Historical Yarns 1 – The Starring Role

Back before Christmas I posted a quick intro to a series of posts on the history of wool…. the plan was a weekly post giving snapshots of the way we have used wool down the centuries. Since the original post I’ve been refining my plans a bit and have decided that I need to take a more focused approach, because there is just so much stuff out there and so many areas of interest. So the plan for 2015 is to post fortnightly and focus on the medieval era – from the fall of Rome to the end of Henry VII’s reign. Geographically I plan to focus on the Hampshire area, just because living there means I can go and see places that were important, photograph them and take inspiration from them for my knitting, crochet and yarn art projects. I also want to look at the role of women in the production of both yarn and the woolen cloths made from it and have a go at some of the wool crafts that have developed over the ages.

All links in this post lead to sites I have used to develop this article

However we would not have wool in any form if it wasn’t for our stars…. the sheep!

Where Did The Idea of Using Wool Come From?

The answer is lost in the mists of time, however we do know that wool has been used since pre history to make clothing. From my reading and thinking, I have an idea that initially man would have used the fleece whole. He chased and killed a wild sheep and skinned it. Using it as a covering he realised it kept him warm in winter. So Mrs Caveperson then started sewing the sheep skins together to make warm clothing for her family.

The hunter-gatherer peoples would also have found wool on thorns and in thickets where sheep had rubbed against or got caught. They might have gathered the wool and used it for padding. Someone could have sat around a campfire twisting a piece of raw wool and realised it made a yarn.

Domestication of Sheep

Faroese Sheep – Iceland

Once farming communities started to develop in the Neolithic period, post the last Ice Age, around 5000BC , people decided to domesticate some of their animals, including sheep, for wool, milk and food. The early domestic sheep retained many of their wild characteristics, an anecdote from lady who has worked as a reenactor on an Iron Age farm, where shearing was just beginning to develop, made me realise just how strong and resilient early farmers would have been when they first started shearing. However that is a subject for another post!

The early breeds shed wool, and the women and children would go out wool gathering in the areas where sheep were kept. It is probably during this time that spinning and weaving first appeared, subjects I will be covering later in the series. Sometimes they would also pluck the sheep, to remove remaining wool, but I would think this was a task that required the men to assist in restraining the sheep to be plucked

The closest breeds I have discovered to these ancient sheep breeds are the sheep of the The Scottish Islands, St Kilda and Iceland

Men of St Kilda, with native soay sheep

Orkney Sheep, possibly introduced by the Vikings









Breeding – The Start

As time went on the various breeds of wild sheep would be crossed with other wild sheep / early domestic sheep. I would think that early crosses could have happened accidentally, perhaps through trading networks. Ancient Farmer Bill, living somewhere in what is now England, trades a few of his sheep with Ancient Farmer Pierre from France. Bill takes his French sheep home and his ram decides to get friendly with the new comers. Bill discovers that the meat, fleece and / or milk of the “new sheep” or cross breeds is better and decides to segregate them from his English flock, still leaving the French ewes with the English ram to create more cross breeds. As there is archaeological evidence that sheep were often more prized for their fleece than their meat, lets call the “new sheep”  the extra wooly sheep. Bill sits and thinks about this and wonders if using his new cross bred ram to mate either with his “new sheep” or his English ewes will make more wool, he discovers it does and over time a new breed is established. I appreciate this is a very simplistic view but I don’t want to send you to sleep with a small volume on sheep genetics and breeding…. it would probably send me to sleep trying to research it. And to be fair Bill had no idea about genes or DNA, after all this was a good thousand or so years before Mendel started playing with his peas 🙂


However one drawback of Bill’s “new sheep” is that is no longer sheds its fleece and plucking isn’t working well either. However living in the late iron age/  early Roman period gives Bill access to iron bladed items and he experiments with using the tools to hand – knives or possibly hair shears to remove the fleece from his sheep. He probably discusses the problem with the village blacksmith and eventually some prototype of  sheep shears is developed giving 2 blades that can crop the wool. Maybe he practised on sheepskins, after killing a couple of barren ewes for their meet – we don’t know. However the hair shears theory might have some truth as they have been discovered during archaeolgical digs on iron age sites and sheep shears have been excavated on Roman sites. I will be researching and writing about shearing in more depth in the Spring.

Using The Wool

We know that drop spinning and weaving cloth developed as communities became settled and progressed technologically. Techniques such as sprang, naal binding and weaving would have appeared and developed during this time, but again we know little of their origins in terms of the earliest dates, simply because textiles don’t tend to survive in the ground and much of the equipment would have been made from wood, which also degrades. Sewing needles however still survive from these early periods because they were made of bone and survive in favourable conditions.


Without the sheep we would not have had access to wool, which in later times was the staple of the English economy. We don’t know a lot about the original wild sheep that would have been domesticated or the origins of breeding sheep, but we do know that the late Iron Age people & the Romans were shearing them by hand. We also know that early peoples used their observations and knowledge of sheep and experimented with various ways of producing wool and using it. Had I a Time Machine I would love to sit by the fire watching the first woman tease yarn from a fleece and work out how to use it!

In my next post I will look in more depth at the sheep of the Roman era and give a brief overview of the the methods employed to use the wool and the uses it was put to. This will be easier to research as the Romans enjoyed writing things down, so hopefully there will be far less conjecture involved 🙂