The Woollen Ages: A short history of British heritage wool
Did you know that every time you knit or crochet, you’re carrying on traditions that stretch back as far as 10,000 BC? From protecting primitive natives from the cold and rain to becoming the cosy fashion statements lining the shelves of the high street today, sheep shearing and wool production has been an integral part of British economy for thousands of years.
The Woollen Ages
In the middle ages, wool was one of England’s most important outputs, being exported to countries throughout Europe and production was at its wooly peak by early 13th century, when English wool farmers were making great profits. During this time King Edward III even commanded that the Lord Speaker in the House of Lords sit on a wool bale, known as ‘The Woolsack’ as a symbol of the importance of wool trade to the economy during this time. This tradition was carried on until 2006!
However, gloomy times for wool production arose by the late 14th century as the seemingly never ending Hundred Years War (1337-1453) between England and France meant that export taxes on wool were carried out as a key source of funding the war. Wool trade was also heavily affected during this time by the unprecedented occurrence of the the dreaded bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, which claimed the lives of up to three quarters of UK villagers from 1348 to 1350. This wipe out meant there were not enough people left on the land to cultivate it for arable crops and so the poor sheep were left to fend for themselves…
But not to worry, the Britons soon got back in the saddle and brought wool manufacturing back to life with more and more specialised and localised wool production processes. By the end of the fifteenth century England was largely a nation of sheep farmers and cloth manufacturers’.
The Industrial Yarn-olution
Incredible mechanical revolution brought huge changes for the wool industry. Traditional manufacturing methods were turned around and new inventions came from the Lancashire cotton industry, mechanizing and speeding up the spinning and weaving process. These new inventions were not entirely faced with happy reactions from all parties, as some artisans felt that they threatened to put them out of work. In 1812, the Luddite riots occurred, where equipment was destroyed by a band of angry workers. Check out Channel 4’s ‘The Mill’, a historical drama series based on the lives of young workers at a northern-England mill, where new mechanical inventions are being introduced.
World War Knitting
During both World War I and II, outfitters were faced with huge demand for woolen garments that they were unable to meet. Women across the UK therefore put their needles together and formed knitting societies, influenced by war-time slogans such as ‘If you can knit – you can do your bit’ to knit warm and cosy pieces, such as socks, sweaters and wristlets for the boys at war. The government even issued state-approved knitting patterns through the Red Cross to ensure they were suitable for the conditions. Sirdar Wool Company produced specially dyed colours suitable for service, such as khaki and navy. If you’re a fan of the Kitchener Stitch, it might also interest you to know that this was created during the First World War by Lord Kitchener as a response to problems soldiers experienced with uncomfortable sock seams leaving them with painful feet. The stitch gave the socks a smooth finish making them much more comfortable to wear. Read more about the Kitchener Stitch here.
British Yarn Today – A Wool Renaissance
The production of British wool saw a major decline from the 1970s to the start of the millennium with the introduction of acrylic yarns. But not all British yarn brands gave up. Thomas B Ramsden & Co is the parent company that owns brand names such as, ‘Wendy’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Robin’ and ‘Twilleys of Stamford’, from the 1980′ and into the early 1990s many companies went out of business and disappeared, however, Ramsden stuck around and grew rapidly. ‘We wanted a good British/Yorkshire yarn, but we always think about price point for our retailers and we feel that for a pure British yarn with a good shade collection we have achieved that.’
Sirdar is another brand that stayed firmly within its British roots. The company established itself as a spinning company in Ossert by the Harrap brothers, Tom and Henry in 1880, originally using only wool fibres. After a successful ten years it moved to its current site in Alverthorpe, Wakefield. By 1934 “the company was being run by Tom’s son Fred and he decided that the future of the business should be dedicated to spinning hand knitting yarns and selling them directly to independent retailers. Consequently he needed a strong brand name and chose Sirdar, meaning leader, after Lord Kitchener’s appointment as Sirdar of the Egyptian Army”. Today, Sirdar continues to understand the importance of producing British wool “today’s fashion is returning to natural fibres with the emergence of beautiful new fibres such as bamboo and soya”.
In the last decade the revival of British produced wool has been a rapid one, with British mills seeing yearly increases in demand and huge increases in annual sales. Where has this sudden demand come from? Catwalks across the globe. Luxury fashion houses, from Burberry to Chanel are producing clothing made of high quality wool, which means less man-made in China and more au-naturale! Additionally, the increased interest in preserving the environment and decreasing our carbon footprint is educating a new audience in the importance of where our food and belongings come from. We asked knitting blogger Karie Westermann why she uses British wool:
“I’m a big fan of supporting local knitting communities and yarn producers. Britain has such a long history of wool production (it was “the white gold” of Medieval Britain!) and people don’t often think about that. So much of Britain’s past was tied to wool production and textiles – it’d be nice to see that heritage carry on in the 21st century. I have yarn where I know the name of the sheep and the person who sheared it! Isn’t that wonderful? I also love how yarn companies have worked closely together with British wool producers to make stunning yarns. British wool doesn’t mean itchy or scratchy – nor does it mean paying a lot of money. It is good quality, has a real story to tell, it’s part of British wool heritage and it supports local communities. What could be better?”
Knitting, as well as British wool production, is now making its fabulous re-birth, with knitting circles (known as Knit and Natter and Stitch ‘n’ bitch) becoming more and more common across the world, a Shetland Wool week, Prince Charles’ Campaign for Wool (launched in 2008 promoting the importance of using natural, renewable and biogradable wool) and the British Wool Marketing Board has even introduced a new educational website for school children to teach them about the importance of wool, find out more information here. Oh and we can’t forget the yarn-bombing that’s taking the world by storm! So next time you use a lovely ball of British wool, don’t forget to think about the incredible history that it holds.
British yarns on LoveKnitting
There are plenty of British Heritage yarns available for you to keep traditions alive. Why not try some of the following available at LoveKnitting.
Masham by King Cole
Masham is a 100% British breed super-wash wool available in a variety of lovely colours.
Blue Faced Leicester by Debbie Bliss
A beautiful 100% sheepswool from a heritage British sheep breed, it’s easy to see why we love Debbie Bliss Blue-Faced Leicester Aran so much… she’s produced fantastic patterns for it too!
Nestled in the original home of the British spinning industry, West Yorkshire Spinners create their magical yarn using the best local raw materials, the latest technology and most importantly, generations of expertise. Gorgeously soft Bluefaced Leicester fleece and other British types are masterfully spun to produce yarns that are strong, warm and delicious to wear – in 4ply, DK and aran weights. Reflecting the British culture and countryside around them, their ranges and delicious colour palettes are inspired by local wildlife and traditions, from the Country Birds collection to their brilliant Sweet Shop and Spice Rack ranges!
British Sheep Undyed by Rowan
Perfect for rugged outerwear designs, Rowan British Sheep Breeds Chunky Undyed knitting yarn is spun in its own beautiful natural shades – no dyeing and no stripping of the wool’s natural lanolin oils! The different shades come from six classic British sheep breeds: Jacob’s Sheep, Welsh, Blue-Faced Leicester, Shetland Moorit, Masham and Suffolk. Purelife is Rowan’s range of knitting yarns produced with the environment in mind: shorn, spun and sold in Britain, British Sheep Breeds reduce ‘wool miles’ and help to keep our British sheep flocks alive.
Wendy Traditional Aran
As the name suggests this is a very traditional yarn. Made using 100% British wool, it is hardy, robust and great for outerwear. It has the sort of handle which takes you back to childhood, when your mum used to wrap you up in thick jumpers for winter!! A jumper in Traditional Aran will last a lifetime, this is one yarn that will always remain in Ramsden’s Classics. It is not super-wash wool so this yarn is also great for felting.
Jamieson’s brings you Shetland Spindrift, a 2-ply jumper weight yarn of 100% Shetland wool that knits up like 4 ply. Perfect for Fair Isle or stranded knitting, Shetland Spindrift is spun in the company’s own mill in the Shetland Isles, and dyed a rainbow of gorgeous colours for you to play with.
Do you enjoy knitting with British yarn? What makes it special for you?
Last updated: March 30th, 2015.