Thursday, August 16, 2007

More thoughts on wool

My fill-in blogger Rowen has agreed to do a semi-regular post on medieval fabric matters. Here's her second column. (BTW, we're trying to think of a snappy name for this feature - suggestions (via the comments mechanism) are welcome!)

Rowen again. . . .

I know I said, next time, linen, but I've been having a few more thoughts on wool.

Over thirty-some years of historic re-creation, I've heard many folk say things along the lines of, “ugh, wool, itchy!” or, “I just can’t wear it – I’m allergic!”

Well, a person in the Middle Ages who was genuinely allergic to wool would indeed have had quite a problem, but I wonder, how many people *really* were?

I used to think I was. I have uncomfortable memories of wool skirts worn to school as a child, and frantically itching from the waist-bands. Wool jackets, wool slacks, wool sweaters. . . all of these caused discomfort & scratching. I’d about given up wearing wool at all, until one day about 25 years ago, when I mentioned this to a co-worker. “Allergic to wool?” she said. “Nonsense!” And then and there she whipped off her handsome hand-knitted sweater (she was wearing a shirt under it) and handed it to me, saying, “try this.” Now, her sweater had been made from the fleece of ‘Fred the Sheep’ – some friends of hers kept a flock for wool, and every year she purchased ‘Fred’s’ sheared fleece, which was a lovely charcoal grey, and washed, spun, and knitted the wool herself. No weird chemical dyes, no dry-cleaning, no commercial processing. So I clapped ‘Fred’ to my stomach, expecting an itchy reaction – and didn’t get one. To shorten the tale, it turns out that I wasn’t allergic to wool – I was allergic to dry-cleaning fluid! Nowadays, all of my woolen clothing, whether modern or medieval, is cold-water washed and air-dried. No itching, no problems. (Admittedly, there *are* some folk now, and doubtless were a few then as well, who *do* have a genuine allergy to wool, lanolin, etc., and are simply going to have to avoid it.)

But consider – medieval wool was washed, yes, and often dyed – but never dry-cleaned, never treated with any amount of the chemical substances currently used somewhere along the path between the sheep and the shirt. True, ascetics often wore wool without linen under it (linen inner garments were considered upper-class, and maybe just a bit decadent in the 6th and 7th centuries in Britain) and fine soft wool was always to be preferred over coarse or hairy wool, but I doubt very much that there were all that many folk in medieval Europe suffering from itching – or at least not from their woolen clothes. But that’s a thought for another day.


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