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Published on August 26th, 2014 | by Jenni

46 comments

The Woollen Ages: A short history of British heritage wool

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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!

British Heritage Yarn - LoveKnitting Blog

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.

British Heritage Yarns - LoveKnitting blog

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 Heritage Yarns - LoveKnitting blog

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”.

British Heritage Yarns - LoveKnitting blog

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?”

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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

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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!

West Yorkshire Spinners

WYS_Mrkting_2_-_AireValleyDK(043)_BlueLeicesterAranPrints(877)_BlueLeicesterDKPrints(864)

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 Shetland Spindrift

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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?

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About the Author

is a craft fanatic with a love of sewing and an obsession with knitting bows. She loves baking cupcakes, discovering new countries and fashion.


Last updated: March 30th, 2015.

46 Responses to The Woollen Ages: A short history of British heritage wool

  1. Susan says:

    Hi, Sorry I just wanted to point out that “woollen” is spelt with 2 ‘L’s in Great Britain and spelt with 1 ‘L’ in America. Very interesting blog, thank you.

  2. Stephanie says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. very nicely done!

    • Jenni says:

      Thank you Stephanie! So glad you enjoyed it, it’s great to hear your feedback.

      Best wishes,

      Jenni

  3. Melanie says:

    Lovely article. Is there a difference between the King Cole Masham DK and the Misty Masham DK? According to your website, the first one is superwash but the second one (featured on the first page) is not. Is that correct?

    • Faith says:

      Hi Melanie!

      You’re right, King Cole Masham DK is a 100% British superwash wool, while Misty Masham DK is handwash. Misty Masham is also available in a range of muted pastel colours, while Masham DK are bold and rich.

      I hope this helps.

      All the best,

      Faith and the LoveKnitting team

  4. Diana Weber says:

    My British mother came to the U.S. when she married my G.I. father in 1947. She taught me to knit when I was 5, telling me proudly that she had learned to knit socks for the British Navy when she was 4. I’ve knit for Afghans for Afghans and other charity organizations, carrying on her habit of knitting for people who needed warm clothes, support or both.That’s only indirectly about British wool, but the point is that these traditions spread throughout the world and bring human kindness to many in need. That’s a good thing.

    • Cynthia Nolder says:

      Really enjoyed the article-I first learned to knit at 27 with wool yarn. Later, I learned about some of the British sheep breeds.

    • Faith says:

      Thank you for your lovely story, Diana! Its wonderful how knitting can spread through the world and brings happiness throughout!

      All the best,

      Faith

    • Robyn Webster says:

      Great work Diana. I think that anyone who does this type of charity work needs to be applauded as they tend to not get the recognition they deserve. I am curious though why the word “knitted” has dropped from our language. We used to say/write (using your text as an example “I’ve knitted for Afghans for Afghans…” but now say it how you have written it. Putting an “ed” on the end of a word makes is a verb so I find it odd that now the noun is used as both a noun and a verb in this instance. Strange. Please don’t think I’m negating your efforts in any way. Just thought I’d comment.

      • Janis Gange says:

        Robyn

        I think that is just another Americanism!

        • Judith says:

          Agree. Knitted is the past participle of knit in British English, and knit is the past participle in American English. Neither is right or wrong, they are just different. Just like the woollen/woolen difference, as above, amongst many others.

  5. I love British Yarn. In the 1940s, my aunt knit for Bundles for britian. She went to England every year before the war. In the winter, we wore wool bloomers to keep warm. I lived in Bermuda for a year and a half. I knitted all the time with British wool. I am 84 years old. I have been to the UK many times

    • Jenni says:

      Hi Margaret,

      It’s great to hear your story, how lovely that and that your Aunt knit for Bundles For Britain! British wool is lovely and it really is great for keeping warm isn’t it!

      All the best,

      Jenni

  6. Sophy Lewis says:

    Britain is to be commended for encouraging the use of natural fibres and for supporting its national wool industry. My Mum taught me how to knit when I was six, but I fell away from the craft in the early 1970s when so much yarn was nasty acrylic. My first visit to the UK in 1975, and exposure to wonderful Jacob wool in Wales, and BFL and Wensleydale in Yorkshire, encouraged me to use my knitting needles again. Different sheep breeds and the wonderful diversity of strong, soft, and renewable fibres they provide us are a resource we should protect and value. Thanks for your article!

    • Jenni says:

      Hi Sophy,

      Thank you for comments and sharing your story with us, it’s definitely a tradition worth keeping alive and we will try our best at LoveKnitting to do so! It’s great to hear that your visit to Britain got you knitting again!

      Thanks again and all the best,

      Jenni

  7. Amanda says:

    I miss living in the UK and having easy access to British yarn. We do have some British yarns in the States, such as Rowan and Debbie Bliss. Please keep,the tradition alive.

  8. Maylene says:

    As an Aussie I love to use our local Australian wools but it was lovely to see the history of the British wool industry. I really love knitting using traditional patterns such as Arans and Guernseys and as a navy wife during the 70s and 80s knitted some of those “War Patterns” for my husband to use while he was refueling at sea on the HMAS Supply at night in rather cold conditions!

    • Jenni says:

      Hi Maylene,

      Thank you for your comments and sharing your story! I am sure your husband appreciated those warm comforts out at sea. Australian wool also has a great history, it’s important to keep these traditions and trades alive!

      Best wishes,

      Jenni

  9. Mu Miller says:

    My mother did endless knitting for the troops. When my brother and I were taken to the cinema out would come Mum’s knitting and she could turn the heel of a sock in the dark no problem. She grafted the toes so no seams.
    She also bought ‘off coupons’ short lengths of darning wool, spliced the lengths and knitted us gloves.
    Any garment too small was pulled down, skeined, washed and reknitted.
    I’m pretty good at knitting but not as good as she was.

    • Jenni says:

      Hi Mu,

      Thank your for sharing your story, it’s really interesting to hear! Knitting in the dark is to be commended!!

      Best wishes,

      Jenni

  10. Dianne Roberts says:

    Just wanted to know what the beautiful jacket pattern was in the email, it looks sort of tweedy with the main body in moss (American seed) stitch with the yoke and welt areas in a pattern? Any chance of having this as a download please?

  11. lena says:

    Great read, but Karie Westermann is not british at all, although she lives in Scotland, she is most defintely DANISH, lol!!!

    • Jenni says:

      Hi Lena,

      You’re right, Karie is from Denmark. However, it was meant to imply that she is blogging from Britain, I have edited it so that we don’t confuse anyone 🙂

      Thanks and best wishes,

      Jenni & the LoveKnitting Team

    • Karie says:

      Hi Lena,

      This made me laugh! I am Danish (that’s what my passport tells me!) but I have lived in Britain on-and-off since the mid-1990s. At this stage I’m very happily bi-cultural 😉

      Many thanks for reclaiming me for Denmark 🙂

      Karie x

  12. Elsie Blount says:

    I love this article, it is lovely that British history of knitting is being shared with another generation.
    I have a few similar patterns, along with some that cost ‘coupons’. These I must stress were given to me as I was not born until after WW2. I still use these today.

    I would like to share this family story with you – the Australian late husband of a cousin of my husband’s was trained as a wool grader, and all his exams were based on English sheep and wool. BUT he had never seen an English sheep, so when they took a trip to England some years ago, we took them to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire to see all the sheep there. When we arrived the family were of course stunned by the fabulous house, but where was all the sheep? yes that’s right, although there are thousands, they had all taken that time to hide !!!! .
    But he did actually see some before leaving, one of many highlighters of his trip.

    • Jenni says:

      Hi Elsie,

      Thank you for your comments and sharing your lovely story with us. It’s great that he finally got to meet the great British sheep, even if they were being a bit ‘sheepish’ 🙂

      All the best,

      Jenni

  13. Rosemary says:

    Hi Jenni, thank you for this interesting and informative read.
    I followed some of the links highlighted and really enjoyed learning more.
    I began knitting when I was about 5 and wool in those days was itchy. My Mum and I turned to the “wonder yarns” of nylon and courtelle mixes, but nowadays I’ve completely reverted to the wonderful British wools.
    I can’t believe how soft and lovely they are to work with, or the range and variety.
    Best wishes, Rosemary

    • Jenni says:

      Hi Rosemary,
      Thank you for your lovely comments and sharing your story. I think many people are surprised by just how soft the natural wools are now! And it’s fabulous to keep such a long-standing and incredible tradition alive.
      Best wishes,
      Jenni

  14. Sue Kalab says:

    I enjoyed your story. Here in Australia, our woollen mills closed down and now there are only 2 remaining. Most wool available in our yarn shops is milled in China, Turkey, and some from Italy. I’ve just last week read Ken Follett’s “World Without End”, his historical novel about the wool production, spinning and dyeing in England in the 1300s and the Black Death as described in your blog, so it’s quite pertinent for me. Just a correction: 1980s and 1990s don’t need an apostrophe. (I’m a member of the AAA, Australian Apostrophe Association – joking)

    • Ooh, I’m going to order that book right away! I love Ken Follett books and not read that one yet, I love any books about the wool trade or indeed any crafts, along with a great storyline!

  15. Carol O says:

    I remember as a kid my mother would go to the post office to buy 10/- (English ten shilling) postal notes. She would save them up until she had enough to send to Bradford manufacturers for an order of wool. You were only allowed to buy 2 postal notes a day but most people didn’t have much money in the 50s & 60s anyway. So it could take quite a while to save up, then send the order form and wait for it to arrive. Because of the freight, she would order enough for 2 or 3 garments. The wool received was fabulous quality and Mum reckoned it was actually cheaper than buying it here in NZ. She also maintained that NZ sent its best fleece to Bradford and she could never understand why wool was expensive to buy here.

    • Jenni says:

      Hi Carol,

      Thank you for sharing your story, it is so interesting to hear! Do you yourself knit with British yarn?

      All the best,

      Jenni

  16. Hazel@Wooligans says:

    Hi there. Thank you for the interesting article. I’m soon to become a grandmother and have been designing some knitted toys for the new arrival. I am looking for a wool yarn that is soft to the touch but strong and durable and not prone to pilling and I wonder what you would recommend. I have been making the prototypes in acrylic with polyester stuffing, but this is not what I want for the final creation and so also need to source some wool stuffing. I should be most grateful for your suggestions and possible sources, hopefully of British products, Thank you.

    • Pauline Robson says:

      Hi there,
      What you need to satisfy all those requirements (as well as being naturally hypoallergenic) is British alpaca. There are many more British alpaca keepers out there than you might expect who are producing top quality yarn which is wonderfully soft and perfect for a baby. The toy stuffing can also be alpaca fibre as there is always 2nd quality fibre available which is great for that job. There are even a number of producers in Scotland who would be delighted to assist you in sourcing exactly what you need and alpaca isn’t always as expensive as you might think.
      All the best.

      • Claudia May says:

        Thank you for your comments. Lots of information I didn’t know about alpaca, such as being naturally hypoallergenic.

        Smiles,

        Claudia May (USA)

  17. Renee Cromton says:

    In last week’s blog on the history of British yarn there was a side bar article on the Godrun & Godrun legal battle on Sarah Lund’s jumper. You gave two examples of this sweater to knit. One from king Cole, which I found on your website. What was the other?
    Please let me know.
    Incidentally I do own an original Godrun & Godrun Sarah Lund sweater. A beauty and so,so light.
    I love your blog. One of the only one I read all the time.
    Thanks
    Renee, from Ottawa, Canada

  18. wpggal says:

    I am a member of PETA. I’m wondering if your animals are sheared without cruelty, thanx.

  19. Coral says:

    Have thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. I love wool, and have all my life, and am a spinner of yarn and a knitter. I don’t think I would ever lose my passion for wool. I live in New Zealand, so believe me, there is no shortage of sheep 🙂

  20. Di Bunn says:

    Love your blog do New Zealand still send there wool to be spun to England

  21. Ellen says:

    I am an American, but of thoughly Welsh descent on my mother’ s side. It is pretty easy for me to buy a wide selecton of British wools in my area, but I am always on the lookout for yarns of identifiably Welsh origin and breeds, as all of those Welsh ancestors were sheep farmers.
    My grandmother knit Red Cross socks during World War 1, and one last ball of that wool, circa 1918, survived into the 90’s, when I incorporated it into a Fair Isle sweater for my daughter Bronwyn. It was very sturdy stuff!

  22. Gloria says:

    Enjoyed the history about wool it was informative because of my interest in aran & fisherman knits. I need a big favor was going to mail you a letter now perhaps this message will give me the answer I need. Months ago you offered a gorgeous pattern the name of the pattern was ENGLISH 18 Sweater the materials were PHIL THALASSA I did not receive the entire instructions my printer stopped and I did not receive the copies of the charts. If possible I’am willing to purchase the pattern. Looking forward to hearing from LOVE KNITTING. Thank you!!! Gloria HIll

  23. Rosemary says:

    Thanks so much for all the amazingly interesting historical info. It is great to know this stuff! I love knitting and history!

  24. Denise says:

    Great article!! Always interested in the history of knitting in different parts of the world. I learned to knit in grade school, but had my skills perfected while stationed with the Navy in Iceland by a local woman. We could not speak each other’s language, but knitting made us fast friends to this day over 20 years ago. The wool from the Icelandic sheep is like no other wool, soft, light and extremely warm to withstand the cold, hard winds of Iceland.

  25. Sallie says:

    Great to see your article. I love knitting with british wool and will be adding to my stash when I go to Yarndale in the autumn. Incidentally saw some Soay sheep yesterday which is unusual for where I live in the UK. Great to see the different sheep breeds.

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