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The Right Kind of Wool

posted Nov 4, 2009, 5:09 PM by Mary Powell
First step, I need my raw materials. What did people make their clothing out of in the 1770s? Natural fibers, of course. Wealthy people had access to silk, middle-class to cotton, and everyone to linen and wool. Linen comes from flax, an easy-to-grow plant with high per-acre yields, and a wide cultivation range. However, no one around here is growing it. Wool, on the other hand, comes in nice little four-footed packages which just love the hillsides of Kentucky. But not just any wool will do. Sheep types have changed a lot in the last 200 years as we have become less dependent on wool, and more desirous of lamb. They have gotten bigger, wool has gotten shorter and finer, and curl has been replaced with crimp. Since I am looking to replicate as much as possible the task of a weaver in the 18th century, I need wool that handles the way it did then. So I must find an 18th century sheep. Fortunately, Colonial Williamsburg has done a great deal of work on the 18th century American livestock. They have been maintaining a breeding program for Leicester Longwools, one of the few breeds of sheep mentioned by name in period documents in America. For the full story, see this site.
The Leicesters have a long curly fleece consisting of silky ringlets, rather than the fluffy, fuzzy wool more commonly seen today. Their wool can grow up to twelve inches in a year, and has a beautiful sheen to it. The sheep themselves are medium large animals (rams averaging 250 pounds) which are alert and adaptable, and can thrive in difficult conditions. All this makes them ideal for frontier life: the curly fleece resists tangles and debris and produces a durable long-wearing fabric, and the sheep can survive the harsh conditions on a farm just hacked out of the wilderness. Unfortunately, there are less than 2000 Leicester Longwools left in the world, and their wool is correspondingly expensive and hard to come by. Fortunately, Kentucky is home to many small-scale sheep farmers who find that small flocks of old-style sheep flourish on our steep hillsides, producing both meat and wool without damaging the fragile soil. Ann Brown of Mount Sterling, KY, is one of those farmers.