Back in the day, undercrackers, especially those worn in winter, were made of fine wool.
Commercial woollen underwear, 1920s.
Wool was a huge, huge industry in most Western countries. We cannot imagine, today, with cheap off-the-peg clothing imports, what the wool industry was like before the 1970s. Think Amazon, think eBay, think Microsoft: that sort of big. Just getting dressed was a major part of life, before you could pop into Primark and come out with a complete wardrobe, including smalls, for £10–20. In my grandparents’ day, it meant going to a tailor for your decent outdoor and winter clothing, purchasing rolls of cotton or linen to sew your summer clothing, and knitting, knitting, knitting in every spare moment to provide yourself and your family with socks, underwear, gloves and other ‘comforts’. For many families, it meant carding and spinning the wool, before knitting. Much of Great Britain’s former wealth, and its Industrial Revolution, was driven by wool.
And so, of course, when sea-bathing became the In thing to do in the Victorian era, the outfits were naturally made of wool – though usually woven flannel fabric, rather than knitted.
This fabric did not sag and expand (much) when wet, and if it did, so what? It just meant it covered up more of the body, which was the point of these cumbersome outfits.
It was only when fashions changed to more skimpy swimsuits that it became apparent that wool, particularly when knitted, wasn’t ideal: the sagging then revealed more than hid.
But there’s no reason to avoid crafting your own swimwear: crocheted cotton is a sturdy fall-back –
and even wool is okay, if you work with its qualities rather than against:
Because Melton wool isn’t soft. It’s actually quite hard, stiff, rigid, tough, thick, dense – take your pick. It’s the fabric used for weatherproof overcoats and upholstery for its toughness and robust wearing characteristics.
It’s primarily a twill-woven fabric, which means it should drape and fold well. Then, it is fulled – pounded and agitated, causing the microscopic scales on individual wool fibres to attach to each other, resulting in a thicker, shrunken fabric*. Finally, the surface is napped – brushed to a fluffy, velvetty texture – and then shaved to remove these loose fibres.
I suppose one could say that Melton has a “soft” surface – like a low-pile corduroy, perhaps. But it is not what I would consider remotely comfortable or skin-kind. I certainly wouldn’t want to wear Melton next to my skin, like the handknit Blue-Faced Leicester wool sweater I’m currently wearing – and I absolutely wouldn’t consider it for underwear, as I would a fine merino or Wensleydale.
*: Felting achieves the same aim, but, technically, felt is made with fleece, whereas fulled fabrics are woven or knitted first.
I love making hats and gloves, and I like designing sweaters. But you do you.
One thing I would suggest is that you go through your wool stash and sort it by brand, name and dye lot, e.g., Red Heart, Supersavers Solid Aran, 234 Saffron . Once you know how many balls you have in each, you’ll know the approximate yardage, e.g., 5 balls at 364 yards(333 meters) per ball = 1,820yds (1,665m).
Then, with that information, you can go to Ravelry and look for patterns that use up to 1,820yds (1,665m) of Aran weight yarn:
1,706 pages with 25 patterns per page.
Alternately, you can search for Red Heart Supersavers Aran yarn:
You can reduce the hits on your search, such as only lace patterns, only adults’ patterns, only Icelandic patterns, etc., etc.:
But it’s a good idea to know what yarn you’ve got before you wade in and find the One Perfect Pattern – and then realise you don’t have the right yarnweight or yardage.
Just, ya know, don’t go knit-crazy with your cabin-crazy…
The current handcrafts fad was started by two beginners’ books – Stitch ’N Bitch and The Happy Hooker, both by Debbie Stoller. Most of the handcrafts magazines I see also have an absolute beginners’ section at the back of every issue. The former, as I recall, used photographs, and the latter are more likely to use diagrams.
My learning style is primarily visual, secondarily kinaesthetic (doing), and not remotely auditory. I find diagrams easiest to understand:
photographs somewhat less so because people’s hands can get in the way more than help:
and I prefer watching a living person who I can slow down or ask to repeat an action over video tuition. I have heard of some folk learning by ear, but I don’t even get how that’s possible.
Diagrams are more common in older books such as this one – here’s an example of a typical page:
I’d suggest you consider whether perhaps your learning style lends itself to ‘book-learning’ in the first instance, and see if YouTube or a live tutor might help you more.
Not hard at all. The only thing you need is the right kind of pet.
So goldfish and budgies are right out.
The best pets are the fluffy ones – the ones that grow a decent undercoat in winter. Huskies are good, and so are long-hair cats like Maine Coons. Also, Angora bunnies, and some lionheads, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some guinea pigs and ferrets didn’t produce small, usable amounts of undercoat.
The fluff can be collected through normal grooming. Keep it in a clean, sealable plastic bag until you have enough. When you have about 100g/4oz, you can try removing the hairs from the fluff, wash (if you don’t like spinning “in the grease”) and card, and spin.
This first spinning effort will tell you whether the fluff is worth spinning on its own – some of it may be too short – or whether you’d be better combining it with a longer fibre, like wool or cotton.
Here’s some people who made clothing from their dogs’ hair:
Angora bunnies produce Angora wool, that fluffy, soft stuff that makes gorgeous, expensive sweaters, so that’s pretty mainstream and commercial. However, here’s a video of a woman who keeps Angora rabbits (and poodles), showing the process of producing items from bunny to needle, which would be the same for any other animal fibre:
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 inchin 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…
As others have mentioned, keeping “a” sheep is unkind to the sheep. They need companionship.
The second issue is the backyard. To me, a backyard is asphalt, concrete, brick, flagstones, something like that. Not a field or lawn:
This would be like keeping a sheep in a shed all the time. That means carrying fodder and water to the sheep, and shovelling its manure away – probably through the house. This is acceptable in particularly bad winters for lowland, warm-climate sheep, but many breeds are perfectly adapted to outdoor living all year round. Keeping them “indoors” is cruel.
The type of field a sheep lives in is important. They are not naturally grass-eaters. They prefer ‘forbs’, that is flowering plants – what would be considered weeds in grassland. They’re very useful for clearing grass of forbs, and will only eat grass when the forbs are gone. Smart farmers round my way put sheep in their meadows in the spring to eat the forbs, moving them on before the grass comes in for silage- and hay-making. If your backyard is a grass lawn, consider seeding it with clover and other meadow weeds before investing in sheep.
Contrary to popular opinion, sheep are lively and curious creatures. They enjoy exploring their environment, and can be quite athletic. This means they should have a varied environment in which to live: objects to climb and jump on or off, baskets of hay suspended from trees, scratching posts, hidey-holes, etc. They should also have access to free running water, and a shed: not necessarily anything too elaborate, just somewhere they can retreat to in the heat of the day, or heavy rain or snow. It doesn’t even need to have four walls or a shuttable door, as their combined body heat should keep them adequately warm.
They also require a degree of veterinary care. Worming, drenches, hoof inspection, etc. This may mean you need a ‘crush’, a narrow passage that the sheep cannot turn round in, where treatments and inspections can be conducted. Some farmers build their own semi-permanent structures, some hire them.
Home-made crush, using gates.
And unless you take on a primitive breed, you’ll need to shear them! Many government agricultural departments offer shearing courses for those interested – and courses in animal care generally, which are well worth looking into. Alternatively, you can contact a local sheep farmer who may be prepared to shear your sheep with their own for a fee, or they could put you in touch with a shearer.
Both are natural products with little environmental impact, unlike, for example, cotton, which requires processing and requires dyes that are environmentally damaging. Silk and wool, like all animal fibres, can be dyed with vinegar and safe pigments such as those in food colouring. The processing is usually simple water and soap, or water alone: ‘fermented’ sheep sweat and grease, known as a suint scour, is an excellent method for cleaning fleece, and is itself recyclable because every fleece scoured makes the suint bath stronger*. Alternately, the sheep grease makes a wonderful moisturiser, either neat or cooked. It can even be used for making soaps, which is particularly good for washing your wool garments and for shaving. The ‘glue’ removed from silk cocoons, known as sericin, has been used for medical suturing and as an infection-resistant wound coagulant; and in cosmetics as a moisturiser.
Silk is upsetting to some people, as the silkworm is usually killed to preserved the integrity of the single strand of silk from which the cocoon is formed. However, there is a form of silk known as ‘tussah’, which uses the cocoon after the silkworm has emerged. This is often considered a lower-quality form of silk, but it’s exactly the same material – just woven from broken cocoon strands.
* – Don’t try this at home, unless you live in the wilds. It HOOOONKS!
The St Kilda archipelago was evacuated in 1930, leaving two varieties of primitive sheep behind. A small Neolithic breed on Soay island, and an Iron Age type on the island of Boreray, they became feral in the absence of humans, and have only recently been re-introduced as domestic sheep out of concern for their rarity. Both are extremely low-maintenance: the naturally shed their fleece, lamb easily, and are immune (or at least not prone) to many of the common diseases of domestic sheep, such as foot rot and flystrike. They are becoming very popular with small-holders and people looking for cheap lawnmowers.
From Pinterest: Soay sheep in the dark brown, light brown, and blonde colours. Black is also common, white is rare, and some piebalds occur too. They can reach 60cm at the shoulder. The fleece is very soft, but quite short.
On another Scottish island, North Ronaldsay in the Orkneys, lives another feral sheep from the Iron Age: the seaweed eating North Ronaldsay. I’m told the meat is orgasmically delicious, because of this diet, but have not the funds to investigate. They have probably the biggest range of natural colours, from a pure white, creamy yellow, light and dark shades of grey and brown, black,
From Country Life. If my Photoshop skills were any good (and I could afford Photoshop), I’d change the seaweed to intestines and use this pic for the cover of my book about zombie sheep of the apocalypse…
These are the wild sheep I’m most familiar with. There are others, but most are hair sheep so I find them less interesting. These sheep in goats’ clothing include the American Bighorn, the Siberian Snow Sheep, the Argali, the Urial, Dall sheep, the Mouflon, and their numerous subspecies.
* – When I retire by the sea. They eat very little apart from seaweed.
Neither. Technically, wool is only produced by domesticated sheep.
Qiviut is the undercoat of the Arctic muskox, a relative of sheep and goats (not cattle, despite being called an ‘ox’). It is shed naturally in spring. Only about half of the shed or less is suitable for spinning into yarn. The fibre itself is very fine (around 18 microns), warmer and stronger than wool, non-itchy, and – like hair – does not felt.
The vicuña is a wild South American camelid, related to the alpaca and llama. Vicuña do not do well in captivity, so they are rounded up and sheared every 2–3 years. The amount of fibre is tiny – only 500g or so. Unlike qiviut, vicuña doesn’t take dye well, so it’s only available in its natural golden-brown shade. Like alpaca, the fibre is hollow, and its fine scales allow it to interlock to retain warmth. Each fibre is 8–13 microns thick, making it one of the finest known – only angora hair, from angora rabbits, is of a similar fineness.
The main difference is that muskoxen can be farmed, but vicuña can’t. As a result, qiviut is cheaper. Both, however, are high-end luxury fibres.