How far does Britain’s love affair with wool go back? It’s hard to tell; textiles degrade quickly and pre-Roman written sources are few. However, it’s apparent that by the Bronze Age, sheep were farmed in Britain. At first they weren’t kept for their wool or meat, although both were likely used by farmers. It was the sheep’s unparalleled prowess in fertilising land that made them such a boon to early Britons. With sheep it has always been a case of eats, shits, and leaves. Wool-growing was not specialised work.
Prior to these sheep-farming settlers, Britain was densely forested. By the time Bronze Age England’s South Downs were being stripped of trees, so too were the flat heathlands of the Suffolk Brecks. When the Romans arrived several centuries later, much of the south had been cleared of trees and turned to farm and grazing land. The Roman invaders noted that British fleece was unusually thick and woolly. It’s been a worldwide benchmark ever since.
The Romans brought their own ‘improved’ sheep with them. Their fleece was fine and white, the fluffy rounded shape of sheep in children’s books. They had been bred this way: selective animal husbandry often breed out natural pigments. Wherever their Romans spread, their sheep came too. And they were well-protected; sources speak of Roman sheep wearing jackets made of skin to keep their soft fleece free of burrs and twigs.
Roman sheep bred with native sheep to create the forbears of the popular British breeds we know today. The Roman world stretched across Europe, and the first incarnation of the British wool trade was made possible thanks to this tremendous network. By the fourth century, Diocletian’s Edict on Prices notes that ‘British woollen rugs are priced about all others’, with their long staple which could turn the rain.
The Soay is Britain’s oldest native sheep breed. Farmed in the British Isles since the Iron Age, it is small, brown, slender and agile. Today most of the world’s Soay population lives on the remote Hebridean islands of St Kilda. Soay have medium-fine fleece, made of two layers of wool. The first, closest to their skin, is fine and short, with each follicle measuring between fifteen and twenty-five microns. This is the rise. The primary, or outer, layer is usually between thirty and fifty microns thick. This fleece is rougher and includes coarse hairs, gathered for combing and spinning.
I say gathered because Soay have evolved to shear themselves. Left to their own devices they will moult their coats each summer, the outer layer falling away by itself to keep the sheep cool. They can manage themselves, and need to – St Kilda now has no permanent human population. However, the moulting process means that much of the wool is lost in the field, so since the Bronze Age sheep have had their fleece removed by hand.
Soay sheep are what archaeologist J.P. Wild calls ‘living fossils’: they are genetically almost identical to Britain’s Iron Age sheep. Shetlands are very like them, but their wool’s been turbocharged through interbreeding. This three-thousand year pedigree connects the sheep of Shetland to our islands’ oldest human history.
Where Soay fleece typically weighs less than one and a half pounds, a Shetland fleece weighs nearly three. Each shade of Shetland fleece has its own name: black, dark brown, emsket, fawn, grey, light grey, mioget, moorit, musket, shaela and white. The dark brown yarn I’m using now has a touch of red to it. Moorit. Moor red. Walk across moorland in autumn and it’s the colour of heather and bracken and the reeds at your feet. It is an ancient British colour. Then there are distinct patterns of splodge and blotch on the sheep, their names reading like an alien litany. Bersugget, bielset, bioget, smirlset, snaelit and sokket. There are many, many more.