There is such a thing as craft historical re-enactment – it’s not all Vikings and Romans. Craft historical re-enactment can happen on its own, often in living history museums, but also in conjunction with the sword and sandals kind of re-enactment*. There are also many knitters who are interested in historically-accurate crafting – there’s large and active communities of Historic Knitters and Spinners on Ravelry, for example, and another dedicated group of crafters who are preserving old, out-of-copyright patterns and crafting books online.
So, how would people have carded fleece to make yarn in the pre-industrial era?
I’m sorry this is such a poor-quality image – I took it with my phone at my first-ever wool festival, and, while camera quality is my main criterion for buying a phone, that phone was high quality for 2009. These are carders: the pair at the front are relatively modern, but at the back, on the cross-shaped handle, is a typical pre-industrial carder. Those fuzzy blobs you can see are the seed heads of one of the Teasel species of plant:
Historically, Fuller’s Teasel seeds were used for both carding wool for spinning, and for finishing woven cloth by brushing and softening the surface.
* – In my LH characters of Jodis (formidable matron) and Finnbogi (beardless and somewhat inept young warrior), my craft skill was naalbinding, a kind of Viking knitting but with a sewing needle.
Because goats produce their own spinnable fibre – notably the Cashmere goat breeds and the Angora goat, which produce cashmere and mohair respectively. Yes, mohair – not angora, which is produced by the Angora rabbit.
Historically, or rather paleoagriculturally, sheep appear to have been bred primarily for their wool, whereas goats seem to have been bred primarily for milk, although there are such things as milk sheep and, clearly, fibre goats. I can only hazard a guess that the primitive sheep domesticated by our ancestors must have produced more fibre than goats did*, and/or that primitive domesticated goats had more milk or were easier to milk than sheep
Yep, definitely easier to milk the goat.
* – The Jacob sheep, a relatively primitive breed, produces about 2–3kg fleece, whereas (modern) Cashmere goats produce only 1kg.
Somewhere between zero and a non-trivial fraction of infinity, depending on the production, preparation, marketing and post-purchase care, the locations thereof, and transportation methodologies between.
The reason is that all natural fibres are fiendishly complex in structure. We’re probably closer to replicating a sheep from raw atoms than replicating wool.
This is what you’d have to recreate in your lab. Good luck with that.
It’s not much simpler to replicate a plant fibre like linen:
There are, however, innumerable artificial fibres, mostly derived from petrochemicals, which mimic the qualities of natural fibres. Most can only imitate the feel of the natural fibre. For example, acrylic fibre has the softness of wool – but not the warmth, rainproofing, elasticity, inflammability, or biodegradability; and acrylic has many disadvantages besides, such as being a significant source of microplastic pollution in fresh and saltwater.
It is possible to make something that looks like wool, either with plant materials or, more usually, petrochemicals.
Cotton and linen, two common plant-based yarns, can look the same but are cooling rather than insulating, flammable rather than inflammable, heavy rather than light, and liable to stretch irreparably rather than keep its shape. Other plant-based fibres such as viscose and ramie (e.g., bamboo, sugarcane, cornsilk) are similar. Their production, and that of cotton in particular, is also rather bad for the environment.
Petrochemicals, such as acrylic, are sweaty, very flammable (and melt into your skin when they do, which is oodles of fun at the Burns Unit), appallingly bad for the environment for centuries, and are only “easy care” if you wash them on the same cycle as wool – and even then, they shed microplastics into the watercourse and thence to rivers, lakes and seas.
Angora goat fibre, aka mohair, has its own qualities. It’s primarily used for making suits as it’s quite hardy, but it’s not usually suitable for next-to-skin garments.
Meanwhile, in the sheep world, there’s a humongous range of qualities. Merino and Blue-faced Leicester for under-clothing and babywear, Wensleydale for silk-like, drapey clothing, Icelandic for sturdy cold-weather outerwear, Shetland for lightweight but warm socks and sweaters, Scottish Blackfaced for carpetting, through to mixed-breed meat-sheep’s scraggly fleece that’s only good for house insulation or composting.
Goat genes would add nothing that isn’t already available in one or other sheep breed.
Researching yarns probably takes up more of my time than knitting it, or designing. I spend a lot of time on Ravelry, Yarnsub, and the various yarn manufacturers’ sites, finding out as much as I can about yarns, comparing them, looking at examples of projects worked in them, and reading yarn reviewer blogs. Sometimes I’ll know what fibre content I want (or have to use), sometimes I’m looking for certain colours in the same range, sometimes I’m looking for an equivalent yarn to one that’s no longer available.
While I’m fortunate to have a standard LYS, a locally-grown luxury and rare breed LYS, and an independent dyer practically on my doorstep, I still don’t have access to many of the yarns I want. Hand-painted silk, yes. Mushroom-dyed mohair from an Angora goat flock down the road, yes. Cheap ‘n’ squeaky acrylic, no problem. But not Manos Silk Blend, not MadTosh Pashmina, not Nerd Girls Clever, not Jamieson and Smith Cobweb. I can also pick stuff up at yarn festivals, they don’t happen frequently enough – and I can’t plan for inspiration or design calls around them.
One thing I do commonly, with yarns I can’t pick up locally or in a timely manner at wool festivals, is order small amounts of the yarns in contention for a design from an online stockist or the manufacturer. I’ll get a skein (or one skein in each colour if it’s a colourwork design) and see how it works up. Sometimes, I can order these try-out skeins along with a bigger order for another design where I know what I want and how much, other times I’ll get a lot of try-out skeins for many designs that are still in concept. This has recently worked out to be quite expensive for a modern Fair Isle I’m working on, as I’ve had to order multiple shades from different brands as far away as Canada, Norway, Iceland and the US. But mostly, it’s a fairly economical method – and even if I decide not to use Brand X, at least I now have some Brand X to try-out elsewhere.
Or just make another hat. Never can have too many hats!
Pooling is something that yarn does, not something yarn is. It is usually undesirable, but sometimes planned.
If you have a yarn like this, the colours can form unwanted blobs, instead of spreading out in a nice way:
This is a massive problem with variegated or multi-coloured yarns, especially those gorgeous handpainted skeins you picked up at a wool festival for a small fortune, only to realise they look prettier in the skein than they ever will knitted up (~looks mournfully at the “special” shelf in her craft room~).
BUT: if the colour changes are regular, you can do a thing called ‘planned pooling’, which produces effects like this:
Trimming is the same as cutting, in hair terms – except less hair is removed. Trimming wool does not help the sheep; it leaves most of the wool in place which is uncomfortable and unhealthy. In addition, the trimmed wool ends would be too short to have any commercial value and would end up in landfill. As wool flocks would no longer have any commercial value, thousands of sheep farmers would go out of business and their flocks would be slaughtered. Those industries dependent on sheep wool would have to turn instead to synthetic alternatives which are very damaging to the environment.