THE HISTORY OF BRITISH WOOL
Early man soon realised that to kill a sheep for its meat alone was a waste; sheep could be milked and its fleece could be spun and woven into cloth. So with the help of his friend the dog, (probably the only animal to be domesticated before the sheep) he became a shepherd.
Before 10,000 BC wool cloth was being spun and woven. By the time the Romans invaded these islands in 55 BC the Britons had developed a wool industry. By the twelfth century, wool was becoming England's greatest national asset and cloth making was widespread.
The first half of the fourteenth century was a time of prosperity for English wool farmers. Despite setbacks, raw wool exporting expanded, and so also did manufacturing of wool fabrics. This was becoming both specialized and localized. The West Country had three advantages - extensive sheep pastures, a supply of soft water for washing, scouring and dyeing, and water-power to drive milling machinery. Similarly, the Pennine districts of Yorkshire and Lancashire had soft water, and water power from steeply graded streams.
Cloth from English looms quickly achieved an international reputation. From being primarily a raw wool exporter, England became a manufacturer and exporter of cloth. At the end of the fifteenth century England was largely a nation of sheep farmers and cloth manufacturers.
Radical changes lay ahead. The Industrial Revolution of 1750-1850 caused upheaval, it ushered in new inventions to mechanize and dramatically speed up the processes of spinning and weaving. The younger industry jumped ahead and never lost its lead - manufacturing centres developed in Scotland, famed for its tweeds; and in the West Country which specialized in production of high quality woven carpets.
There are now nearly one thousand million sheep in the world and some thirty million are in the United Kingdom. British breeds produce mostly coarser quality wool - not to be regarded as inferior to fine wool but merely different. It is ideally suited for certain products such as carpets, tweeds and knitting yarns. Sheep can adapt themselves to an extraordinarily wide range of environment. In this country there are more than 60 different breeds, suited to the varieties of climate, soil, herbage and terrain encountered here.
My studio is based in the Cotwolds and it is considered that one of the most significant contributors to the Cotswold landscape is the medieval wool industry. Great wealth was accrued to local merchants, who spent lavishly on their houses, and in an effort to ensure their route to paradise they made enormous contributions to the construction or enlargement of churches. Some of these churches, huge in comparison with the villages in which they are located, came to be known as ‘wool churches’. The finest examples are in Winchcombe, Chipping Campden, Northleach, Cirencester and Fairford.
Some Cotswold buildings, renowned for their charm, were originally built in connection with the wool trade. The well known and picturesque cottages that make up celebrated Arlington Row in Bibury, were built in 1380 as a monastic wool store and converted into weavers’ cottages in the 17th century.
As the wool trade became the weaving trade, cloth manufacture was concentrated in the steeper Stroud valleys in the southern Cotswolds, where there was plenty of waterpower. The wool trade has left its mark and many villages have a ‘Sheep Street’. There are village names like Sheepscombe, and the ‘tures’ in Stow-on-the-Wold are the alleys opening onto the main square for the passage of sheep being herded to market.