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A Story of Wool as a Shelter

It's been a couple of months since our students built their own shelters to sleep in on our school camp, but this week something caused one of those little seeds that was sown in the children's imagination to germinate, and the interest in shelter has sparked to life. Books about housing, have been appearing around the classroom and children have been going out to gather materials to make models of a variety of abodes.

As wool is never far from my mind (or hands, or heart!) I couldn't resist this opportunity to tell my story of wool as a shelter. I have a particular soft spot for yurts as my family lived in one on our little homestead when my eldest was a toddler and my youngest arrived to join the family. Here is the story from my book The Work of Wool - A Montessori Handwork Album - hopefully it will spark some interest in your students too!

A Story of Wool as a Shelter

Do you remember how we talked about humans' fundamental needs and how we all need some kind of shelter or home? Early humans met this need by living in caves and then they started thinking of all sorts of clever ways to make homes that better suited their needs. Some made homes out of wood and some made homes out of stone or bricks or even mud – humans have so many inventive ideas. When we think of all these different types of home, they all have something in common – can you think what it is? They all stay in the place that they were built! For most of us that is a good thing, we really want our house to be in the same place all the time.

What if your lifestyle meant that you needed to move around a lot and so did the rest of your community? We know that the early humans were hunter-gatherers so they were always moving to find more food. They would have tried to find new shelters in each new place, but they could not always be sure a safe shelter would be available to them so they began making shelters they could carry with them. These shelters took different forms depending on the needs of the people and the weather. The Native Americans made their shelters by leaning poles together and then wrapping them in animal’s skins. The people in Northern Mongolia and Siberia had a similar idea, but the weather in this part of the world is very cold – they needed something more to keep them warm inside their shelters. Over many years, they developed a kind of circular tent called a yurt or Ger.

Yurts are made of wooden poles that criss-cross over each other to make a sturdy frame. This frame it then wrapped in a thick layer of wool felt. In the centre of the yurt there is a fireplace with a chimney that goes up through the hole in the top. Once the yurt is built and the fire is lit, the yurt warms up very quickly and the wool keeps the occupants lovely and cosy – even in the harsh Mongolian winters. Imagine a house made out of wool!

Yurts are such a clever design, that even though they date back to the time of Gengis Khan’s Mongol Empire in the twelfth century CE, they are still the most common type of habitat in Mongolia today. In the capital city of Ulaanbaatar more than half the population lives in yurts.

And it is not just the Mongolians who have houses made out of wool - many houses in Europe, Australasia and the USA have wool insulation in the walls and ceiling today. I bet if you asked around you would find someone you know has a house made out of wool!

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