To simplify a complicated matter, there are two major kinds of cloth made from wool fibers: worsted and woolen. What's the difference? Well, worsted wools feel firm to the touch and have minimum fuzziness and nap. This is because they are made from longer wool fibers, and undergo a more intricate manufacturing process than woolens. Good examples of worsted fabrics are gabardines and crepes and make for good wool suiting fabrics.

By contrast, woolens have a random arrangement of fibers that gives them more bulk and a soft, fuzzy surface. Homespun, tweed, flannel wool, and Shetland wool are well known varieties of woolen yarn fabrics.

That was the broad classification. There is another kind of classification of wool based on the age of the animal from which it is sheared. Hence, wool from live sheep, called fleece, is superior to pulled wool, which is removed from dead animals. Therefore, pulled wool has more humble uses in blankets, felts, and flannels, for instance. A third kind, lamb's wool, comes from lambs under eight months old, and is often used in fine woolens.

Even a layperson has probably heard of Merino wool, which is the finest quality wool - extracted from Merino sheep. Here's an interesting trivia: the fibers of Merino wool are so fine that a string of them a mile long would weigh only 0.01 ounce! Though the breed originated in Spain, the finest Merino wools now come from Australia, where sheep breeding has attained new heights. However, South America and South Africa also produce Merino wool. England, New Zealand and South America also breed sheep by crossing Merino sheep with other types.

In the US, too, wool comes from crossbred sheep such as Corriedale, Southdown, Shropshire, Dorset, and Hampshire. While domestic wools come from the Eastern and Midwestern states, territory wools come from the Rocky Mountain plateau states, and southwestern wools from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California.

However, and this is an important fact: not all wool comes from sheep. Certain wools are made from specialty fibers from rare animals. Examples include mohair from goat kids, cashmere from Cashmere (Kashmir) goats of India and Tibet, camel hair, horsehair, and the hair of the llama, musk ox, cow, Angora goat, Angora rabbit, and even the common rabbit.

As you can see, therefore, wool fabric types are enormously varied. Even so, we'll give you an idea of some of the popular types:

 • Flannel wool is a soft, lightweight fabric with a nap on one or both sides
 • Gabardine is tightly woven wool twill with a high sheen. It makes an excellent wool suiting fabric
 • Homespun is a loose, strong, durable woolen woven either by hand or machine
 • Tweed is a rough textured wool, originally homespun and slightly felted
 • Virgin wool is wool that has never been processed into fabric
 • Cashmere comes from the down of the Kashmir goat. It is an expensive, sensuous fabric and can be blended with silk, cotton, or other kinds of wool
 • Alpaca fleece is very rich and silky with a brilliant sheen
 • Mohair comes from the Angora goat and is highly resilient and lustrous.
 • Vicuna, a fabric named after an animal of the same name of the llama family, is the softest coat cloth in the world. Since the animal is killed to obtain the fleece, rigorous conservation laws protect it. Naturally, therefore, the fiber is rare and highly expensive


Ever heard of a place called Tarentum? Well, in Roman times, this town was renowned as a wool-producing center of some repute. As you can imagine, therefore, wool and human civilization go back a pretty long way. In fact, the earliest European woolen textile, dating back to 1500 BC, has been found preserved beneath a bog in Denmark.

Wool as a raw material has been easily available ever since man first began to domesticate sheep and goats, and scholars have found evidence of the use of felted or woven wool in clothing and other apparel in some of the earliest European civilizations. In fact, wool was being used in Asia Minor as far back as the Stone Age -- about 10,000 years ago - and inhabitants of the Mesopotamian Plain used sheep for food, clothing and shelter. As man learned to weave, woolens became established as items of export from Babylon.

However, the extraction of raw wool can't have been an easy task before the invention of shears - which were probably discovered in the Iron Age - because, rather revoltingly, the wool was plucked out by hand or by bronze combs. Nevertheless, in the glory days of Tarentum, wool was a major component of garments across Europe, since both cotton from India and silk from China were considered luxuries. In Tarentum, breeders had selectively bred sheep with a superior fleece, which required special care.

As sheep-rearing spread, so did the popularity of wool. Between 3000 and 1000 BC the Persians, Greeks and Romans carried sheep and wool across Europe. In fact, the Romans 'globalized' sheep, as it were, as they built their Empire in Spain, North Africa, and the British Isles. As early as 50 AD, Romans established a wool plant in modern Winchester, England.

The Saracens from Arabia followed the Romans into Spain in the eighth century AD and set up a thriving wool trade with North Africa, Greece, Egypt and Constantinople. After the Normans conquered Greece in the 12th century, they introduced wool weaving to Italian centers like Florence, Genoa, Palermo and Venice.

Meanwhile, in Spain, the wool trade was still flourishing, so much so that it helped finance the voyages of Christopher Columbus and the Conquistadors. So jealously did the Spanish royalty protect the trade that anyone exporting sheep without royal permission risked the death penalty until 1786. That same year, King Louis XVI of France imported nearly 400 Merino ewes to cross with sheep on his estate at Rambouillet. The result, of course, was the celebrated Rambouillet breed, known for its fine, long-staple wool.

Taking its cue from Spain, England too banned raw wool exports. In 1377 King Edward III banned the import of woven goods and domestic weaving of foreign wools. Instead, he invited Flemish weavers fleeing the Spanish invasion to settle in England, thus creating a hugely successful English wool-manufacturing industry. So successful that by 1660, wool textile exports formed two-third of England's international trade.

Elsewhere in the world, the warmth of wool was spreading as well. Columbus brought sheep to Cuba and Santo Domingo in 1493, and Hernando Cortez took sheep with him when he explored parts of modern Mexico and southwestern USA. Now you know why Navajo and other Southwest Indian tribes are noted for their beautiful woolen rugs and wall hangings.

Coming to North America, however, the history of wool is slightly more complicated. England's King Henry VIII (yes, the much-married monarch) began a chain of reactions when he seized flocks of sheep belonging to monasteries and redistributed them among his favorites. The resultant unemployment among shepherds caused many to be imprisoned for debt and was a major factor behind many of them eventually deciding to immigrate to America.

Naturally, England tried to prevent the growth of a wool industry in North America, but by 1665, a few smuggled sheep had grown to flocks that totaled about 100,000. So great was the new industry's potential that Massachusetts even passed a law requiring young people to spin and weave. Interestingly, the eldest unmarried daughter in the family performed most of the spinning duties, thus giving birth to the word "spinster." Also, spun yarn was wound on a reel (called 'weasel') that made a popping sound when a pre-set yardage was reached. Hence - 'pop goes the weasel'.

England's kings wouldn't give up, however. King George III made wool trading in all colonies a punishable offense, with the offender's right hand liable to be cut off. Despite this and other draconian measures, however, the wool industry prospered in America. Both the 'gentlemen farmer' Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson bred flocks of sheep, and inventions like the spinning jenny, combing machines and water-powered looms caused the industry to grow rapidly.

Inevitably, at the turn of the 18th century, pioneers carried the industry to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, which have become some of the world's most successful wool-producing regions today. For a long time, in fact, Australia's economy was dependent on wool production, and even today, it contributes about 25% of the world's wool, while New Zealand comes in second with about 18%.

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