The Early History Of Sheep And Wool

Essay, Research Paper The Early History of Sheep and Wool The history of the sheep industry began in Central Asia about 10,000 years ago. It’s the nature of sheep to flock together. Early man could take sheep in his travels, because they are efficient grazers, and able to survive on sparse vegetation. Man had discovered the value of the sheep as a two product animal even then.

Essay, Research Paper

The Early History of Sheep and Wool

The history of the sheep industry began in Central Asia about 10,000 years ago. It’s the nature of sheep to flock together. Early man could take sheep in his travels, because they are efficient grazers, and able to survive on sparse vegetation. Man had discovered the value of the sheep as a two product animal even then. It could provide two of life’s essentials, meat and milk for food, and hides for clothing and shelter. The earliest sheep producers used the fleece as a kind of tunic. It wasn’t until 3500 BC that man learned to spin wool. (Channing 110)

Sheep helped make the spread of civilization possible. Once man had discovered the warmth and usefulness of wool clothing, they could travel and live in comfort beyond the plains of Mesopotamia, where the average temperature was 70 degrees. (Bishop 12) History has many references to sheep. In Genesis, it is recorded that Able kept sheep, Exodus states “all of the women that were wise hearted did spin with their hands, and brought that which they had spun, both of blue and of purple and of scarlet.” The earliest of Egyptian history speaks of wool, pieces of wool and clothing have been found in tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs. (Channing 117)

Sheep and wool spread to Europe between 3000 BC and 1000 BC through ancient Greece. During the next 1,000 years Greeks, Romans and Persians contributed to improvements in sheep breeds. The Romans were also responsible for the spread of sheep in North Africa and Europe. The Romans also established a woolen manufactory in Winchester New England, as early as 50 AD (Channing 123)

The Merino, the sheep producing the smallest diameter wool fiber is said to have descended from a strain developed during the reign of Claudious, 41 to 54 AD Later, during the dark ages, the Merino breed deteriorated. It was later revived by the Saracens when they conquered Spain in the Eighth Century. A wool export trade was established with North Africa, Greece, Egypt, Byzantium, and Constantinopal. When the Saracens were finally removed, Spain lost it’s world trade. Thousands of weavers and others in the manufacture of wool were banished. (Channing 161)

The Merino sheep remained in Spain and were a rich source of income for the country. Income from the wool trade helped to finance the voyages of Columbus and the Conquistadors, guarding her sense of wealth closely, refusing to export a single ewe under penalty of death until 1786. That year Louis XVI imported 386 ewes from Spain and crossed them with the sheep on his estate at Rambouillet, developing the Rambouillet breed, which is considered one of the most desirable breeds in the world. (Channing 162)

Wool weaving was one of the first basic communal industries established as Europe emerged from the dark ages. During the 12th century there was a huge growth of weaving in Florence, Genoa, and Venice. The growth of weaving was encouraged by the defeat of Greece by Roger II, the Norman who had also conquered Sicily. After his triumph, Roger took 100 Greek weavers and sent them to Palermo as slave labor. In Italy their work was immediately copied by Italian weavers. (Regensteiner 27)

Sheep were found in England before written history, having been brought there, legend says, by the Phoenicians. Preservation of sheep in early England

is credited largely to the Cistercian monks whose monasteries scattered the country. It was the Cistercians who ransomed Richard I with wool, after he was captured by John, Duke of Austria, when returning from the crusades. From these sheep of England come the meat producing or “mutton” types. (Channing 113)

In 1337 King Edward III forbade the continued exportation of wool from England. He decreed importation of woven goods and the wearing of foreign made wool garments would not be permitted. At the same time, he invited dissatisfied Flemish weavers to settle in England. His action greatly improved the wool industry, opening new markets and encouraging weavers to improve the quality of their products. Later, Flemish weavers fleeing the Spanish invasion settled in England. By 1660 wool textile exports were two thirds of England’s foreign commerce. (Bishop 14)

England’s “empire of wool” reached its peak during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Henry’s seizure of the monastery’s flocks and their redistribution to court favorites led to vast unemployment among shepherds when the new owners fenced their sheep. When the shepherds could not pay their debts, they were imprisoned. Discontentment with the unfairness of this situation together with other factors created a surge of immigration to the American colonies.(Bishop 15)

At the same time emerging countries were becoming competitors for world markets, particularly in America.

The discovery of new machines such as the spinning jenny, the wool combing machine, and the perfection of the water-powered loom changed the

wool industry. Then with the introduction of steam power, England replaced her hand-weaving industries to stay in the competition. (Wilson 73)

The introduction of more and improved machinery increased wool production and expanded the English textile industry. This also led to growth of the sheep industry in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. In 1797 a commander of an English supply fleet acquired thirteen Merino rams and ewes that had been sent as a gift to the governor of South Africa. The commander sold the sheep to an English army officer who settled in Australia. From this small flock descended the famous Australian Merino we know today. (Wilson 76)

Sheep were also an important source for food in the New World. In 1493 Columbus included sheep among the livestock he took to Cuba and Santo Domingo. In 1519 when Cortez began his expedition, he took with him the offspring of Columbus’ sheep as a walking food supply. These sheep were not the famous Merino but large coarse-wooled Spanish “Churros” developed for meat instead of wool. (Channing 49)

During the colonial period, as England tried to discourage the wool industry in America, yarn and even sheep were smuggled into the new country. Fifteen years after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, they purchased forty sheep from the Dutch at Manhattan Island. Gradually, with the sheep smuggled from England, the flock grew until in 1643 there were 1,000 sheep in Massachusetts colony. By 1664 the sheep population had grown to 100,000 and the general court of Massachusetts had passed law requiring youths to learn to spin and weave. By 1698 northern colonists were shipping wool to other countries in return for goods. The English were furious, and made sheep and wool trading an offense punishable by making the offender’s right hand cut off. The resentment of the colonists to restrictions on sheep raising and wool

manufacturing, together with the Stamp Acts was one cause of the Revolutionary War.

Despite this the wool industry in American flourished with spinning and weaving considered acts of patriotism. Home knitting was also encouraged as each yard of knitted cloth could be traded for six pounds of tobacco.

George Washington raised sheep on his Mount Vernon estate and imported the first broad-tail Persian sheep two years before his death because he was interested in the growth of the industry. He manufactured 400 yards of cloth annually at Mount Vernon, and he was inaugurated in a suit made of American cloth, which was described as “a fine, dark brown woolen coat, waste coat and breeches with white silk stockings, and shoes with silver buckles.” Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated in a suit of cloth in Maryland “from sheep in such numbers that 600 acres of land were required to pasture them.” Men like Washington and Jefferson encouraged the establishment of Merino herds. In 1808 Spain sold some of her finest Merinos to the United States. By 1811 about 29,000 head had been imported and the Merino breed was firmly established in the United States and France. Within 150 years France was the second largest fine wool-growing area in the world, topped only by Australia. (Bishop 17)

The first American woolen mill driven by water power, was established in Hartford Connecticut in1788. Other mills quickly followed along the Atlantic seaboard from Maine to Virginia.

Today?s wool production in the US is at about the same level as it was in the first twenty years of the century. Although this country produces nearly a million pounds of wool annually, it is generally necessary to import large quantities to satisfy the needs of the American mills. To encourage the growth of

domestic wool as a vital commodity, Congress enacted legislation, guaranteeing an average price return which is hoped will increase wool production.

As settlers moved west in the 1800s, they took with them flocks of sheep which were of English breeding, more suited to producing lamb than wool. One of the great stories of sheep herding was of great “Uncle Dick Wooten”, trapper, Indian fighter, and buffalo hunter. One of the hearty men who trailed sheep, he accomplished an almost unbelievable feat in 1852. Leaving Taos, New Mexico with 9,000 sheep he trailed across the forbidden Indian-held deserts of what are now New Mexico, Arizona, and California, arriving in Sacramento one year later with 8,900 sheep, worth at the time $50,000. Now a fleet of 20 trucks can make that trip in less than 24 hours. (Regensteiner 53)

Today the sheep is still valued greatly for the wool and meat it produces. A unique natural resource, the sheep converts forage more efficiently than any other ruminant, and forages where other animals can’t. With sheep in our 50 states, they fill our needs today just as they filled the needs of the stone age man.

Works Cited

Bishop, C.M. The Wool Story…From Fleece to Fashion. Oregon:

Pendleton Woolen Mills, 1980.

Channing, Marion. The Magic of Handspinning. Massachusetts:

Thresh Publications, 1983.

Regensteiner, Else. History of Sheep. New York:

Watson-Guptill Publishing, 1975.

Wilson, Jean. Weaving is for Everyone. New York:

Dover Publishing, 1978.

Bishop, C.M. The Wool Story…From Fleece to Fashion. Oregon:

Pendleton Woolen Mills, 1980.

Channing, Marion. The Magic of Handspinning. Massachusetts:

Thresh Publications, 1983.

Regensteiner, Else. History of Sheep. New York:

Watson-Guptill Publishing, 1975.

Wilson, Jean. Weaving is for Everyone. New York:

Dover Publishing, 1978.