Wild and Woolly
Wild and Woolly
Zawi Chemi Shanidar, in northeastern Iraq, is home to the earliest known site for the domestication of sheep. Evidence at the proto-Neolithic site shows that sheep were domesticated at the beginning of the ninth millennium BC, although domestication may have occurred earlier among nomads, who then brought their knowledge of shepherding to the people at the settlement. In the first phase of the domestication of sheep, people moved from hunting animals in the wild to keeping them in pens for slaughter later on. A second phase in the domestication arrived at around 4,000 BC, when people in Mesopotamia realized they could extract materials from their animals other than meat and hides. Kept alive, they could provide secondary products: milk, wool, and strength to pull the plow. As people discovered they could get a steady supply of cloth from live sheep, the wool on these sheep’s backs changed in character. Wild sheep, and the earliest domesticated sheep, were hairy, but by selective breeding practices early domesticators created breeds that were woolly.
Wool in Wyoming
The process of breeding sheep to improve their wool has been with us ever since. It entered a new phase in the 20th century United States, when sheep breeders were tasked with meeting the needs of an industrialized society that mechanically processed its wool into thread and fabric. The University of Wyoming in Laramie—the only university in the country to offer a PhD in wool—was for a time the epicenter of this effort. The university’s Wool Department was created in 1907—when the state of Wyoming was just 17 years old and home to more than six million sheep and fewer than 150,000 people, a ratio of about 41 to 1—with the goal of improving the quality of western fleeces.
In the late 1930s, the USDA tasked the UW Wool Department with using its Wool Laboratory—a small pilot plant for scouring wool that would grow into a semicommercial operation—to develop federal standards for wool fiber, particularly as they pertained to fiber diameter, length, and shrinkage. The ones they developed would determine labels we see on wool products, so that fabrics marked “Super 100’s” were comprised of wool fibers with an average width of 18.75 microns or finer; while “Super 250’s” indicated 11.25 microns or finer.
Access to plentiful grass on the open range alongside strong wool and lamb prices created Wyoming’s first major sheep boom in the 1880s. Wyoming sheepherders competed for grass with cattle ranchers, and “away from the settlements the shotgun is the only law, and sheep and cattlemen are engaged in constant warfare,” Wyoming banker Edward Smith testified before Congress in the early 1880s. An 1897 tariff on Australian wool started a second boom, and by 1900 Wyoming had more than five million sheep. As grass became scarcer, conflicts escalated. These conflicts were brutal. In 1905 masked riders rode into a sheep camp in Big Horn County and shot, dynamited, or clubbed to death four thousand sheep, burning the herder’s sheepdogs alive. Nevertheless, sheep herds kept expanding. By 1908, Wyoming led the US in wool production.
In addition to performing scouring and research services, the UW Wool Laboratory became a hub of research, a place to work out the best diet for minimal wool shrinkage, and breeding protocols to maximize wool production. Further research ventures of the Wool Department extended throughout the world, and faculty traveled internationally on United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) programs. They published research carried out in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and China. A career in wool might look like that of Robert Homer Burns, onetime head of the Wool Department, who worked from 1937 to 1939 with the USDA as a wool shrinkage researcher and marketing specialist. He traveled to China to study carpet wool in 1946, and went on to serve as consultant to the Iranian government in New York.
From its inception, the Wool Department sought to improve the quality of Wyoming wool, through careful testing and breeding recommendations. By mid-century, the project had succeeded: it increased both the quality and quantity of Wyoming wool. Wyoming sheep alone produced almost 17.5 million pounds of wool in 1950.
Like many American projects, the work of the Wool Department and the industry it supported were vastly productive, and destined to last only a few decades. By the mid-1970s, trade liberalization and competition from cutting-edge acrylic fibers caused the price of wool to tank. Some years, the price of wool was so low that sacks of wool were left to rot in warehouses and barns. Wyoming’s sheep producers had to adapt, and they started breeding their sheep to optimize the meat, letting wool quality slip. And all the work done by the Wool Department to increase the quality of American wool was rapidly undone.
In February 1977, in the midst of an energy crisis precipitated by a global shortage of petroleum, Jimmy Carter famously appeared in a television fireside chat wearing an oatmeal-colored wool cardigan to dramatize the fact that he had turned down the heat in the White House in an effort to conserve energy, imploring Americans to likewise turn down their thermostats. But the energy crisis was not resolved, as Carter quaintly proposed, by Americans who turned down their thermostats and bundled up in wool cardigans. Rather, it was resolved by finding bigger stores of hydrocarbons, commonly known as coal, in the American West, a rich supply to be exploited in new and novel ways.
World War II brought the last big boom for Wyoming’s sheep industry, and its numbers declined steadily. In 1984, Wyoming’s sheep population fell below one million. In 2011 the USDA counted just 275,000.
Small Production in Upstate New York
Sheepherding can be, and often is, carried out on an industrial scale. However, sheep and wool are also eminently compatible with small-scale production. And they have become central to a widespread turn toward local fiber production in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Rather than relying on high doses of coal and petroleum to fire large machinery and transport materials across continents, there is an increasing interest among environmentalists and people with a longing for handcraft, in the US and elsewhere, in working with materials that can be found close at hand. Often, for the fabrication of garments, that has meant working with wool.
When American wool fell behind in quality in the 1970s, scouring facilities across the US disappeared, making it more difficult to process wool locally. When they returned, they would be geared toward cleaning much smaller quantities of wool. Small-scale fiber production, ranging from hobby farms to full-time businesses, has grown up alongside the burgeoning fiber craft movement. This has stimulated the rebuilding of infrastructure on a new, modified scale, resulting in the creative reuse of earlier machines and processes. Smaller farms engendered smaller mills—whether engaged in scouring, carding, spinning, weaving, or a combination.
One such small mill is Thistle Hill Weavers in Cherry Valley, New York. Its owner, Rabbit Goody, warps all of the vintage cast-iron industrial looms herself, enabling her to use them to manufacture a great variety of woven products on an artisanal scale. Thistle Hill can make every weave imaginable in wool, cotton, or whatever the job demands. When I visited Thistle Hill a few years ago, they had just finished manufacturing a plaid that faithfully reproduced an early-20th-century Cone Mills flannel for Evan Morrison of Greensboro, North Carolina, who was looking to reconstruct historic shirts with perfect fidelity to the original textile. The red, black, and white plaid shirting from Evan’s project was still on the loom. Goody said she hadn’t actually made a profit from the job: she just did it because she believed in it. I asked her whether Evan knew that. She said she didn’t think so. She had short hair in front and a long red auburn braid, Keen sandals, wool socks, army green cargo shorts, and a merlot-colored T-shirt with a Coelophysis on it.
“Weaving,” Goody said, taking a spoonful of honey, “is math, it’s not creative. I am a weaver by trade. I believe in trades. I’m very good at it, but it’s a trade.” Like most of those deeply involved in mechanical weaving and the resurrection of American textile equipment, Goody said, “I don’t really have an attachment to cloth, I have an attachment to machinery.”
Goody specializes in weaving reproductions. She turned on her computer to show me something she was producing for the Cleveland Museum of Art, a new fabric for a 19th-century Shah’s tent. By using images of ancient scraps of tent fabric, Goody could identify the weave structure, which she would then warp onto one of her late-19th- and early-20th-century industrial shuttle looms.
With her tinkerer’s knack, she makes her machines work like short-order cooks. “I make them do things they were never intended to do.” All of her looms are Crompton and Knowles, one of the most celebrated makers in the US. Her shuttle looms are far slower than the Swiss-designed shuttleless looms and other air jet looms used in modern manufacture, but they produce fabric with a selvedge, which allows her to do work that most factories can’t.
Goody is like many people who got into handweaving in the 1970s, when weaving kits could be purchased from the Whole Earth Catalog alongside agricultural equipment for back-to-the-land projects. In some ways, she was a hippie. Goody became a Quaker and got involved in nonviolence and the antiwar movement. During the protests against the Vietnam War, she said, “I marched with the communists because they sang better songs.” When her friends started advocating for the political use of violence, she went back to the land. “I felt like I had to do something legitimate. The only thing I could do was farming.” She was given land by a woman who wanted to populate Cherry Valley with like-minded young people, and Goody has been there since.
Unlike many people from the crafting scene of the 1970s, Goody stuck with weaving. Handweaving only whetted her appetite for mechanical weaving. She began buying up machinery from mills that were going out of business or scrapping old looms that were obsolete by modern standards. I asked whether it was disappointing to watch the enthusiasm for weaving fade out. No, she said, weaving revivals have always been cyclical: there have been revivals both before and since the 1970s.
In America, the first revival in the interest for weaving happened in the 1870s in connection with the broader Colonial Revival movement, at which time handweaving was already an anomaly. The next big revival came in the 1920s, this one attached to an interest in Appalachia. In programs initiated by settlement schools, Appalachian women sold coverlets, baby blankets, and tea towels to support their families. After the 1976 Bicentennial, there was another revival. This one emphasized the Scandinavian tradition, Goody told me, which is a tradition that continues to this day.
Ironically, Goody said, although newer handweavers based their practice on the Scandinavian weaving tradition because of its unbroken line, the handweaving traditions of New England had also never really vanished: they had been passed on to mechanical looms. If you wanted to be in direct contact with an ancient weaving tradition, she said, you had to get to know the cast-iron Crompton and Knowles.
In Goody’s mind, weaving evolves according to the tools at hand: it is a plastic art that meets the various exigencies of the time. Innovation, she believes, is essential human behavior. “Human beings in every culture come up with the solution to the problems of food, shelter, and clothing.” This includes discovering weaving. Goody is prone to looking toward the big, panoramic picture, and to her, “The breadth of textile knowledge that exists in the world is unfathomable.”
Growing up in Tenafly, New Jersey, Goody spent summers at a socialist Jewish camp called Camp Northwood in Remsen, New York. Her father was a famous electrical engineer. She considered herself privileged enough to have had an inheritance from him, and she never took a paycheck from Thistle Hill Weavers. At the time of my visit, she had seven employees in the shop and three on the farm, which provided boarding and training for dressage horses. (Goody does not raise sheep or card or spin her own yarn, rather relying on other producers to perform those tasks.)
“I work hard, but this is a privilege. I am a socialist. The employees come first. I run it like a nineteenth-century trade shop.” One of her employees, a middle-aged woman in plaid, came in to say goodbye for the day and shared the news of a death in the community. “I wonder whether Mary is able to stay on the farm,” Goody murmured. A man in his sixties with a heavy build and a brown mustache splashed with gray came over to say goodbye as well. Goody offered him some tomatoes: “I am overrun.”
Mammoth structural forces built the modern clothing system: a willingness to violently exploit the earth’s natural resources, devalue women’s labor, and build neocolonial trade regimes on old colonial foundations. These Goliaths are not only being stared down by scholars, activists, and politicians. They are also directly confronted by individual people insisting on simply doing something they really enjoy. This is the army of the small.
“I get more thrill out of pulling that handle,” Goody said, “and having eight, ten yards come off the loom. That is pure, producing something real.”
*This article is a modified excerpt from Sofi Thanhauser’s Worn: A People’s History of Clothing, published in 2022 by Pantheon.