Friday, 28 December 2018

On the Origin of Sheep Fleeces by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life

My companion, Elinor Gotland, put her teacup into the sink.

"That was a good Christmas, Beaut. Now the last visitors have gone, we can spend the weekend cleaning the house and sorting out the recycling, then start on our New Year's resolutions."
Scooping up another armful of torn wrapping paper, I discovered an open box of chocolates and helped myself. 
"This is not the time for good resolutions, Elinor. When the days grow short, it's human nature to eat, drink and be merry. I'll bet cave women just sat by their fires on long, dark evenings like these, telling stories, passing round the nibbles and doing their knitting."
Squirting washing up liquid into the running water, Elinor handed me a tea towel. 
"Knitting was only invented a couple of hundred years ago and anyway, back when people lived in caves, sheep didn't grow wool. Stop eating sweets and start drying up."
I waved an empty gin bottle at her.
"You really expect me to believe prehistoric sheep were bald? What exactly do you think happened - once upon a time, in a country far, far away, the first woolly lamb was born?" 
My companion passed me a wet plate.
"Pretty much, yes. The country was Mesopotamia and the time was about 6,000 years ago, which may not be perfectly exact, but archaeologists don’t dig up many woolly jumpers for carbon dating. Judging by fragments that have survived, and ancient statues, bones, pictures and carvings in stone, it seems likely that farmers have been keeping sheep and goats for at least 10,000 years, only, 10,000 years ago, sheep had coats made up of mixed hairs, more like goats.  Some of those ancient, wool-free types still exist, you know. All year round, Ovis Musimon looks much like a sheep that has just been very neatly shorn."

By Doronenko - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

I can think of some farmers round here who'd like a flock of Ovis Musimon. That would save them the trouble of shearing, having wool sacks stuffing up the barn until the Wool Marketing Board collect them and then waiting months to be paid about £2 a fleece."

My companion brandished a well scrubbed baking tray, sprinkling me with soapy water.
"And what would happen to those poor sheep out on the mountain? A fleece offers a considerable survival advantage at night, at altitude and in winter." My companion sighed. "I can't deny that today, the financial value of wool has plummeted, but prehistoric people in Mesopotamia had the sense to realise how incredibly important that first woolly lamb was to their survival, as well as their sheep." She paused to smooth a stray lock back from her face and twirled it round her hoof. "People have been spinning for at least 26,000 years. Long before wool existed, plant fibres were being twisted together to make cord and spun into thread for weaving cloth. Six thousand years ago, somebody in Mesopotamia – probably a woman who knew all about spinning plant fibres – looked at the wool that was shed by those odd, fuzzy sheep and thought to herself, I could spin that."
"Wouldn't she have had to shear the fleece?"
"Most unlikely. Older breeds of sheep alive today still grow a mixture of wool and hair, and they moult to shed their fleece in summer.  You know about ‘the rise’ - even modern breeds get a weakening of growth in their locks during late May or June. A wise farmer only rings to book the shearers when she sees the rise on her flock, because it's so much quicker and easier to clip than trying to chop through the strong growth from winter."

I nodded. I've seen the rise myself and the thinning within the fleece is quite dramatic. In early summer, modern breeds of sheep in Wales wander about with bare patches, where clumps of their wool have got caught on brambles and broken off at the rise.
"So, you're saying, back in Mesopotamia, the first woolly sheep probably moulted all their wool in summer and some clever woman picked it up from the pastures and decided to try spinning the fibres on her spindle?"
"Seems plausible to me, Beaut. You've tried spinning flax into linen thread, didn't go well, did it? I imagine our skilled, prehistoric plant spinner would have found wool was much easier."
As I polished a bundle of damp cutlery, I gave this idea a bit of thought. 

Locks of Wool and Fibres from Nettle Stems
The surface of wool is covered with tiny scales that interlock closely when you twist the fibres - they hold together instead of slithering apart. Unlike smooth, straight plant fibres, locks of wool are wiggly, they have ‘crimp’. The crimp in wool puffs up again after spinning, giving it body. Tiny spaces in between the wiggly, twisted wool fibres trap air, making the yarn lightweight, insulating and stretchy. It’s not a lot of good having rope or sewing thread that is bulky and elastic, but it’s much more comfortable to wear socks and jumpers with a bit of give in them, much warmer to wear clothes that hug your body and still let you move freely. 

By the time all the knives and forks were put back in the drawer, I was feeling quite excited. 
"Just think how pleased that Mesopotamian woman must have been when she realised how quickly she could spin wool compared to plant fibres and what potential her wool yarn had for making a different kind of fabric."
"Wool would have been Prehistoric high tech. Super new wool survival suits for the mountaineer. Next millenium's 'must have' tribal fashion. The ancient Mesopotamians went on to breed their wooliest sheep together and developed bigger and better flocks."
"So, how and when did wool bearing sheep get to Wales?"
Elinor pulled out the plug and watched the water drain away.
"Woolly sheep probably arrived here with Bronze Age immigrants about 4,000 years ago. But their journey is an epic tale for another time. A time when this house is tidy. Get the hoover out, Beaut."


  1. thank you for sharing this story, I had no idea when weaving of wool started

    1. I put it as a story, because I don't think anyone knows anything for sure - prehistory has to change its theories every time a new discovery is made. From what I've read, the working assumption of archeologists is that Neolithic people were intrinsically primitive in their thinking. The more that is rediscovered, the earlier we find techniques like weaving were being used and the more subtle and complex Neolithic lives appear to have been. Seems to me, if you could transport a Neolithic baby to today, it would have no trouble fitting in to whatever society brought it up. I doubt I'd cope half so well if the reverse happened to me.

  2. I think that spinning probably started much earlier - Indigenous Australians spun possum fur before Europeans invaded (and possum fur is short and really hard to spin). They've been here for 50-60,000 years.

    In Australia, we don't call it the 'rise' - it's a 'break' in the fleece, and caused by stress and/or a drop in feed quality. Lambing can cause a break. It's not a good thing, and good farmers work to prevent a break in fleeces - but as we get around $20/kg for a decent merino fleece these days, it's worth the effort.

    1. That's fascinating - both the possum spinning and the nature of Australian sheep fleeces. I guess that because your sheep have been bred for quality wool, the genes that cause the rise might have been selected out. The photo shows my hand on the rise on a Welsh Mountain breed on the day of shearing, not all the flock had such an obvious thinning, but it is something farmers in Wales use to time the shearing. We also get breaks in the staple when conditions are bad - a few years ago there was flooding locally in February and the sheep had restricted space to feed, come shearing, every hogg had a break in the staple at the same level.

  3. Excellent explicated. Thanks to both of you. And best wishes for a Happy New Year.

    1. Happy New Year, Elinor and I raise our glasses to you :)

  4. that one is so bossy sometimes:) but she does know her sheep from her goats - and the history to boot!
    hope you'll have a great start to the new year - and that the house is clean enough now to satisfy even your snarky companion:)

    1. The house never quite does reach Elinor's standard of cleanliness, but most of the time, neither of us notice. Here's to a New Year with far too many interesting things to do to bother much about tidying up!

  5. Thank you a very entertaining and educational piece. I enjoyed reading it.