Brief History of Sheep and Wool

New Cloth Market

By: Jenne Giles

Before there can be felt, there must first be sheep. Where the sheep go, the wool and felt will surely follow. Sheep have been an essential element of the growth of civilizations, the development of industry, and the colonization of new territories that have shaped the world we know today.

Sheep belong to the Ovis Aries species, part of the Caprinae family. Caprinae animals first appeared 15 to 18 million years ago. They have a tolerance of extreme temperatures and are ideally suited to living in mountainous environments of Europe and Asia. A wild breed of sheep called the "mouflon" is thought to be the primary ancestor of the modern, domesticated sheep that we are familiar with today. It is surprising to think that these early sheep did not have the fleecy wool we so readily associated with present-day breeds. Instead they were likely a variety of hair sheep with a short coat of bristly fibers, unsuitable for spinning or felting. It would take many millennia and careful breeding practices to produce these wooly coats.

Sheep were one of the earliest animals to be domesticated for agricultural purposes, which occurred sometime between 11, 500 to 9500 BCE in the Mesolithic Era. The earliest domestication of sheep is though to have occurred in Central Asia. The steppes in Central Asia are an arid prairie land, too dry to support a forest but not dry enough to form a desert that made traditional agriculture difficult. The people who lived there were pastoral nomads always in motion to find new grazing pasture for their stock of horses, goats, camels and sheep.

Historical records tell us that sheep were raised in Mesopotamia for their meat, milk and skins. It was not until 6000 BCE, during the Neolithic Era, that sheep were selectively bred to produce finer quality wool. Raising sheep for wool production was one of the earliest industries in the ancient world. By 3500 to 3000 BCE, sheep rearing was a major industry that spanned a vast territory ranging from the Caspian Sea across Anatolia into the northwest as far as modern-day Germany and Switzerland and southeast into Sumeria (Schoeser, 25). As ancient people transitioned from nomadic lifestyles to permanent settlements, looms were used to transform wool fibers into woven textiles, which could be traded. In fact, the sheep and textile industry that blossomed during these times may have played an important role in the development of writing to keep better records of this trade.

Sheep first entered the African continent via Sinai and were present in Ancient Egypt between 6000 to 5000 BCE, said to have migrated down Africa from Egypt. Sheep were present in ancient Egyptian society between 6000 and 5000 BCE. The ancient Egyptians revered the male sheep, the Ram, for its virility and war-like attributes. Priests were forbidden from wearing wool garments or eating mutton. Similarly, the dead were not buried with wool, nor were sheeps milk and meat offered to the dead in ceremony. It is unsure whether this is because the sheep were considered impure or whether the sheep were manifestations of important gods that prohibited the use of sheep products in Ancient Egypt.

On the European continent, the sheep industry continued to grow through the Bronze and Iron Age. In ancient Greece, 80% of the economy was based on agriculture and animal husbandry was a sign of wealth and power. Goats and sheep were the most common livestock animals, providing meat, wool and milk. In Ancient Rome, oxen and sheep were the essential elements of wealth and their value is evident in the fact that fines were paid in units of these animals, even after the introduction of coins as currency. In Rome, sheep were used for sacrifice to the gods and for divination of the future, a practice called haruspicy adopted from the Etruscan civilization. Soap made from sheep's tallow emerges at this time, a technology credited to the Celts of Gaul. Romans kept sheep on a large scale and it is likely that they helped sheep to spread through the continent of Europe and other territories of the Roman Empire. Romans introduced a hornless, whiteface short-wool sheep in the British Isles by 55 BCE where they were cross bread with indigenous Soay breed. By 50 CE, the Romans established a wool mill in England, where the wool production flourished to such an extent that it would later dominate the industry during the Middle Ages. The Phoenicians are attributed with introducing sheep from Asia Minor to North Africa, from whence the foundation flocks for the wool industry in Spain would derive.  An alternate legend for the origin of sheep in Britain says that the Phoenicians brought wool to the British Isles sometime between 800 and 500 BCE.


In the cold climates of Northern Europe, wool was important to keeping warm. An indigenous breed of sheep are thought to have been in Norway since before the 9th Century CE. It is around this time that the Vikings, who lived in Norway, Denmark and Sweden, brought sheep for wool and meat to the lands where they traveled and settled such as Iceland, Greenland and Froyar (which originally meant "sheep island") where the animals thrived in the harsh climates. This practice of settling islands by introducing sheep flocks would continue to be used by other colonizing forces in later history.

Wool played a major role in the development of nations and the discovery of new worlds. By 1000 CE, England and Spain emerge as the main centers of wool production. In England, during the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603), sheep and wool were the primary source of tax revenue for the Crown of England. Spain developed the Merino breed of sheep, known for its particularly soft and fine fleece, in the 12th Century and maintained a stringent monopoly on the breed. The export of a single ewe was punishable by death until Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1786 opened the doors to other nations interested in obtaining this fine breed.

This monopoly on the trade in Merino wool created the great wealth that Spain used to launch its explorations of the New World. The Spanish brought the first domesticated sheep to the Americas on Christopher Columbus's second voyage in 1493 when Spain established colonies in the Caribbean and in Mexico. As Merino sheep were much too valuable to export from Spain, the Spanish introduced in the Americas a sheep breed called the Churra, meaning "common" or "scrub." The Churra was especially sturdy and flourished in the harsh conditions of the American Southwest.

As Spanish colonization spread through what is now the Southwest United States, large ranches flourished in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, feeding the mining towns and growing populations of the region. The Spanish enslaved the native Pueblo Indians, who wove with cotton for centuries, to herd sheep and to weave wool. The Navajo and Apache tribes acquired sheep through trade and raiding, and the sheep would become a key part of their livelihood and culture. Among the Navajo is a strong belief that "sheep is life" and sheep became associated with the Good Life in their culture, living in harmony and balance with the land.

Previous to the arrival of the Spanish in South America, the native peoples enjoyed an abundance of natural materials from which to fashion cloth. Llama, alpaca and vicua wool predominated and alpaca remained more popular among the Andean people than the use of sheep's wool.

During the period of intense colonization that ensued after Columbus's first journey, the Spanish, British, and Dutch planted the early seeds of wool industry at their colonies in America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, which would quickly grow into major centers of wool production.

The British established the first flock in the American Colonies in 1609. By 1662, the first woolen mill was built in Watertown, MA to produce wool textiles for domestic clothing. When the American Colonies began to compete with British wool production, strict laws, taxes and embargos were levied on the Colonies to protect the English sheep industry's "golden fleece." One such law threatened to amputate the hand of any colonist attempting to improve the bloodline of American sheep. These restrictive measures added to the growing unrest that sparked the American Revolution.

The first sheep arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in Australia in 1788 with the British colonists of the First Fleet. These were mostly destined for dinner plates and the Australian wool industry did not begin until later in 1797 with the import of Spanish Merino. This would lead to an explosion of the sheep and wool industry that play such a vital role in the culture and economy of Australia today. Captain Cook brought the first sheep to New Zealand in 1773. The sheep population today outnumbers the human population of New Zealand by 12 to 1.

Sheep have long played an important role in subsistence farming in Africa, but South Africa is the only country that keeps an influential number of commercial sheep today. The Dutch colonialists brought sheep from Holland in 1657 to South Africa where they crossbreed them to a local hair sheep kept by the indigenous Hottntot people. This produced a new variety with good mutton and coarse wool. It was not until Merino sheep were imported from Holland in 1789 that fine wool breeding began.


Today there are more than 200 breeds of sheep. Each breed is particularly suited for fleece, meat, hide or milk, or a combination. Sheep's wool is still the most widely used of any animal. Though sheep continue to play an important part of the global agricultural economy, their role has diminished with the greater use of synthetic fibers in the textile industry and a dietary preference for chicken, pig and cow among people. These factors have led to a decline in demand for sheep and their products. On the plus side, sheep do continue be vitally important to the niche markets of organic and sustainable agriculture and in developing nations that rely on subsistence farming.

Currently, the largest flocks of sheep are kept in China, Australia, India and Iran, for both wool and meat, and the major centers of wool production are Australia, New Zealand, Nations in South and Central America and the British Isles.

Originally published in New Cloth Market; July 2009