Is British wool an asset to our economy on a global stage or simple a niche commodity?
BA (Hons) Applied Creative Design
Harrogate School of Art and Design
Why do we have such a connection to wool in the British Isles? Why are there so few British wool products? Are there better quality wools produced by our global competitors? And what if our native fibres suit something other than their intended purpose? This dissertation aims to answer such questions in a time where many now think, British is best.
There has been sheep farming culture for over 10 000 years dating back to around the time that the land bridge connecting the British Isles to the rest of Europe started to disappear. This time has allowed for over 80 different breeds of the animal to develop, all with varying desirable characteristics, many of which are related to their fleece. Such a wide range of raw wool being produced made England a very profitable place to be dealing with such products. However, this changed with the development of such techniques or systems as acrylic yarns and machine washable/tumble dryable fibres, which are descaled and coated in polymers. With the collapse of this industry over the past three quarters of a century, most of the world’s wool is now produced by Australia with China sporting the largest sheep population on earth.
It is essential that raw materials and products meet the requirements of those who use them (Sommerville 1998) though this refers to measurement and standardisation of raw wool, the base idea is relevant to all areas of production. Here Sommerville has encompassed a notion which many producers understand but quite often do not follow through with when designing their primary products. This can lead to failure when the product is not demanded by the market or, the company is limited to just that and does not break habits of a steady supply without developing the goods. This can be seen by export of much of the UK’s wool to China for carpet production when many farmers here can provide a higher grade of wool that could be used in a myriad of other products.
There has been evidence found for the domestication of wild sheep in the Fertile Crescent of Western Iran and Turkey dating back to 10 500 BC (Hirst). The descendants of these Mouflon moved with Neolithic man across Europe and into the British Isles while a land bridge still existed, named Doggerland in the past century by archaeologists and geologists.
Figure 1 Doggerland shown in pale to dark green
It is suggested that this happened around 4000 BC with the introduction of brown horned sheep, similar to Soay (Ryder 1981). As Romans invaded the Isle of Britons under the rule of Emperor Claudius in 43 AD they encountered an existing wool industry which was further promoted during the occupation due to the Emperors love of British woollen cloths, this has been shown by descriptions found in Roman texts:
‘So fine it was comparable to spiders silk’
Gradual growth continued until Saxon invasions of the 5th Century which threatened to destroy the whole industry. The Romans had built up large flocks for exporting wool to Italy where it was highly prized whereas the new Saxons had pre-existing flocks in their native lands, so British wool was no longer needed and consequentially sheep populations declined. This changed with the Normans who defeated Anglo-Saxon King Harold II in 1066. Now French and Norman settlers brought with them expertise from Europe which, within a century, saw wool become one of the nation’s most valuable assets.
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