Hot and humid October has felt more like August this year, and I never thought I would still be wearing shorts so late in the year. I love summer, but I also love cool weather, when I can wear long-sleeve layers of cotton and wool.
Wool appeals to the Celt in me. I love the look and feel of Scottish tartans, the patterns of stripes and blocks that designate clan affiliation, made from luxurious wool fabric. I love those Irish sweaters with the textured stripes. And nothing keeps my head warm in winter as does a French beret or a wool tam O’shanter, often called a bonnet in the 1700s, the round Scottish cap with the pompon. Wool hats are comforting in a way that plastic-and-polyester baseball caps could never be.
Wool fabrics retain their shape and resist wrinkling, they are warm and light and readily take dyes, and their natural colors also look good. Short fibers are used for tweed clothing and blankets; and worsteds, made from long fibers, are more tightly twisted, less bulky, and more strong and durable and are often used for sweaters, fine dress fabrics and suits.
The Latin word for wool is lana, also the source of the word lanolin, the oil found in wool. Lanolin is used in Bag Balm, my favorite cure for dry hands. If I raised sheep, I could coat my hands by petting them, but I don’t have sheep, so I use the grease in the green tin, to the dismay of certain coworkers who hate the smell. My goat’s hair also contains lanolin, but not as much as sheep.
Wool clothing is widespread in the British Isles, from the Norwegian Sea in the north to the Channel in the south. Women in the Shetland Islands, well north of Scotland, are famous for their speed-knitting, using the fleece of the Shetland sheep. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy says the Shetland is the smallest British breed, retaining many characteristics of wild sheep, and is considered a primitive breed. It may have been brought to the islands, which lie midway between Scotland and Scandinavia and display characteristics of both regions, about 1,000 years ago. Rams weigh 90 to 125 pounds, and ewes weigh 75 to 100 pounds. The fleece is prized by those speed-knitters and by wool lovers in the British Isles.
I think the cool, wet climate of Great Britain is one reason why wool is more widely worn in the British Isles; people wore jackets in photos my brother-in-law sent from his mid-summer trip to Edinburgh, and a store advertised wool scarves. Its said the wet climate is the reason for Scottish men’s wear: rather than trudging around all day in wet trousers after a night of watching cattle or sheep in the heather, men wore knee-high socks and the plaidie, the body-wrapping predecessor of the skirt-style kilt, allowing their legs to be dry and warm.
Sheep are a good choice for the rocky soils of Scotland, Ireland and England. They are ruminants, and their horns grow back in a downward curve that will form a complete spiral if the animal lives long enough. Sheep graze on grasses, whereas goats browse on trees, bushes and gardens. Sheep have been domesticated in the Middle East, Europe and central Asia from at least 5000 B.C. Sheep, at least in the United States, keep getting bigger because they are bred for production. A shearer I know said sheep were smaller when he was a kid, and historic breeds look like dwarfs.
Reversing that trend, Colonial Williamsburg established the first American Leicester Longwool flock in the 1990s from Australian animals. The breed had been developed in the 1700s in Britain and influenced subsequent British breeds. It was popular with the colonists, who, still proudly considering themselves British subjects, followed the British lead in culture and learning.
North American seasons are more extreme, though, with hotter summers than in Great Britain, and cotton has become dominant in the clothing industry. Winters are harsher than those in Great Britain, and wool, if not a summer fabric, is perfect for cold weather. October is advancing, and these hot days are numbered. The tams are waiting.
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