About European sheep wool
Since their first domestication on the plains of Western Asia in modern day Iran in the Mesolithic period as long ago as 7000- 8000 BCE Sheep have been relied on to provide a variety of commodities in a wide range of agro-ecological zones that vary greatly in their climatic conditions, their habitats. Bred from only three basic wild sheep (the Asian Sheep Urial and Argali and the European Mouflon) Sheep have proven to be the most adaptable of our domesticated animals and produced a greater number of breeds, types and landraces compared with any other species.
It has been documented that Worldwide there are as many as 900 different types of sheep many of which are composite breeds of two or more distinct breeds, populations or landraces. On The European Continent we have many of these different sheep types. Some known as native breeds others exist as composites. More than 300 distinct types of sheep are identified in Europe, of which two thirds are now known as breeds.
Where ever Man has migrated they have done so and survived because they had sheep. No other domesticated animal has proved as successful in establishing colonial settlements and have shown adaptability to a very wide range of forages and vegetation, freedom from predators and also disease resistance. They were the optimal solution that farmers over millenia found to feed and cloththemselves but also to preserve biodiversity, maintain natural reserves, reduce the risk of fire, shear naturally, and enhance poor or difficult-to-access areas, in the mountains or in arid zones.
The different breeds and strains of sheep became each adapted to their new territories. Some have feet adapted to mountainous terrain, others are small and stocky to withstand the winds on the islands, or prefer the very green grass (or thorny plants) abundant in their region of origin, some ewes can give birth in the snow, or have long wool containing hair to quickly evacuate water from short, heavy rains; other breeds have horns to protect themselves, or not.
So, for many millennia, our sheep developed as indigenous breed populations, adapting to their local habitats and free from exposure to artificial selection. It was in the times of the Romans that we saw the first real breeding selection for wool alongside the characteristics of meat and milk. It was in this time that white faced sheep were spread across the European Continent. From this time they started to identify fine and soft wools, thick and solid, with or without felting, puffy, dry or greasy, long or short, white, grey, brown, black, kissed, or of mixed colours, curly, crimpy or smooth, more or less elastic, glossy and from these characteristics made it possible to differentiate the uses of wool according to the needs of Mankind. The greatest development in the diversity of our sheep despite their long history occurred in a really short historical period between 1850 and 1950 when many of our familiar sheep of today were recognised and isolated as breeds and flock records were first begun.
What was quickly identified was that the biodiversity of sheep breeds is fundamental for the production of such a wide range of products. Wool is everywhere, for clothing, sleeping, living, and playing. We recognise immediately its uses for hats, scarves, gloves, jumpers, jackets, coats, dresses, shawls, slippers, hats, trousers, socks, jewellery, and less visibly for mattresses, duvets, pillows, futons, blankets, aircraft seats, fertilizer pellets, game repellent, cradle skins, yurts, firemen's uniforms, technical sportswear, land art, sculptures, cuddly toys, swaddling clothes, bandages, windscreen polishing, anti-decubitus mattress toppers, kilts, bure, billiard table coverings, loden cloth, thermal or acoustic insulation, carpets, stools, dolls, lighting, braids and badges, Norwegian kettles, oil diffusion in 2CV car engines, engraving printing, boots from the Great North, saddlery and we haven’t stopped as we look to develop even more uses over time.
Sheep (and wool) can therefore be seen to have profoundly impacted the development of our cultures and traditions as much in crafts as in technical inventions for working with wool, as much in the great religions as in cooking, music and art.
In some regions, wool working has remained mainly a family, village or at least local activity and tradition. In other regions, it has led to immense economic development and great wealth. In Europe new technologies and new textile types started to appear in the 10th Century and developed through to the 13th and 14th Century creating great national wealth for many nations, but especially on the British Isles, France, and the Low Countries. It would eventually lead to the development of famous wool centres in places such as Bradford in England, Verviers in Belgium, Biella in Italy and Lille in France.
Today our industry, the sheep that produce the raw materials and the people who maintain its skills and traditions have never been more at threat, and yet it can be justifiably stated that our sheep and their industries were key building blocks of the societies we today live in. It was our heritage, it is our present and together we can work together to continue to write the story of sheep, their wool and the bond that unites the peoples of our continent and those of other communities around the World..