• Iris Favand

The History of Sheep and Wool: 13 Facts

Racka sheep (Hungarian breed)

1. Sheeps probably descend from the wild mouflon.

2. Sheeps reproduce quickly : they reach sexual maturity at 6 months, and gestate for only 5.

3. They were likely domesticated in 10,000 BC in Mesopotamia and would have spread to Europe by 6,000 BC.

4. We have evidence of selective breeding for wool production (so that sheeps grow more and thicker wool, more adapted to clothing) as early as 3,700 BC.

5. Prior to the Iron Age, sheeps would grow their fleece until Spring and then lose it naturally (it would peel away from their body). Most today’s breeds of sheeps grow their fleece continuously, and people shear it away.

Sainte Marguerite gardant les moutons, Jean Fouquet, 1093

6. In pre-modern societies, most of the cloth worn was produced by women within the household and not bought from outside sources. This means that around 40 percent of the population was involved in textile production and that almost all adult women and young girls were spinning and weaving for a considerable amount of time everyday.

7.Before the spinning wheel (invented around 1,000 AD), hand spinning was extremely time consuming. It would represent about 85% of the labor time of the textile production.

According to some calculations, providing a very minimum of clothing for a modest 6 person household would require 7 labour hours per day, every single day of the year. For a wealthier household, producing a more comfortable amount of clothing would require 22 work hours per day.

8.We often think of past societies as farmers civilizations but we could just as well think of them as spinner and weaver ones. However this work has been pretty much invisibilized by our modern representations: in depictions of history like that of Rome, we see men fighting and working in the lands, but we seldom see women spinning or weaving.

The Spinner, William Bouguereau, 1873

9. To this day, the expression “spinster” is used to speak of a single woman who is unlikely to ever marry, because she is older than the age at which women are expected to marry. This meaning probably comes from the assumption that unmarried women would have to support themselves by spinning and selling yarn.

10. In several representations and stories, the distaff (an instrument used to hold unspun fibers during the spinning process) is a symbol of female domination or even of witchcraft. It is the case in the Lucien de Samosate’ version of the Herakles and Omphale myth, in which the virile hero – who has to expiate a murder by becoming the slave of the Queen Omphale – is dressed as a woman and given wool to spin.

Hercules at Omphale’s house, Lucas Cranach, 1537

11. An important step of the process of the wool preparation was the fulling, that scoured the fabric (removed any remaining oil) and matted the fibers together. To scour the wool, Romans would generally immerse it in a basin of urine that acted as a cleansing agent – thanks to its concentration in ammonium.

12. People’s clothes were very commonly dyed, even those of the not-so-wealthy. In medieval England, the main colours in use to dye wool were :

-blue, made from woad

-brown, from walnuts-red, from madder

-yellow, from weld

-scarlet, from cochineal kermes (‘grain’ red)

-vermillion, from cinnabar

-yellow, from saffron

13. In medieval Florence, the Arte della Lana – the wool-workers guild – was one of the most powerful ones. In 1331, they even took over the patronage of the main cathedral and duomo, the Cathedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, and appointed Giotto to work on it.

A young spinner, French postcard from 1917

Bibliography :

Most of this information comes from the very thorough articles of Bret Devereaux on the history of clothing : Clothing, How Did They Make It?

Part I: High Fiber

Part II: Scouring in the Shire

Part III: Spin Me Right Round…

Part IVa: Dyed in the Wool

Part IVb: Cloth Money

Valais sheep

Iris Favand is a fashion designer based in Paris. Before pursuing a fashion degree at Parsons, New York, she studied humanities and art history. Her practice is driven by her love of fashion history and by her convictions on gender equality.


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