As those of you in the Northern hemisphere begin your new school year your minds will all be turning to the Great Stories which set the scene for Cosmic Education. I would like to suggest that you also set the scene for the year's Handwork with one of its own Great stories. If children are going to be working with wool, they should first be offered some insights into its history and the important relationships past human have had with it.
Below is my Story of the History of Wool. I don't use any pictures with the story and find children are able to imagine it well enough but you certainly could - I'd love to hear which ones you choose and how the children respond.
I shared this with the teachers in my school last year and one of them came back to me and said that he had given each child a piece of roving (washed, carded but unspun wool) to hold as he told the story. The children had loved being able to physically connect to the subject of the story whilst listening to its tale.
Remember - tell it, don't read it - it doesn't need to be word for word, just give the children a feeling of wonder and appreciation for this precious substance.
The Story Of The History Of Wool
The story of wool is perhaps as old as the story of human beings, perhaps older still. When those first early humans killed a wild sheep for its meat and realised they could also use the animal’s woolly skin to protect their own bodies from both the heat of the day and the cold of the night, they had created the first woollen garments.
Do you remember how we talked about Mesopotamia, that ancient place between two rivers where humans first settled? The early farmers there kept sheep and wore sheepskins as clothes as far back as 6000BCE. We still use sheepskins today, and if you have ever worn one as a coat or sat on a sheepskin rug, you will know they are very thick and cosy. But they are also very heavy and can be a little stiff to wear, which can make them a little uncomfortable, especially if you live in a place like Mesopotamia where it can get very hot as well as very cold. We know that human beings are inventive and are always looking for better ways to do things. Well the Mesopotamians found a new way to use the fibre from their sheep.
We don’t know exactly how it came about, but historians think that about 1000 years after the first farms were formed, the people of Mesopotamia found they could cut the wool from their sheep and use it to make cloth. This was a great discovery as it meant they did not have to kill the sheep in order use the fibres and the same sheep could give more wool year after year. And so the Mesopotamian farmers became the first people to shear sheep and use the wool. They didn’t spin it or weave it at first; maybe they hadn’t thought of that yet. The ancient Mesopotamians used the wool to make felt. Wool, in the form of felt, and later as woven wool fabric, became one of the two most important trade products for Mesopotamia. They traded it with far-away countries in all directions – reaching India, Africa and the Mediterranean.
The Ancient Greeks also kept sheep and used them for wool, meat and milk. They wove the wool into large rectangles that they wore as cloaks in the daytime and laid them over themselves as blankets at night.
And do you remember we talked about the Ancient Romans having a very special reddy-purple dye called Tyrian Royal that came from shellfish? Even its name sounds grand, doesn’t it? Well it was grand, it was very beautiful and very expensive and only the most important and wealthy Romans could wear it. To show their power and status, they had the stripes on their wool togas died this special purple. The Ancient Romans also realised that different kinds of sheep produced different kinds of wool. They became very selective about the type of sheep they kept, only breeding from the best ones to produce the finest wools. When the Roman Empire grew they took their special sheep with them, breeding more and more and spreading them throughout Europe.
The Spanish were also very selective about the types of sheep they kept. Have you heard of Merino wool? If you have, then you might know that it is a particularly fine wool that can make thin clothing that is soft enough to wear right next to your skin without being itchy. Well, merino wool was developed in Spain in the 700’s and, because it was such fine wool, it was very valuable. The Spanish traded merino wool all over Europe but they would never trade a merino sheep as then other people would be able to produce their special wool. In fact, the Spanish government passed a law to say that taking merino sheep out of Spain was punishable by death!
Wool became one of England’s most important industries too; the English farm owners would sell the raw wool to a place called Flanders which is now in France and Belgium. There, the skilled weavers would make the wool into cloth and sell it all over Europe.
But in 1349 England was struck by a terrible illness called the bubonic plaque - people referred to it as ‘The Black Death’ as it killed so many people. In many villages as much as three quarters of the population died. This meant that there were not enough labourers left to plant and tend crops and huge areas of land were going unfarmed. The solution was to increase the numbers of sheep, which take much less effort to farm than crops do, and produce more wool. But why stop at just producing the raw wool? The English worked hard to develop their own methods of weaving so they could make their own cloth rather than buy it from the people of Flanders that they had sold the raw wool to in the first place.
By the end of the fifteenth century, the English people’s main occupations were farming sheep, spinning wool and weaving cloth. Different areas of the country specialised in different kinds of wool and cloth, and the quality was so high that they were able to sell it all over the world.
When European explorers like Christopher Columbus and Captain Cook began sailing the seas and exploring new lands, they took sheep with them, both for food and wool. The wool industry spread far and wide to the Americas, Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Then in the 18th century something happened that changed the history of wool, and many other trades forever. People started inventing machines that could clean, brush, spin and weave wool much faster than people could do it by hand. This meant more money for the owners of the wool and the factories but less work for the people who were used to doing all these jobs by hand. There were lots of protests and even riots as people were afraid for their livelihood - it was called the Industrial Revolution and it affected many other industries as well as wool.
Gradually the new methods of producing wool products became accepted and nearly all the wool garments we can buy in shops now are produced in these factories. The old methods of spinning and weaving wool by hand still exist but they are done more for love than for money.
Wool is truly an important part of the history of our civilisation. The next time you get that snuggly feeling of pulling a lovely woollen blanket over your shoulders as you fall asleep, you will know that the people of Ancient Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia and even the very early humans had that same feeling.
There! I hope you and your students enjoy it - please let me know how it goes.
Photo by Roy & Danielle (Dyed wool - Salinas) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons