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freshly shorn wool
Wool is animal hair made of keratin, an animal protein also found in human hair, finger nails, feathers and horns. Although wool is mostly associated with sheep it also come from other animals such as Bactrian camels, llamas, alpacas, yaks, Cashmere goats and mohair-producing Angora rabbits and Angora goats. In most cases these animals have developed coats of wool to keep them warm in the winter and humans have bred them to produce wool in quantities and quality fit for human use. [Source: Nina Hyde, National Geographic, May 1988 [╤];

Raw wool (or grease wool) straight from the sheep often contains as little as 50 percent wool. The remainder is wool grease, burs, seeds, other vegetable matter, body salts and dirt. The quality of wool is affected by things like the age, nutritional intake, stress level and sex life of the sheep. Old sheep, for example, get loose teeth, which affects their ability to eat and the lack of nutrition decreases the value of their wool.

Wool absorbs moisture, resists flames, and insulates against heat and cold. The secret behind these traits is the structure of individual wool fibers. Unlike cotton or silk, wool fibers have downward pointing scales, sort of like those on a pine cone. These fibers easily get hooked together and tangled, trapping air and making the wool warm. Another reason wool is warm is that can drawn perspiration away from the body.Although wool's scaly surface tends to repel water, the fiber core absorbs up to 30 percent of its weight in liquids (compared to 8 percent for cotton and 2 percent for some synthetics).

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Wool is used to make clothing, blankets, and felts. It in cold places in keeps people warm, in rainy areas it sheds water and in warm areas it can be used for protection from dry heat and glaring sun. Wool grease, which lubricates growing wool fibers, is the source of lanolin, used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

Top Producing Countries of Wool: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) Australia, 687038 , 407881; 2) China, 619335 , 367687; 3) New Zealand, 367032 , 217900; 4) Iran (Islamic Republic of), 126330 , 75000; 5) United Kingdom, 104433 , 62000; 6) Argentina, 101064 , 60000; 7) Russian Federation, 90100 , 53491; 8) Syrian Arab Republic, 84220 , 50000; 9) India, 78156 , 46400; 10) Sudan, 77482 , 46000; 11) South Africa, 75798 , 45000; 11) Uruguay, 75798 , 45000; 13) Turkey, 74393 , 44166; 14) Pakistan, 69060 , 41000; 15) Morocco, 67376 , 40000; 16) Kazakhstan, 59291 , 35200; 17) Spain, 48403 , 28736; 18) Algeria, 42110 , 25000; 19) Indonesia, 41099 , 24400; 20) Uzbekistan, 40053 , 23779;

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dyed wool
Top Producing Countries of Sheep Meat: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) China, 3911135 , 1977048; 2) Australia, 1529579 , 773190; 3) New Zealand, 1184513 , 598762; 4) Iran (Islamic Republic of), 772608 , 390547; 5) United Kingdom, 652829 , 330000; 6) Turkey, 551932 , 278400; 7) Syrian Arab Republic, 479012 , 242136; 8) India, 469133 , 237130; 9) Algeria, 369936 , 187000; 10) Sudan, 323483 , 163518; 11) Spain, 312566 , 158000; 12) Russian Federation, 308436 , 155912; 13) Pakistan, 304185 , 153763; 14) Nigeria, 283323 , 143217; 15) France, 252625 , 127700; 16) Morocco, 238195 , 120406; 17) Kazakhstan, 218425 , 110412; 18) Turkmenistan, 183979 , 93000; 19) Uzbekistan, 174328 , 88121; 20) United States of America, 172109 , 87000;

Websites and Resources: Sheep 101 sheep101.info ; American Sheep Industry Association sheepusa.org ; Australian Wool Innovation Limited wool.com ; Australian Wool Exchange awex.com.au ; Wikipedia article wikipedia.org/wiki/Wool ; Sheep breeds ; Sheep magazine sheepmagazine.com/ ;

Types of Wool

Wool from a live sheep is called fleece. It is used to make blankets, felts and flannels. When wool is pressurized, heated and soaked with water it turns to felt. It can be used for everything Mongolian tents to tennis balls. Lamb's wool is taken from lambs six to eight months old. Pulled wool comes from a sheep that have died or been slaughtered. Sheepskin and lambskin are used in linings of gloves, garments, handbags, parchments, and textile-mill rollers.

Raw wool is often classified by the age of the sheep from which is wool is taken and divided into three major grades: fine, medium and coarse. and the finest wools, from the goats of Tibet, Kashmir, and the Pamir mountains, and the endangered vicuña of the Peruvian Andes, are made into expensive sweaters and shawls. ╤

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wool spinner
Wool is sometimes categorized as apparel wool or carpet wool. The latter is generally coarser and longer than the former. Most of the wool produced is apparel wool with short fibers. It sells for a higher price than carpet wool and produces woolen fabrics are thick, with a fuzzy surface. Worsted wools are made with from thinner, longer fibers. They produce fabrics that are crisper and have a smoother surface.

Felt is made by subjecting piles of loose wool fiber to heat, moisture and pressure. It is easier to make than woven cloth. It was probably first recognized by cave dwellers who noticed the permanent matting that occurred when they wore the fur side of their pelts against their skin.

In the old days felt was made from fluffed wool, which is doused with water, rolled around a pole and then wrapped with a freshly killed yak skin. This bundle, which looks sort of like a rolled up carpet, is dragged around behind a horse for hours until the wool fibers compress enough to become felt. If the wools is not washed properly felt smells like cattle dung. [Source: Nina Hyde, National Geographic, May 1988]

One of the worst's most prized luxury fabrics is Escorial wool, a revolutionary new natural fiber that is extremely soft and light and has a lycra-like crease-resistant stretch. Named after the famous palace built by King Philip II, it is made from sheep that originated in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, were breed at Escorial palace, and were saved from extinction by a Scottish framer in Tasmania.

Weaving and Cloth

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Ramallah wool spinner
Weaving is the interlocking at right angles of two sets of fibers to make cloth or a similar material. Spinning is the process by which fibers are drawn and twisted into string, yarn or thread. These tasks have traditionally been done at home by women with looms and spinning devices. The advantage with working at home is that women could work and care for their children at the same time and do weaving and spinning when they are not doing other chores.

To make yarn the old-fashion way: 1) After a sheep is sheared the wool fibers are cleaned and straightened by carding with a toothed card (a sort of brush with stiff bristles). 2) The wool is then rolled between two cards to produce a thin fiber-like piece of wool called a sliver. 3) The sliver is placed on a spike called a distaff. 4) A strand of wool is then pulled off and a weight known as whorl is attached to it. 5) The strand is twisted into a thread by spinning it with the thumb and forefinger. Since each thread is made this way, you can how time consuming it must have been to make a piece of cloth.

To make cloth the old-fashion way: 1) Threads are placed on a warp-weighted loom. Warps are the downward hanging threads on a loom, and they are set up so that every other thread faces forward and the others are in the back. 2) A weft (horizontal thread) is then taken in between the forward and backward row of warps. 3) Before the weft is threaded through in the other direction, the position of the warps is changed with something called a heddle rod. This simple tool reverses the warps so that the row in the front is now in the rear, and visa versa. In this way the threads are woven in a cross stitch manner that holds them together and creates cloth. The cloth in turn is all kinds of things. Cloth is often sold to clothing manufacturers in rolls. One roll of cloth is about 11 meters in length.

Sometimes natural dies are used. Red is made with madder or kermes (an insect found in kermes oak); yellow with wild chamomile, saffron, vine leaves and the rinds of pomegranates; black from acorns; and blue from plants with indigo. Natural dyes produce richer and more natural colors. The depth of color can be controlled by the type of water---rain, river or spring---used. Plant dyes though are notoriously unpredictable. They are affected by weather conditions, soil and when they are harvested. They have mostly been replaced by chemical dyes.


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ancient goat-like sheep
Most wool comes from sheep. They are regarded as one of the most valuable domestic animals. They are raised for milk and meat and other food products as well as wool. In some places people drink sheep's milk and use it to make cheese. Like goats sheep reproduce quickly and survive in harsh conditions.

Sheep are related to goats. Both animals produce hair that can be used to make clothing. The most obvious difference between the two animals is that the tails and horns of goats stand up while the tails of sheep hang down and their horns curl. Male goats have beards while male sheep don't. Sheep have tear bags, or pits beneath their the inner corners of their eyes, Goats do not.

A male sheep is called a ram or buck. A female is called a ewe or dam. Young are called lambs. A group is called a flock and used to be called a hurtle. Ewes usually give birth to one or two lambs in the spring. One day after being born the lambs are strong enough to follow their mothers.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the largest sheep ever recorded weighed 545 pounds; the oldest one died a week before its 29th birthday; and the largest sheep litter was eight lambs. The world record for fleece is 65 pounds of wool from fleece 25 inches long (grown over 7 years). The highest price every paid for a sheep was $358,750 for Collinsville stud JC&S 43 bought by Willogolech Pty. Ltdin 1989 at the Adelaide Eam Sales.


Cattle, sheep, goats, yaks, buffalo, deer, antelopes, giraffes, and their relatives are ruminants---cud-chewing mammals that have a distinctive digestive system designed to obtain nutrients from large amounts of nutrient-poor grass. Ruminants evolved about 20 million years ago in North America and migrated from there to Europe and Asia and to a lesser extent South America, where they never became widespread.

As ruminants evolved they rose up on their toes and developed long legs. Their side toes shrunk while their central toes strengthened and the nails developed into hooves, which are extremely durable and excellent shock absorbers.

Ruminants helped grasslands remain as grasslands and thus kept themselves adequately suppled with food. Grasses can withstand the heavy trampling of ruminants while young tree seedlings can not. The changing rain conditions of many grasslands has meant that the grass sprouts seasonally in different places and animals often make long journeys to find pastures. The ruminants hooves and large size allows them to make the journeys.

Ruminant Stomachs

Ruminant stomach
Ruminants chew a cud and have unique stomachs with four sections. They do no digest food as we do, with enzymes in the stomach breaking down the food into proteins, carbohydrates and fats that are absorbed in the intestines. Instead plant compounds are broken down into usable compounds by fermentation, mostly with bacteria transmitted from mother to young.

The cub-chewing process begins when an animal half chews its food (mostly grass) just enough to swallow it. The food goes into the first stomach called the rumen, where the food is softened with special liquids and the cellulose in the plant material is broken down by bacteria and protozoa.

After several hours, the half-digested plant material is separated into lumps by a muscular pouch alongside the rumen. Each lump, or cud, is regurgitated, one at a time and animal chews the cud thoroughly and then swallow it again. This is referred to a chewing the cud.

When the food is swallowed for the second time it by passes through the first two chambers and arrives at the third chamber, the "true" stomach, where and it is digested. As the chewed food moves through this chamber microbes multiply and produce fatty acids that provide energy and use nitrogen in the food to synthesize protein that eventually becomes amino acids. Vitamins, amino acids and nutrients created through chemical recombination then move in the intestine and pass through linings in the gut into the bloodstream.

Sheep Behavior

Sheep lives in flocks, following a leader, usually an old ram. They feed on grass, need pastures within distances that they can travel but are capable of ranging over a large area. They live in both very hot and very cold places and thrive in high and dry climates because they evolved from animals that live in high and dry climates.

In contrast to unpredictable, frisky and "capricious" goats, sheep have a reputation of being docile, timid and vulnerable. They are easily taken by wild animals such as wolves and thus need the protection of man.

sheep in Thrace

Sheep are known for being dumb. They have been observed going into a panic by the sound of rustling paper, and often freeze to death in storms and drown while crossing streams. Entire flocks have been burned to death in farm houses because they too afraid to leave the burning building But maybe they are not as dumb as people think. Studies have shown that sheep recognize individual faces (50 sheep faces and 10 human ones) and still know them two years later. Studies also show familiar faces calm sheep and sheep can distinguish both happy and angry expressions, preferring the latter.

Sheep are social animals. One of the easiest ways to calm down agitated sheep is to show them photographs of other sheep. To prove the latter point sheep where placed in a dark place while things such as their heart rate, blood count and rate of bleating were measured to gage the levels of stress they felt. Those that were shown photographs of other sheep displayed lower levels of stress than those who were shown images of goats or triangles.

Male sheep sometimes show homosexual behavior. Studies show that about 8 percent of domestic rams prefer males as sexual partners. Other studies have show that the brains of homosexual sheep and their heterosexual counterpart were different. One study showed that groups of brain cells that controlled sexual behavior were smaller among ewes and males that preferred males than among males that preferred females

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Nine sheep by Wenceslas Hollar

Early Wool and Sheep History

People have worn wool for at least 12,000 years. Early wool was taken from wild sheep and goats and was likely worn with the skin attached it and as primitive felt by mashing the fibers together long before it was made into anything resembling fabric.

Sheep were first domesticated in Western Asia (Turkey, Syria and Iran) from Asiatic moufflon Ancient sheep roamed pastures and grassland with people for at least 11,000 years and are thought to have been domesticated at least 9,000 ago. Sheep bones, dated to 9000 B.C., found at a site called Zawi Chemi Shandidir in the foothills of the Zagros mountains in what is now Iran, suggests that sheep were being kept in herds at that time.

Moufflon are a kind of wild sheep still found in remote parts of Europe and Western Asia. They are small and have long legs. Both the ram and ewe have heavy ringed horns and develop a wooly undercoat in the winter and shed it in the summer. Wild moufloun still live in the mountains of Corsica and Sardinia. In the 1970s, an Asian mouflon was born to a domestic wool sheep.

Varieties of wild goat and sheep are found in mountain regions in Asia, Europe and North America. Prehistoric sheep had dark hairy coats, horns and their wool could be pulled off by hand. Their closest relatives today are the sheep that are kept off the Shetland Islands off Scotland and the wild Soay, sheep on the uninhabited island of St. Kilda off the west coast of Scotland.

Sheep, some argue, have been as important to civilization as agriculture. One of the first domesticated animals, they provided man with food, clothing and shelter, and man providing the sheep with protection from predators. Over centuries, sheep were bred by men to have long white wool that was first cut off with Iron Age shears. Most domesticated varieties don't have horns.

Sheep, Wool, Ancient History and Christianity

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Adoration of shepherds by Rembrandt
Famous reference to wool and sheep from the ancient world include Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece, Ulysses escaping from the Cyclops by clinging onto the underbelly of a ram, and Penelope's nightly unraveling of her weaving to keep suitors away until Ulysses returned. Salome's veils may have been wool and Cleopatra most likely used a wool carpet to smuggle herself in to see Caesar.╤

There are a number of references to wool-damaging pests in the ancient world. The Romans used bare-breasted virgins to beat away moths and beetles that ate their wool garments. Other cultures tried cow manure and garlic. Now we use moth balls. Proper washing is also supposed to be affective discouraging moths.

There are 300 references to sheep and lambs, more than any other animal, in the Old Testament, one the earliest documents that mentions sheep. Abraham, Moses and David tended a sheep at one time to make a living. Jacob gave Joseph a multicolored coat and Roman's drew lots to see who would get Jesus's cloak. Both garments were probably made of wool. During biblical times fleece was left out overnight in the desert to collect drinking water. In the morning dew was wrung out of it. ╤

The Pope, today, flies around in a plane called Shepherd One , and because the Old Testament forbids the mingling of wool and linen Jews sometimes have their clothing examine for this unkosher mix. St. Blaise, the patron saint of clothiers, is depicted in some Middle Ages churches practicing the eight processes used in wool making: sorting, washing, fulling, cropping, carding, weaving, teasing the nap, and pressing.╤

Wool in English History

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penned sheep in the Luttrell Psalter
Sheep played an important part in the development of the English economy and wool was England's first great industry. Land owners grew rich raising sheep. By the late Middle Ages the export of wool was the nations largest source of income. Their best customers were Flemish cloth merchants who later were imported to England to improve its own cloth making industry.[Source: Nina Hyde, National Geographic, May 1988 ╤]

In medieval times the main purpose of English sheep was to fertilize fields. In the 13th century austere Cistercian monks became very rich by selling high quality wool three times the going price. Their product was so valuable the ransom to free Richard the Lionhearted, who was taken prisoner by the Austrians in the Third Crusade, was paid in Cistercian wool not money.╤

The Cistercians also invented futures trading. In their attempt to free themselves from the burden of the worldly life they left the responsibility of sheep rearing to their lay brothers. Not wanting to be bothered with annual piles of paper work the Cistercians signed contracts with promises to deliver their goods five to ten years in the future. Everything worked out fine unless the sheep died from disease or the supply of wool fell short of the wool promised by the contract. When this happened the monks were forced to buy wool at high prices to fill orders.╤

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Sheep and Goat in Asian painting
In the Middle Ages every country in Europe relied on England for wool. English royalty raised money from taxes and fees on the wool trade and ministers gained power by the granting of concessions to wool towns. In the nursery rhyme "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep," the first bag, the "One for my master," probably refers to the export tax on wool.╤

Wool churches like the one in Lavenham in East Anglia were financed by middlemen who became rich on a wool industry of weavers, spinners and fullers who did their work at home and depended on the middlemen’s financing and organizational skills to hold their operations together.╤

In the 16th century wool was so valuable and sheep were so easy to raise that farmland was converted in sheep pastures and people started to go hungry. "By the end of the 18th century," Nina Hyde wrote in National Geographic, "there were more than 300 British laws touching very aspect of the trade, from clipping the sheep to prohibiting the export of wool. In 1571 a man could be fined for not wearing a wool cap. By 1662 mourning clothes had to be made of English wool. And in 1667 a law required everyone to be buried in wool. Shepherds were buried with a tuft of wool on their chests: It explained to their Maker why they never got to church on Sunday.╤

Dolly, the First Cloned Sheep

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Dolly cloning
A scientific advancement that caught everyone by surprise and happened much earlier than anyone anticipated was the cloning of a sheep named Dolly by the Scottish embryologist Ian Wilmut of Scotland's Roslin Institute. Other animals like frogs and pigs had been cloned before. What made Wilmut's advancement so revolutionary was that Dolly was produced from cells taken from an adult sheep (previous clones of advanced animals were made from fetal cells which are far easier to work with).

Dolly was an exact copy of her mother. Wilmut named her after the country singer Dolly Parton because she was produced cells taken from her pregnant mother's mammary gland (breasts). Explaining why he chose the name, Wilmut said, "No one could think of a more impressive set of mammary glands than Dolly Parton's.”

The cloning of Dolly was announced in February, 1997. Wilmut said he developed the process as a tool in animal husbandry not as a way to clone Bill Gates or Michael Jordans. In May 1997, the Roslin Institute applied for a patent on the Dolly cloning process. A sweater made from some of Dolly's wool was displayed at London Science Museum. Dolly died in 2003 at the age of six after being given a lethal injection when it was discovered that she had a progressive lung disease.

Dolly Cloning Procedure

The cloning of Dolly was achieved by reprogramming one cell (i.e. a bone, nerve or tissue cell) to perform the role of another kind of cell (a developing embryo cell)---a process thought to be impossible or so unlikely that most scientist who had tied it gave up on the idea. In the case of Dolly a donor cell was used with an egg that has been striped of its nucleus and stimulated with an electric pulse. Wilmut was able to fuse the adult DNA with the egg cell making the egg cell "quiescent" or inactive thus making the DNA more likely to be "read" and accepted.

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Stuffed Dolly in the National
Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh
It was previously though it would be impossible for he DNA of adult cells to act like the DNA in sperm and ovum cells. Wilmut took the cells from the mammary gland and prepared them so they would be accepted by an egg from another sheep, then replaced the egg DNA egg with the mammary gland DNA, which was fused with the egg cell. The fused cells to Wilmut's astonishment began to divided and replicate as if they were normal fetal cells to produce an embryo, which was then implanted in another ewe.

A year after Wilmut's great achievement scientists had not been able to duplicate the results. It took Wilmut's team 400 tries to create Dolly and even they were unable to create another sheep cloned from adult cells. Wilmut said there was a one in a million chance that his mammary gland cells could have been contaminated with fetal cells and suggests that they simply got lucky with Dolly and process is more difficult that previously thought.

In 1999, reports came out that Dolly had genetic aberrations that seemed to indicated that her cells were older than the cells of a normal sheep her age. Her cells contain slightly-stunted telomeres, appendages on chromosomes that indicate how many times a cell can divide before it dies. Older animals usually have shorter telomeres than younger animals.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Mostly National Geographic articles. Also Time, Newsweek, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wikipedia, The Independent, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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