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As with many discoveries of early man, anthropologists believe the use of wool came out of the challenge to survive. In seeking means of protection and warmth, humans in the Neolithic Age wore animal pelts as clothing. Finding the pelts not only warm and comfortable but also durable, they soon began to develop the basic processes and primitive tools for making wool. By 4000 B.C. , Babylonians were wearing clothing of crudely woven fabric.
People soon began to develop and maintain herds of wool-bearing animals. The wool of sheep was soon recognized as one of the most practical to use. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, wool trade prospered. The English had become proficient in the raising of sheep, while the Flemish had developed the skills for processing. As a result, the British began to sell their wool to the Flemish, who processed the raw material and then sold it back to the English.
The ambitious British soon realized the advantages of both producing and processing their own wool. As Britain began to prosper, it sought to enhance its position by enacting laws and embargoes that would stimulate its domestic production. Some laws, for example, required that judges, professors, and students wear robes made of English wool. Another law required that the dead be buried in native wool. When the American colonies began to compete with the motherland, the English passed a series of laws in an attempt to protect their “golden fleece.” One law even threatened the amputation of the hand of any colonist caught trying to improve the blood line of American sheep.
Today, wool is a global industry, with Australia, Argentina, the United States, and New Zealand serving as the major suppliers of raw wool. While the United States is the largest consumer of wool fabric, Australia is the leading supplier. Australian wool accounts for approximately one-fourth of the world’s production.
What for centuries was a small home-based craft has grown into a major industry. The annual global output is now estimated at 5.5 billion pounds. Though cotton is the number one plant used for fabrics and the number one fiber overall, the number one source for animal fiber is still wool.