitting and crochet and lacemaking and tatting et al. come in? Ah, but that is a different question…
Originally appeared on Quora.