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A Brief History of British Wool

A shepherd blowing their horn, as shown in the Utrecht Psalter

In re-discovering my heritage in Britain & my ancestors’ relationship with British textiles, I’ve also begun to research the (honestly fascinating) history of the English wool industry and thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned with you.

The wool trade was the backbone of medieval England from 1250 – 1350, driving forward a movement of land privatization and providing most of the fuel (both in terms of capital interest & innovation) for what would become the British Agricultural Revolution. Demand for wool carried with it demand for dyes & finished good production machinery (pedal driven looms & spinning wheels, for example), and the high value to weight ratio of wool helped to create an early interest in merchant vessel trading.

At the height of wool’s importance as a commodity in England, over 40,000 sacks of raw wool and 60,000 sacks of finished cloth were exported to the Low Countries, France and Italy. Much of the later industrialization of Britain would have been impossible without the wealth created by the wool boom.

By the 1600s, decline in British interest in wool as a commodity (due to an increased focus in domestic meat production) led to to domination in Europe of Italian fine wools produced from Merino sheep – but even then the influence of the once monolithic English wool empire would not quite fade, as most of the looms, spinning wheels & mechanized fulling & napping techniques now used to produce Italian cloth had been built and invented during the heyday of English wool!

4 kids (including me!) wearing hand knit wool cardigans from their English mom.

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