Feeling sheepish

Picture by Geni

Picture by Geni

Last week I received a sheep fleece in the post, a very kind gift from a couple we met at a dinner a few weeks ago. We got talking at the dinner and it turned out that they breed Manx Loaghtan sheep, an at-risk rare breed that is descended from short-tailed primitive sheep once found in Scotland and the coastal islands of Britain. I mentioned that I’m a keen amateur textile enthusiast and Carol very kindly offered to give me a fleece. Wonderful!  The picture on the left shows how the spectacular horns are one of the identifiers of this lovely breed. The fleece is a beautiful deep chocolate brown with sun-bleached paler tips, and the wool is so soft and springy it looks like it will spin beautifully.

Sheep weren’t always as woolly as they are now, though. Indeed, some wild or feral sheep still aren’t as woolly as the farmed varieties. Sheep have a mixture of straight hair and crimped hair (wool), and it’s the balance of that mixture that has changed over time. It’s thought that sheep originally came from the Near East and were the first animals to be domesticated at the beginning of agriculture, possibly as long ago as 9,000 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia, i.e., between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. Woollier sheep began to be developed around 6,000 BCE in the area that is modern-day Iran, and wool was a commodity of sufficient value to warrant international trade by the Persians. There is archaeological evidence of sheep in the Neolithic period in the modern-day Provence area of France (Rowley-Conwy et al 2013), and it seems that sheep reached the British Isles around 4,000 BCE.

mouflon small

A mouflon ram

It’s generally accepted that these early sheep in Britain had short hairs obscuring very fine, brown under-wool, and were similar to present-day wild or feral mouflon sheep (Ryder M.L. 1992). In the picture on the right you can see how much more hairy mouflon are than modern domesticated sheep that have a fleece. But they do still have wool under the longer hair, it’s just that the wool doesn’t predominate and create a fleece.  The under-wool moults in the spring, and so early sheep were plucked or “rooed” for their wool. Probably quite a bit was also gathered from hedgerows where it got caught on prickly plants.

There are not many examples of woven woollen fabrics that date from the late Neolithic, although as Linda Hurcombe points out in her fascinating book, “Perishable Material Culture in Prehistory: investigating the missing majority”, that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. Some of the earliest examples of textiles woven from spun wool in the British Isles have been found in log burials (the bodies were buried in hollowed-out log coffins under barrow mounds) that took place in the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age in Rylstone, Yorkshire. Similar log burials elsewhere in Yorkshire have been radiocarbon dated to around 2,200 – 2,000 BCE (Melton et al, 2010). The bodies in the Rylstone barrows were wrapped in woven woolen textiles before burial and remnants of these wrappings are in the British Museum, and the  Craven Museum, Yorkshire . One of the problems with the textile archaeological record is that so little survives, but in these cases the acidic environmental conditions favoured the conservation of wool fibres.

But woollen textiles seem to have been fairly rare in the late Neolithic period in Britain, and indeed sheep bones are not generally as common as pig or cattle bones in the archaeological record of the time. The scarcity of woollen textiles in the Neolithic may be because the sheep were still fairly hairy, and the woolly part of their coat that was shed in the spring was a rare fibre. Whatever the reason, it seems that wool may have been a relatively scarce and developing fibre in comparison to the plant fibres that were in common usage.

I’ve always befleece whole smallen fascinated by textiles and fibres. Maybe it’s the Lancashire heritage 🙂 . Or maybe it’s in the blood. My grandfather worked in cotton mills in the UK and India, and my great grandfather’s name was Kempster, a name of Anglo-Saxon origin that comes from the occupational name for a wool-comber. But whatever my textile ancestry, I’ve never dealt with a raw fleece before, and so yesterday I embarked on a voyage of discovery! Firstly the fleece has to be picked for “tags”, the polite term for wool with sheep poo stuck in it 😦 . Thankfully Carol’s sheep are beautifully clean toilet-goers and the fleece was very clean, so that didn’t take me too long. Then it has to be washed, to remove a large amount of the grease, or strictly speaking wax, (lanolin) and sweat salts (suint). Raw fleeces have a  strong, but not unpleasant, “farmyard” smell, too. I had no idea how to wash a fleece, so internet to the rescue!


clean fleeceI took the general advice to pull the fleece apart into locks of wool, put it in a perforated bowl and submerge it in water around 55-60 degrees Centigrade which had a healthy dollop of washing up liquid added. Golden rule – do not agitate! Wool doesn’t shrink in hot water, but if you agitate it, it felts very quickly. That’s what happens to a jumper that has been put into the washing machine by mistake. It looks like it has shrunk, but in fact it has felted, which draws the fibres together and so gives the impression of shrinking. After 15 minutes soak and 4 very careful rinses in water of the same temperature to stop the lanolin re-affixing to the wool (which it does at temperatures below about 50 degrees C), I took it out and laid it on a glider dryer to dry. To my delight it did dry and hadn’t felted! It smells much fresher now, and I can tease apart the fibres, including the tightly curly, sun-bleached ends, as you can see in the picture on the right. I couldn’t resist finger-spinning a little bit too :-). I think there’s still too much lanolin in it though, as it does still feel a little greasy, so I’ll repeat the washing process after gently carding it to open up the fibres as much as possible, and let the hot water and detergent do their stuff.

So the first small part of the fleece is washed and I’ve learned a lot. Lots more to learn though 🙂


Rowley-Conwy P., Gourichon L., Helmer D. & Vige J-D. (2013). Early domestic animals in Italy, the Tyrrhenian Islands and Southern France. In Colledge S., Conolly J., Dobney K., Manning K. & Shennan S. (Eds). Origins and Spread of Domestic Animals in Southwest Asia and Europe.  Walnut Creek CA: Left Coast Press.

Ryder M.L. (1992). Wool fibres in cloth remains throw light on fleece evolution. Circaea, 9, 1, pp.7-9.