Do we know the first people to figure out how to make wool from sheep, and how did they do it?

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[1], is at least 50,000 years old, and may well have been invented by the Denisovans[2] (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:

  1. shed wool rolls about the ground, getting wet and scrabbled together into small felted balls;
  2. 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[3]

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[4]. 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[5], amongst the belongings of the Bredmose Woman bog-body[6]. Only 500 to 1,000 years afterwards, Huldremose Woman died wearing glowing woollen plaids[7]:

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…


[1] Archaeologists Discover Oldest-known Fiber Materials Used By Early Humans

[2] World’s oldest needle found in Siberian cave that stitches together human history

[3] File:Museum of Anatolian Civilizations016.jpg

[4] How linen is made

[5] The Bronze Age – National Museum of Denmark

[6] FiberWild! A Unique Knit Shop

[7] The Huldremose woman’s clothes – National Museum of Denmark

Originally appeared on Quora.

Is it better to wear recycled wool and recycled silk as opposed to conventional wool and silk?

Either is fine. However, as both are biodegradable, you should always check the quality of the recycled item. Recycled wool that is beyond wearing is used in some places as house insulation, and at least one company processes old wool fibres into a sheeted fabric for clothing.

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!

Originally appeared on Quora.

How do sheep get rid of their wool naturally?

Only some primitive breeds still retain natural wool* shedding.

Some, like the Wiltshire Horn, are primarily milk or meat animals. Their wool is short, kempy (full of hair) and usually of poor quality. The Wiltshire Horn has become more popular recently because their shedding saves farmers a lot of money on shearing and disposing of the wool – yes, it costs money to get rid of wool that’s not useful! Here are some WHs mid-shed:

The rams have glorious horns:

But otherwise I always feel they look like they have a skin disease…

Most of the rest are semi-feral Scottish breeds. There’s Soay, a rare-breed becoming popular as lawnmowers:

They’re tiny sheep, with decent enough fleece for spinning and knitting. Look at the weeness!

And the cootness!

They have mental horns too – any number, any shape.

Whoo thay fock are ye gleekin at, Jimmy?

Then there’s the Boreray:

Well, it’s either a Boreray ram, or the first sighting of a live haggis in the wild. Their wool has been described as a bit kempy, short and coarse, but handspinners I know who’ve worked with it RAVE about it. Some is next-to-the-skin soft, and it can have a pretty good staple of around 6″ or so – hardly short! The Boreray is critically endangered: there may be no more than 300 left in the world.

Some other Scottish breeds still have fleece-shedding genes that pop up in individual sheep, or in partial shedding. These include the rare-breed North Ronaldsay or Orkney (a seaweed forager):

The Shetland, which has probably best fleece for hand-knitting, in a wide range of natural colours:

Yarn spun from their fleece is widely used by Fair Isle knitters, and is one of my personal favourites. My birthday’s in September, gift vouchers are welcome.

Then there’s the Hebridean:

All hail our Dark Lord! These unfairly-disregarded lovelies have one of the densest natural black fleeces in the sheep world, their only competitor being first-shearing Zwartbles. This, of course, means the fleece is useless for dyeing – and many people don’t like to spin or knit with black yarn. I do, though, and it has a good sturdy hand.

Sometimes a shedding sheep will need some help to get rid of their fleece. It’s not necessary to call in a shearer, though: you can just tug the wool off, in a process called ‘rooing’:

* – I’m going to ignore hair-sheep, which shed naturally, because they don’t produce much wool.

Quora linky.

How can you harvest merino wool without hurting the sheep?

The same way a hairdresser can cut your hair without hurting you, or a barber can shave you without hurting you.

Originally appeared on Quora.

Which animal produces the warmest wool yarn?

Qiviut, the wool of the Musk ox, is THE warmest fibre, which makes sense considering they’re Alaskan. Qiviut has an advantage over many other warm animal fibres in that it can be spun unblended. Others, such as cashmere, angora, etc., are often too short to spin on their own and/or too easily worn out.

However, pure qiviut is quite expensive – around $35 per ounce (that’s about $1.25 a gram, and twice the price of cashmere) raw and unprocessed, and $25 an ounce spun into yarn. If you’re too lazy to knit or just want a wearable RIGHT NOW, expect to shell out $200-$300 for a hat, or around $1,000 for a sweater.

It’s not the most expensive fibre though: that is vicuña, from the undomesticable South American camellid of the same name. Raw prices are comparable, but a vicuña scarf costs $1,500, and a sweater can cost up to $5,000.

A more affordable alternative is alpaca fibre. It’s plenty warm, not that much more expensive than (sheep) wool, and hypoallergenic.

Originally posted on Quora.

If your cat could speak, then what would they say annoys them the most about you?

Her Imperiou s Highness, the Princess Deasa Sheepworrier, Scythe-Clawed Destroyer of Soft Furnishings, Dementer of Little Birds, Terror of the Hedgehog Crossing, would probably say the most annoying thing I do is lock all my lovely wool away from her. She’s particularly partial to hand-dyed silk blends and cashmere.

She has excellent taste, but I’m glad I don’t have any qiviut or vicuña.

Quora linky.

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