A brief history of the wool industry

The sheep and goats that roam our farm provide us with beautiful wool from which we knit sweaters, cardigans, scarves and other beautiful pieces on our industrial knitting machines. A process that is relatively normal now, but which was unthinkable 10,000 years ago.

From hair to wool and the world over

 The first sheep to be domesticated would be described as more hairy than woolly and were also one of the first animals to be kept by humans. Even in 6000 BC, people saw the value of wool. Sheep with the most wool were kept and bred until the sheep had an (almost) completely woolen coat. However, it took a while before the first woolen textiles were made, approximately 3,000 years ago.

This all happened in South West Asia. However, in Europe it took much longer, where the first sheep were only found around 4000 BC and the first woolen textiles around 1500 BC. The Romans were very enthusiastic about wool. The upper class could be found wearing togas made of wool, something that was forbidden for the lower class. The richer you were, the larger and longer your gown which made it impossible to work in. That was, of course, exactly the intention. This way, it was very clear which class you belonged to.

Reportedly, in the south of Italy, there were sheep that were specifically bred for their high quality wool during this period. A lot of care was invested into these sheep to ensure that the quality of their wool was maintained. This is just one of the many examples of how wool has been used as a status symbol throughout history, something that isn't so much the case today.

The importance of the luxury sheep

 During the middle ages, wool was so popular that it played a key role in the medieval European economy. This was particularly true of the Benelux countries like the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as parts of Northern France, Italy and England. English sheep in particular were known for their high quality wool, which was exported to both Italy and the Benelux countries. This trade put England into a position of power. Whenever conflict would occur, England would immediately cease their wool trade, leaving their enemies empty-handed. This happened often with Flanders. 

In Flanders, there had been a thriving industry for using wool to make into sheets. However, due to involvement in conflicts between England and France as well as uprisings within Flanders itself, this industry began to suffer. They turned to using their own local sheep but the wool was of much lower quality because their sheep had not been bred for this purpose. Slowly, the wool industry in this region died out.

However, in Leiden, industry continued on quietly, but there too it stopped at a certain point. England had figured out that they could also make luxury products with their own wool. They hardly exported wool, which made things in Leiden difficult. The Eighty Years' War was the final blow that almost completely stopped the supply of wool.

If one sheep is over the dam…

And yet Leiden later flourished again. Because of all the wars in the south, people who had a lot of knowledge about new weaving techniques fled to the north. Leiden subsequently became the most important cloth city in the entire world. Due to the high demand for Leiden sheets, made from Spanish wool, many innovations were made in the industry so that production went faster and fewer people were needed. Houses were built for the workers, which improved their well-being (somewhat). However, we must not forget that at that time there was a lot of child labor, low wages, long working hours and poor working conditions. After a while, the workers revolted and Leiden again entered a difficult period.

Another well-known wool city in the Netherlands was Tilburg. There were already large-scale activities in the 18th century and Tilburg grew into one of the largest industrial cities in the field of textiles. The industry flourished, mainly due to mechanization, and at its peak around 1880 there were about 145 larger and smaller wool factories. Of course, Tilburg was not spared from crises and this number shrank over the years, although a core of activities always remained. Partly due to the Marshall Plan after the Second World War, significant investments were made in the industry, so that in the 1950s around 10,000 people were employed in the wool industry in Tilburg alone. Unfortunately, things quickly went downhill after that, resulting in the last wool laundry company being closed in 1983.

The sheep vs the rest

Unfortunately, Leiden and the rest of the Netherlands have not been so lucky again. Over the years, the wool industry in the Netherlands slowed down and has now come to almost a complete stop due to the 'lower quality' of Dutch wool and the development of new cheaper materials. The rise of synthetic fabrics that can be produced cheaply in Asia has made it impossible for the relatively expensive wool to compete. Especially in a consumerism culture that encourages us to buy a lot and cheaply. This preference for quantity over quality has created a problem that is now destroying a lot of beautiful and valuable wool. Fortunately, things can be done differently and we see that it is becoming increasingly normal to handle our belongings with care, to repair what breaks and to pay attention to people and the environment.

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Help make the change

Fortunately, things can be done differently and we see that it is becoming increasingly normal to handle our belongings with care, to repair what breaks and to pay attention to people and the environment. At the Knitwit Stable, our products are not cheap, we do not have a sale or a highly changing collection. But what we do have is a transparent production model, an eye for our animals, a pleasant working atmosphere with our employees and a non-profit foundation. This means you know that your sweater, scarf or hat has been made honestly and with care. And you can also come and see it with your own eyes!