The most important fiber of animal origin is the wool of the domestic sheep. There are many animals whose hairy coverings are used for textile fabrics, but the sheep furnishes the most typical wool fiber. The alpaca, vicuna, llama, camel, angora goat, are some of the other animals which produce valuable libers. To these may be added the rabbit, beaver, and other fur-bearing animals.
The use of wool for spinning and weaving reaches far back into prehistoric times. Just when or how man discovered the possibility of spinning we do not know. The bones of the sheep are often found with the bones of prehistoric man, showing that it was early a domestic animal; and it seems probable that because of its easy adaptability to spinning, wool was the first fiber so used. Also, because man doubtless used the skins of animals for clothing, the matting of the fibers on the pelt might well have suggested the use of the fibers without the skin. Certain authorities, however, hold that wool spinning began with the Egyptians, and that they first spun flax; therefore, when they began to spin wool after the manner of flax they produced the smooth, even thread later known as worsted, rather than the fuzzy thread of woolen. The Egyptians perhaps used flax first, but this would not seem to prove that all races did; nor can it be proved that the Egyptians were the first people to spin wool, although as far as can be discovered the textile arts reached in Egypt the highest development at so early a period.
Sheep belong to the order Ruminantia, class Ovid‘, and there are many varieties. Cultivation has improved the character of the fiber, which is of two kinds: true wool, which is soft and curly; and hair, usually longer and stiff. The distinction between wool and hair and the different kinds of wool will be discussed more fully later.
Sheep are indigenous to almost all parts of the world, and the spinning of woolen yarn has been carried on by primitive people in a great many different countries. In history we find mention of the woolen industry from earliest Bible times. "The oldest authentic references available to us in regard to spinning and weaving are those in the Book of Job and in the Book of Exodus, which date from about 1600 years B.C." l
Pure white wool formed part of the commerce of Tyre, where it was dyed purple. White wool formed the tunic and the toga, as well as other garments, of the Roman, and many of the beautiful tapestries of the Middle Ages were of woolen yarn. The growth of the industry was gradual throughout the world up to the time of the Industrial Revolution, in the last half of the eighteenth century. The history of the development of the woolen industry and trade and of the machines invented for handling it is a long one, and has been written many times.
1 Priestman. Principles of Woolen Spinning, p. 2.
At the present time wool is raised in almost every country in the world, although grown only in small amounts in some countries. Australia, Argentina, and the United States lead in wool production, while Russia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the Ottoman Empire,1 and other countries follow. Although it is possible to raise wool in most climates or on almost any soil, the quality of the fleece is affected by these conditions, and better wool is produced in some regions than in others.
As has already been said, there are many kinds of wool, differing according to breed, climate, food, care, soil, and the health of the animal. Differences in some of these factors produce great differences in the same breed of sheep, or other differences produce great variation under the same climatic conditions. For centuries the Spanish Merino produced the finest wool, and so jealous were the Spanish people of their supremacy in wool that a law prohibited the exportation of Merino sheep from the country. In 1550 some sheep were taken to Peru and thence to the Argentine Republic, but they deteriorated; between 1760 and 1840 Merino sheep were carried to the other countries of Europe.
Australia has proved one of the best countries for the production of a fine, crimpy wool. There the Spanish Merino has been crossed with English breeds. By careful selection and cultivation great changes may be made in the character of the wool. The wild sheep in mountainous regions usually have a great deal of coarse hair mixed with the wool, while the most improved varieties on pasture land have practically no hair. The amount of imperfectly developed wool is also greater in uncultivated sheep.
1 According to Report of the United States Tariff Board, based on 1909 statistics.
Marked difference is found in the qualities of wool from the same fleece. The fiber from about the hind legs and tail is coarse, strong, and frequently dirty; the neck has short wool, but fine, and there is apt to be poorly developed wool here; on the lower part of the neck, in front of the legs, the wool is worn; and low down, near the legs, it is especially bad, since it is usually mixed with hair. The shoulders and sides furnish the best grade of wool, while that of the back is somewhat inferior. (See Figure 20.) There is greater variation on some sheep than on others, and the best quality of one breed may be much better than the best quality of another breed.
Fig. 20. Grades of Wool.
A. Best quality wool B. Second quality C. Poorest wool.