Killing a sheep and cutting off its skin to provide clothing is obviously a skill humans have been honing for thousands of years, since we skinned many animals to clothe us, and ate the meat, used the bones to create tools and rarely discarded any part of the animal.
Such a jacket, as the one above, currently costs just under £1000. Up to 45 animals might be used to make such a coat. But then the wearer will be well protected from bitter cold as the sheep were when they were alive.
Creating wool yarn from shorn sheep has been developing for thousands of years as tools became more efficient to do the job. The Hittites were the forerunners of the Iron Age, developing the manufacture of iron artifacts from as early as the 18th century BC; at this time, gifts from the “man of Burushanda” of an iron throne and an iron sceptre to the Kaneshite king Anitta were recorded in the Anitta text inscription.The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, Turkey houses the richest collection of Hittite and Anatolian artifacts.
The Iron Age (final technological and cultural stage in the Stone–Bronze–Iron Age sequence. The date of the full Iron Age, in which this metal for the most part replaced bronze in implements and weapons, varied geographically, beginning in the Middle East and southeastern Europe about 1200 BCE but in China not until about 600 BCE.) was the period when shearing sheep could be mastered with the apporopriate tool, the shears.
Sheep were first domesticated over 10,000 years ago and raised as a food source in Central Asia. Shearing sheep did not begin until 3500 B.C. when man learned to spin the sheep’s wool. The production of wool is the oldest trade commodity known to man. The wool industry is mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible and was the first widespread international trade throughout ancient civilizations.
In the New World, most of the explorations organized by Queen Isabella of Spain were financed through her wool trading business. In the 1400’s, she paid for the voyages of Columbus and the conquistadors with profits from sheep shearing. The sheep were also used as a food source for Columbus and he left sheep in the New World when he sailed to Santo Domingo and Cuba. These sheep, known as Churras, became the ancestors of American sheep and were bred by the Navajo tribe for food and wool. The link to the Navajo tribe current traditional methods are shown here on YouTube.
According to the World Atlas:
One major reason for the high wool production in China is the political and economic importance that is placed on it by the ethnic minorities who live in the pastoral region. In some of the districts in this region, wool is the major source of income. The second reason why China produces about 18% of the world’s wool is its significance in the textile and clothing industries in the country. In fact, China is currently the world’s largest and 2nd largest exporter of clothing and textiles respectively. China also has very large farms for sheep to graze on.
There is great attention made to the breeding and selection of sheep in China to maintain the proficacy and seasonal adaptability in the sheep rearing regions. The Hu sheep are a case in point.
Hu sheep are well recognized for the beautiful wavy lambskins, early sexual maturity, aseasonal breeding, prolificacy and the adaptability to a hot and humid climate. Hu sheep are raised indoors all year round.
Hu sheep were originated from Mongolian sheep. As early as in the Song Dynasty(AD 420-479) Mongolian sheep were introduced from the pastoral region of North China to the Taihu lake basin which borders the present provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu. Hu sheep became to being as a result of a long process of acclimatization and artificial selection. Hu sheep are distributed in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces and the suburbs of Shanghai.
Hawick, in the Scottish Borders, was famous around the world for Wool and Cashmere clothing. The famous mills around the River Teviot and Slitrig are mostly silent now since overseas competition destroyed the industry here, the mill machinery sold to Chinese interests. But beautiful garments are still being hand crafted in Scotland.
Where I live, Cheviot sheep are the dominant breed, and have been over Scotland since the Year of the Sheep. It was their wool which supplied the wool mills around Scotland. My husband has ancestors who lived in Caithness, North East Scotland. They were evicted from their farmland in the 18th century to make way for sheep. The sheep grazed on the land they once farmed to provide for their families, but those evicted were forced to live in a hostile cliff edge at Badbea. Many highlanders were sent to the Americas on ships which had been used in the slave trade. This was an era when wealth was being created for the few rather than the many, and wool and meat production had priority. But those cast off their land were legally prohibited from obtaining meat of any kind off the land, and certainly did not benefit from the warmth of fine knitted cloths woven from the yarns made from Cheviot sheep coats.
Cheviot sheep originated in the Cheviot Hills on the border of Scotland and England. They produce 1/7th of the total wool production in Scotland. Cheviot wool, known for its durability, is used in socks, sweaters, blankets and wool tweeds for jackets and fine suiting material. These sheep originated in Scotland but are now found in many other countries, including the United States and Canada.
Scotland still retains its variety of Tartan designs which maintain their popularity worldwide. The Cheviot sheep wool supplies are still important, but during the Covid pandemic, prices dropped to silly prices. It was hardly worth the effort of bagging the wool after shearing in the summer.
These beautiful sheep are a pleasure to gaze upon, from lambs to grown ewes. The male tups are strong and magnificent. But farming is hard work in the tough landscapes of the high fells, and the economics of farming seem to be getting tougher all the time. Plus, we now have to consider the impact of climate change. Extremes of weather are affecting the livestock.
One of the ironies of the climate emergency is that hot weather encourages greater use of resources – more shelter and storage room to protect livestock and crops, more fertiliser and more irrigation – all while delivering less produce. In less developed countries, global warming has already made agriculture more difficult if not impossible across large areas of land, leading to food shortages, conflict and mass migration. Recent summers show that Wales isn’t ready for even the minimum level of warming predicted this century.
We have grown used to the reliability of seasonal changes in Britain – but now, as in most countries around the world, Nature is throwing us extremes of weather which leave us battered and broken.
Migrations of people from all over the world are moving in their thousands to seek more stable and safer environments, but no land mass is untouched by climate impacts. Farmers are finding it difficult to plan their futures, finding it harder to imagine their descendants could continue to work the land they have inhabited for centuries. The future is uncertain for all life on earth, so we must cherish and not waste what we have today. We can find solutions for all the inhabitants of this planet if we take care of one another and shoulder responsibility for our actions which need to benefit and not harm those who follow after us.
Moving to Environmentally Safe Textile Production
As we know, sheep, just like cows, emit large quantities of methane gas, which has several times the global warming potential of CO2. The 2017 Pulse of Fashion Industry Report put wool in the fourth place on its list of the fashion materials that had the highest cradle-to-gate environmental impact per kg of material. We can see a revolution is taking place as young people in the fashion industry turn to innovative, circular fashion processes which are economical and practical.