In Chinese culture, sheep are considered auspicious animals. According to the Chinese lunar calendar, 2015 is the year of the sheep, which should mean we are in for a year of promise and prosperity. We here at Rustik were interested in what other significance sheep had to modern culture.
We got in touch with American author, Catherine Friend, who very kindly agreed to allow us to republish a chapter from her book, Sheepish, on the importance of wool to the United States before its founding and right up to its ingenious uses today.
Patriotism is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime. –Adlai E. Stevenson
Sheep might be the most colorful animals on the planet. They’re green. They’re covered in white or black or brown fleece. And if you shear off that fleece, underneath you’ll find centuries of red, white and blue.
Wool has kept US soldiers warm in every war. Pioneers in Oregon built mills and made blankets for soldiers in the Civil War. One of the early Oregon mills is still there – Pendleton. During World War II we couldn’t produce enough wool to keep our troops in warm uniforms and blankets so we had to import wool. The National Wool Act was created in 1954 to encourage farmers to produce more wool by giving them government subsidies. Today, the largest buyer of US wool is the US military.
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers beat the heat by wearing polyester T-shirts designed to wick away moisture and keep them dry. Unfortunately, because it’s made from petroleum, you can’t get much more flammable than a synthetic T-shirt. Hidden IED explosives in Iraq have severely burned thousands of US soldiers. Add a layer of melted plastic over those burns and you have horrific wounds.
A surgeon writes in an online issue of the Marine Corps News: “Burns can kill you and they’re horribly disfiguring. If you’re throwing melted synthetic material on top of a burn, basically you have a bad burn with a bunch of plastic melting into your skin and that’s not how you want to go home to your family.”
That’s why wool manufacturers worked with the military to design a fabric using wool’s natural fire-retardant properties. They made a blend of 50 per cent wool and 50 per cent aramid (a synthetic that is more flame resistant than most). “The fabric feels like silk,” said Jeanette Cardamone, a researcher at the US Department of Agriculture’s Ag Research Service (ARS) Eastern Regional Research Center in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania. When they field-tested the shirts, they didn’t tell the troops they were wearing wool in case they’d automatically imagine the shirts itched.
A wool expert brought a handful of these shirts to our sheep producers’ meeting one year, and the fabric was light, soft, and amazing. We were all given the chance to buy one even though we weren’t military. I looked at the pile of light tan shirts, colored to coordinate with desert camouflage. “Do you have anything in turquoise?” No. “Melting mounting stream?” Again no. I declined to purchase one because tan isn’t my best color, which proves that I can be, on occasion, a total idiot.
Sheep not only do a great job of supporting our troops, but they also supported American colonists. In the 1600s, British cloth was very expensive and the British put restrictions on what the colonists could and could not do when it came to wool textiles. Because colonists were producing their own wool and making their own textiles, they were buying less and less of England’s textiles, which was why England wanted colonies in the first place, as a ready market for their products.
So when American upstarts continued developing their own wool clothing industry, England passed the 1699 Wool Act, declaring that “no person may export in ships or carry by horses” to anywhere outside their own colony “any wool or woolen manufactures.” If caught, the ship’s captain risked forfeiture of his ship and cargo, as well as paying a £500 fine. It’s been said that other punishments included chopping off the hand of someone caught transporting wool.
But our clever colonial shepherds got around this ban on transporting wool. Sheep have feet, so shepherds would walk their sheep to the textile mills, shear them there, then walk home. Of course there was a ban on transporting wool textiles, but these were easier to smuggle than big bags of fleece.
The British couldn’t repress colonial patriots. It became a sign of patriotism to wear clothing made from American wool. Soon even fashionable people dressed in either homespun or linsey-woolsey, a colonial mix of wool and linen or cotton. By 1763, the colonists were spinning like mad. It took about four colonial spinners to keep one weaver in yarn, which paints the picture of women being permanently attached to their spinning wheels, but still, those women were patriots.
The seed of self-sufficiency became firmly rooted in the American mind. George Washington, a sheep owner, continued this patriotic use of clothing. When he was inaugurated on April 3, 1789, he wore a suit manufactured in the new country of the United States by the Hartford Woolen Manufactory, described as “a fine dark-brown woolen coat, waistcoat and breeches, which were worn with white silk stockings and shoes with silver buckles.” For his 1809 inauguration, President James Madison wore a suit of “domestic broadcloth,” woven from the wool of Vermont sheep. I wonder how long it’s been since an American president has worn a wool suit made in America to his inauguration.
This idea of Americans being so determined to be self-sufficient seems overly quaint, almost laughable now, given our devotion to globalization, but it makes me sad to think it’s something we may never see again. We’re supposed to blindly accept globalization as inevitable, yet I wonder what would happen if patriotism became something more than waving the flag or supporting the president no matter what he did or said, and instead became a way to improve people’s lives here, to support American industry, to really put our dollars where they mattered.
A few years ago sock-making Wigwam Mills in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, decided to buy as much American wool as possible, not for patriotic reasons but for practical ones, since the company found that American wool’s tighter crimp created better resilience and insulation.
Goodhew Socks in Tennessee is in the process of converting part of its sock production to an “all-domestically sourced product.” This was apparently the theme of many conversations heard by wool consultants at a recent Outdoor Retailer Summer Show. Said one consultant in Sheep Industry News, “The demand for domestic products is growing. Everyone we talk to expresses strong desire to bring their products back to the United States and promote the fact that they are all domestic.”
George Washington would be proud.