Wool's Early History

Ever since the dawn of history, wool has been one of the most important articles used by man in his daily life. Sheep are sociable animals. They love to flock together. It is therefore easy for one shepherd to look after a fairly large flock. Furthermore, this one animal could provide all the basic needs of life-food, clothing and shelter. Small wonder, therefore, that the sheep was one of the first animals-perhaps the very first-to be domesticated. The Torah tells us that Abel (Hevel), the son of Adam, the first man, was a keeper of sheep.

At first, man used sheepskin for clothing (sheepskins are still used in many countries for winter overcoats). But soon the shepherd, or rather his wife, learned to spin and weave the sheep's fleece into cloth, first with the fingers, then with spindle and loom. In Mesopotamia, the birthplace of our Father Abraham, wool growing was a major industry in his time, and even before. The Torah tells us that Abraham and his nephew Lot had very large flocks; that the flocks of Isaac exceeded in number those of the King of Gerar; that Jacob bred sheep while tending the flocks of Laban, his father-in-law; and that his twelve sons, the tribes of Israel, were keepers of sheep.

Some of the earliest clay tablets unearthed in ancient Mesopotamia contain records of sales of wool and sheep which local merchants sold to surrounding countries. These sales were among the earliest in international trade.

The First Tailored Suit

p>About the same time, nomadic hordes from the Asian steppes, who had become large raisers and breeders of sheep, made successive invasions of the Near East. They introduced the first carpets (which they used to insulate their tents) and the first tailored clothing-shirts and pants for horsemen-made of wool.

In the following centuries, Phoenician traders carried the new fabric and the methods of making it to countries along the Mediterranean.

It was the Romans who, for purposes of scientific breeding, brought sheep into Spain, because the climate was considered ideal. They started the fine-fleece breeding, which, after many centuries, eventually produced the Spanish Merino. Spanish wool by that time was considered the best in the world, and the merinos were so jealously guarded that no one was allowed to take one out of the country on penalty of death. Nevertheless, some merinos did leave Spain, smuggled out through Portugal, or sent as prized gifts from the King to his royal relatives in other Kingdoms. Today's descendants of the Spanish merinos are to be found in every sheep-raising country, and they bear the world's finest wool.

How Sheep Built an Empire

The Romans had also taught the craft of wool textile manufacture to the Britons, after conquering their country in 55 B.C.E. (about 13 years before the Romans destroyed the Second Beth Hamikdash). From this beginning grew the 2000-year-old industry on which England built an empire. Through the Middle Ages, England and Spain were rivals as the world's leading producers of wool. When England gained supremacy in later centuries, her wool products had become a principal export.

So great was the world demand for English cloth that in the 19th century England turned for raw wool to her dominions overseas. South Africa and Australia, with climates as warm as Spain's, had developed wool-growing industries as the result of a gift (six merinos) from the King of Spain to the government of the Netherlands. These sheep were sent to the Dutch East India Company in South Africa and, a few years later, after their numbers had grown, an enterprising Australian purchased the merinos in South Africa. These sheep were to become the forefathers of Australia's great merino flocks of today. Neighboring New Zealand began a sheep-raising industry some 50 years later, also in response to English needs; today it is the third' largest producer of wool in the world.

America's First Sheep Rancher

The sheep of Spain and England came to the New World with the first adventurers and immigrants from the Old World. After discovering America, Columbus returned in 1493, bringing settlers and livestock, including sheep, for two Spanish colonies he established at what are now Santo Domingo and Cuba. From these bases, Cortez sailed west in 1521 to conquer Mexico and become America's first ranchero. His flocks and herds covered the great valley of Oaxaca as far as the horizon on both sides.

Then, in 1549, Francisco de Coronado, searching for the legendary "seven golden cities of Cibola," made the first expedition across the present borders of the United States (around New Mexico) bringing a small army of sheep to feed his troops. Coronado was disappointed - he had been misled by exaggerated reports of the Indian pueblos-but other Spanish explorers and colonists followed after him, to find new land for ranches; and they introduced "the golden fleece" to the Pueblo Indians. During the next two centuries, sheep accompanied the Spanish colonists across the southern plains and mountains, eventually grazing on lands from Florida to California.

Meanwhile, on the East coast, Dutch and English settlers had also established a wool-growing industry, beginning with the first sheep they brought to Virginia in 1607-and spreading, as more sheep came from Europe, through all the Atlantic colonies.

How Wool Helped A Revolution

The farmer-colonists wove their own coarse woolens; in the harsh winters they experienced, such clothing was desperately needed. British laws tried to prohibit this household industry, in order to keep the American market for English-made wool fabrics-which turned out to be one of the explosive issues that finally led to the Revolution. Even colonists, who could afford better, made the patriotic gesture of wearing rude homespun, in preference to fine English broadcloth. George Washington, who was raising a flock of 800 sheep at Mount Vernon, and had imported merino rams to improve the fleece, had at least a yard of wool cloth woven daily on his hand looms.

Washington's enthusiasm inspired others, including Thomas Jefferson, to become woolgrowers. When all British imports were cut off during the Revolution, American mills supplied by American sheep farmers sprang up to fill the need of the new republic. After the war, weavers and other wool-craftsmen from abroad were offered immediate citizenship, as an inducement to help build the new industry.

By this time, American pioneers-in wagon trains piled with all their household goods-were beginning the westward trek through Indian wilderness to the Ohio River Valley, and driving their sheep with them. As the cities of the East became more populated and Eastern land rose in value, more sheep farmers headed further West to the prairies.

How Sheep Drovers Tamed the Wild West

With the '49 gold rush in California, the sale of sheep-to provide food and clothing for the miners -became so profitable, that some daring frontiers-men and Indian fighters undertook great sheep drives across river valleys, desert and mountains to California. Among this colorful band, whose exploits became the epics of the West, were Kit Carson, and "Uncle Dick" Wootton. The drive for which Wootton is celebrated began in 1852, when he drove 9,000 sheep from Taos, N. M., to Sacramento, Calif. It took a whole year. Along the way he was temporarily halted, but not stopped, by Indians-he wrestled with a Ute Indian chief for the right to pass through Ute territory-and by the hazards of weather and the rugged terrain. At the end of his trip he sold more than 8,900 sheep (a record number to survive such a trek) for over $ 50,000. Although railroads and steamship lines began to offer easier transportation, sheep drives continued right up to the end of the 19th century.

Today there are sheep in every state, and the American wool industry has grown into a vast complex of ranchers and farmers, dealers, processors, manufacturers and distributors, employing hundreds of thousands of workers, and creating wool textiles that are used for clothing, blankets, rugs, upholstery, drapery and industrial cloths throughout the United States.

Before we part with the story of wool of yesterday and continue with the story of wool today, let us think for a moment of the great "shepherds" of our people. We have already noted that our patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were shepherds. They preferred this occupation above any other, because they loved the simple and pure life of a shepherd, who spends his time in the bosom of nature, and in his loneliness can feel the nearness of the Creator all the more. The shepherd has an opportunity to look after his flocks with tender care, and he is always ready to protect them against any animal of prey.

The great leaders of our people are called "shepherds," beginning with Moshe Rabbenu, who was called the "Faithful Shepherd." Indeed, it was while Moshe Rabbenu was tending the flocks of his father-in-law Yisro that G‑d first appeared to him out of the Burning Bush (Shemos 3:1). Our Sages tell us (Shemos R. ch. 2) that Moshe Rabbenu looked after the flocks with such loving care, that G‑d saw him fit to be the Shepherd of Israel. Similarly, David was a shepherd, and he looked after his father's flocks with great care. Moshe would feed the lambs and kids on the tender tips of the grass; then feed the old ones on the middle part; and finally he would feed the young and strong ones upon the harder stubble and roots. When G‑d saw how lovingly he looked after his flocks, He said to him, "You will tend My people Israel" (II Sam. 5:3).

The greatest Shepherd of all is, of course, G‑d Himself. Knowing this, we, His flock, can feel secure and quite certain that we will not be short of anything. Thus King David said, "G‑d is my shepherd, I shall not want (lack). He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul; He leadeth me in the path of righteousness for His Name's sake. ...Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of G‑d for ever." (Ps. 23.)