History of Wool from Stone Age Origins to Modern Technology

The history of wool dates back to Stone Age humans and emerges in our times as the source of luxurious cashmere, finely-woven merino wools, and rugged ragg wool gloves.

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Textiles research is ever moving forward to create wool fabrics and blends that offer more and more advantages in a fiber that people have loved for 10,000 years.

Whether you are looking for tough ragg wool gloves, a finely spun merino wool cardigan, or handsome Irish knit sweaters, your garment is a descendent in the long and illustrious history of wool production and weaving.

The 6 Most Interesting Facts About the History of Wool

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1. The wool trade existed at least as far back as the Stone Age - ten thousand years of more!

2. The Spanish Crown financed the voyages of Christopher Columbus with it wool trade.

3. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were lit by tallow made from sheep's fat.

4. Every ancient people who ruled the seas dominated the wool trade in their turn - Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and British.

5. Merino wool, an especially fine yarn, was so highly prized that the Spanish refused to export the breed for a long time.

6. Christians are familiar from the Bible with sheep as symbols of innocence. Woolen garments and shepherds crooks are retained as parts of religious leaders costumes to this day. -- in Roche (1995).

Sheep Serve Needs for Food, Clothing, and Lighting Fuel

Sheep are easy to herd, so ancient peoples quickly domesticated the animal that furnished so many uses, according to Roche in a fascinating history of wool (1995).

Milk and cheese, meat, fiber that can be woven in yarn and cloth, and fat for tallow to light lamps -there is almost no part of the sheep that cannot be used.

Roche states that ancient Babylon was known as the "'the land of wool'" (p. 2). The famous Hanging Gardens were lit by lanterns that consumed large quantities of tallow.

Wool was being graded for quality and taxed during these ancient times.

Wool Trade Spreads To Europe

There are no sheep native to Europe, Roche continues, so scholars infer that sheep were imported during early times.

The ancient Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, and Moors spread the sheep trade as each culture in its turn ruled the seas.

The history of wool shows that fibers we prize today, such as mrino and cashmere, come from breeds of sheep that were known long ago.

Spanish Wool Trade Financed Columbus’s Voyages

Merino, for example, were brought by the Moors to Spain when they occupied that European peninsula, according to Roche.

Spain protected its monopoly of the desirable yarn by outlawing export of the breed.

Here's a fact you can store away for a dull moment in a conversation: Christopher Columbus's explorations were financed by the Spanish wool trade.

English Wool Becomes Dominant

England was a favorable climate for sheep, but the wool was shipped to Flanders during the early middle ages to be processed into cloth, Bateman (2004) writes.

During the 1390s, many British cities and towns became manufacturing centers. The Flemish wool fabric business fell off.

English wool yarn was said to be as fine as spider's web, according to Roche. Boyé (2006) explains that the more times the yarn is twisted, the finer the thread.

A large wool trade center, Blackwell Hall, contributed to England's dominance, notes Bateman in a history of wool and that important archaeological site.

Even today, shoppers value British wool tweed, Irish knit sweaters, and a fine merino wool cardigan.

Expansion and Contraction for the Wool Trade

Sheep breeding spread to almost every part of the world with explorations and settlers - North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, for example.

By the end of the 17th century, other countries offered serious competition to England's dominant role in the history of wool.

The Industrial Revolution in 18th century led to new, more efficient methods of fabric manufacturing. By 1860s, the wool trade was flagging behind the other textiles.

Cotton and silk are easier to loom than the crimped fibers of wool yarn. Wool remained popular for rugs and carpets.

Mass production of other textiles, especially cotton and silk, also led to less prominence for the wool trade.

Wool Fabric Manufacturing in the USA

Cole (1923) studied how American wool manufactures benefited by what would we call today buy-outs and consolidation within the industry.

Until 1923 smaller, family manufacturing plants manufactured wool fabric, because the fiber required more hands-on labor than cotton or silk.

The finer the quality of the wool fabric, the more labor is needed.

The American Wool Manufacturing Company bought out many smaller plants, and the consolidation was good overall for the industry, Cole concludes.

From ancient times until today, production and prices have since been subject to the vicissitudes of world wars, protectionist laws and tariffs, and demand.

Today, advanced technologies are improving the characteristics of wool textiles.

Kan et al. (2007), for example, describe a low-temperature plasma treatment that improves the cloth's shrinkage, wettability, and thermal properties. This is an environmentally-friendly procedure because no chemicals are used.

Wool remains one of your favorite textiles for winter garments. Some of the most popular are ragg wool gloves, a finely spun merino wool cardigan, and handsome Irish knit sweaters.


Bateman, N. (2004). From rags to riches: Blackwell Hall and the wool cloth trade, c. 1450-1790. Post-Medieval Archaeology, 38(1), 1-15.

Boyé, B. (2006, June). Lessons in class. Men's Health, 21(5), 166-171.

Cole, A. H. (1923).Neglected chapter in the history of combinations: The American Wool Manufacture. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 37, 436-75.

Kan, C. W., Yuen, C. W. M., Chan, C. K., & Lau, M. P. (2007). Effect of Surface treatment of the properties of wool fabric. Surface Review & Letters, 14(4), 559-563.

Kimbrough, T. C. (2009). Get wise with wool. Wearables, 13(8), 26.

Roche, J(ulian). (1995). The history of wool production (Ch. 1). In The International Wool Trade. Sawston, GB: Woodhead Publishing Ltd.

Smail, J. (1999). The Sources of Innovation in the Woollen and Worsted Industry of Eighteenth-Century Yorkshire. Business History, 41(1), 1-15.

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