History of Wool

As the raw material has been readily available since the widespread domestication of sheep—and of goats, another major provider of wool— the use of felted or woven wool for clothing and other fabrics characterizes some of the earliest civilizations. Prior to invention of shears probably in the Iron Age - the wool was plucked out by hand or by bronze combs. The oldest known European woollen textile, ca. 1500 BCE, was preserved in a Danish bog.

In Roman times, wool, linen and leather clothed the European population: the cotton of India was a curiosity that only naturalists had heard of, and silk, imported along the Silk Road from China, was an extravagant luxury. Pliny the Elder records in his Natural History that the reputation for producing the finest wool was enjoyed by Tarentum, where selective breeding had produced sheep with a superior fleece, but which required special care.

In medieval times, as trade connections expanded, the Champagne fairs revolved around the production of woollen cloth in small centres such as Provins; the network that the sequence of annual fairs developed meant that the woollens of Provins might find their way to Naples, Sicily, Cyprus, Majorca, Spain and raw fleece even Constantinople. The wool trade developed into serious business, the generator of capital. In the thirteenth century, the wool trade was the economic engine of the Low Countries and of Central Italy; by the end of the following century Italy predominated, though in the 16th century Italian production turned to silk. Both pre-industries were based on English raw wool exports— rivalled only by the sheep walks of Castile, developed from the fifteenth century— which were a significant source of income to the English crown, which from 1275 imposed an export tax on wool called the "Great Custom". The importance of wool to the English economy can be shown by the fact that since the 14th Century, the presiding officer of the House of Lords has sat on the "Woolsack", a chair stuffed with wool.

 Economies of scale were instituted in the Cistercian houses, which had accumulated great tracts of land during the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, when land prices were low and labour still scarce. Raw wool was baled and shipped from North Sea ports to the textile cities of Flanders, notably Ypres and Ghent, where it was dyed and worked up as cloth. At the time of the Black Death, English textile industries accounted for about 10% of English wool production (Cantor 2001, 64); the English textile trade grew during the fifteenth century, to the point where export of wool was discouraged. Over the centuries, various British laws controlled the wool trade or required the use of wool even in burials. The smuggling of wool out of the country, known as owling, was at one time punishable by the cutting off of a hand. After the Restoration, fine English woollens began to compete with silks in the international market, partly aided by the Navigation Acts; in 1699 English crown forbade its American colonies to trade wool with anyone but England herself.

A great deal of the value of woollen textiles was in the dyeing and finishing of the woven product. In each of the centres of the textile trade, the manufacturing process came to be subdivided into a collection of trades, overseen by an entrepreneur in a system called by the English the "putting-out" system, or "cottage industry", and the Verlagssystem by the Germans. In this system of producing woollen cloth, until recently perpetuated in the production of Harris tweeds, the entrepreneur provides the raw materials and an advance, the remainder being paid upon delivery of the product. Written contracts bound the artisans to specified terms. Fernand Braudel traces the appearance of the system in the thirteenth-century economic boom, quoting a document of 1275. The system effectively by-passed the guilds' restrictions.

Before the flowering of the Renaissance, the Medici and other great banking houses of Florence had built their wealth and banking system on their textile industry based on wool, overseen by the Arte Della Lana, the wool guild: wool textile interests guided Florentine policies. Francesco Datini, the "merchant of Prato", established in 1383 an Arte Della Lana for that small Tuscan city. The sheep walks of Castile shaped the landscape and the fortunes of the meseta that lies in the heart of the Iberian peninsula; in the sixteenth century, a unified Spain allowed export of Merino lambs only with royal permission. The German wool market—based on sheep of Spanish origin—did not overtake British wool until comparatively late. Australia's colonial economy was based on sheep raising and the Australian wool trade eventually overtook that of the Germans by 1845, furnishing wool for Bradford, which developed as the heart of industrialized woollens production.

Due to decreasing demand with increased use of synthetic fibres, wool production is much less than what it was in the past. The collapse in the price of wool began in late 1966 with a 40% drop; with occasional interruptions, the price has tended down. The result has been sharply reduced production and movement of resources into production of other commodities, in the case of sheep growers, to production of meat.

In December 2004 a bale of the world's finest wool, averaging 11.8 micron, sold for 300,000 cents per kilogram at auction in Melbourne, Victoria. This fleece wool tested with an average yield of 74.5%, 68mm long, and had 40 newton’s per kilotex strength. The result was $AUD279,000 for the bales.

The finest bale of wool ever auctioned sold for a seasonal record of 269,000 cents per kilo during June, 2008. This bale was produced by the Hillcreston Pinehill Partnership and measured 11.6 microns, 72.1% yield and had a 43 Newton’s per kilotex strength measurement. The bale realised $247,480 and was exported to India.

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