The Tale of the World’s Oldest Fibre
Since time immemorial, the human race has domesticated sheep for agricultural purposes and utilised its fleece to make clothes. The archaic men learned to sew nature’s best fiber into cloaks or fur boots, keeping warm in inclement weathers and brutal temperature. From Stone Age to the Millennium of Technology, we have invented countless ways to cultivate, harvest and weave wool into one of the most commonly used fiber in apparel industry. It is one of the most versatile and comfortable material to create garments, ranging from ready-to-wear sweaters to avant-garde couture jackets and suits. Nowadays, it is almost impossible to imagine a world without wool.
From the early day of civilization, people have improved the quality of raw wool by cross-breeding and screening of sheep husbandry. Earliest pieces of woolen clothing could be dated back to Pre-historic Europe, Roman and Ancient Egypt. Its production was constantly innovated, renewed and revised for efficiency, from cutting to shearing and storing. Wool was highly sought after for its consistent quality and time-tested quality. It clothed the earliest human population, from peasants to royalties. It was undoubtedly the main greige goods for textile trades around the world. Nowadays, the domestic sheep is categorized, judged and maintained according to international breed standards. They are classified according to the length of their wool. The dominant fine wool Merino sheep is often favored and prized for its quality and productivity. It is often weaved into fabrics for high-end athletic wear or upmarket apparel. The other types such as medium, long or coarse wool are also made into various fashion or household fabric for consumption.
Production of wool in today’s world is highly standardised and industrialised. Organisations such as IWTO (International Wool Textile Organisation) or The Woolmark Company are leaders of the industry, creating new archetype of fiber and benchmarks of production for wool. From selecting and cultivating only the best breeds of sheep to constantly meliorating the method of production and harvesting wool, these leaders have successfully responded to the needs and demands of the modern society. Wool is scoured, carded, gilled and combed into the finest and most uniform fiber for production. It is then spun, dyed and finished to eliminate shrinkage and stabilise stretch. Afterward, it is knitted and weaved into yardage.
Additional process such as milling, carbonising or raising is added to ensure that the final product could adhere to approved standards or to adapt for different end uses. Modern production of wool is highly computerised and extremely meticulous! This is done to ensure high efficiency, low cost and best production for one of the world’s most popular fiber and textile.
However, production of wool has also raised many questions. Environmentally conscious buyers have come to debate the cost of wool production on future sustainability. Many would attribute deforestation to the manifestation of sheep husbandry and wool cultivation, posing a threat to the environment and a challenge to urban development worldwide. Landslide and loss of top soil could be prime examples of such repercussions. To increase productivity in the age of globalisation, wool production has been widely outsourced. Thus, the issues of human cost and income inequality also come under scrutiny, as people from less developed countries could be seen as exploited and underpaid by many corporations. Not only that, animal rights activists are also lobbying for better treatment of sheep as footage of industrial mutilation of sheep is released to the public. The conscientious modern consumers have now switched to organically produced wool and its products, creating more pressure on the industry to innovate and reexamine its animal treatment.
Wool has been one of the oldest and most common fiber that is widely used in the apparel industry. From everyday clothes to luxurious sportswear and couture, this valuable fiber has been one of the most dominant sources of material for industrial and household usage. However, the new challenge of wool production in the post-modern society is not just about creating enough textiles to clothe the human population. Long term implications regarding its production and distribution should also be addressed in order to achieve sustainability and minimize costs on the society. The future of the world’s oldest and most traditional fiber lies not only in the hand of the producer but also the consumer. They both have to respond to the complex needs for wool products while balancing its economic and social cost to the world.
This text on Wool was written and submitted by Minh Phuong for Round 2 of Modeconnect’s International Fashion Writing Competition. Check Minh’s entry for Round 1: The Innovative fashion of Jef Montes