History of Sheep

Sheep are an important part of the economy of North Africa, Europe, and West Asia even today. They were much more important long ago. People wore clothes made out of wool from the sheep, and they drank milk from the sheep and ate its cheese and its meat (lamb is the meat of baby sheep; mutton is meat from grown-up sheep, which is tougher and harder to chew). People wove tapestries for the walls, and carpets for the floors, and blankets, all out of sheep’s’ wool.

Sheep generally wandered around from one place to another, through the villages and around them, looking for grass to eat under the care of a shepherd. Often shepherds were children, sometimes groups of children. Joseph, for instance, was out tending the sheep with his brothers when his brothers sold him to the Egyptian slave traders.

People hunted wild sheep from the beginning of the Stone Age, with stone-tipped wooden spears and wooden clubs. But around the end of the Stone Age, about 10,000 BC, some people in West Asia began to keep tame, domesticated sheep for themselves. Probably people began to herd sheep because there were so many people living in the area that wild sheep were getting hard to find. It’s more work, and not as much fun, to herd sheep as to hunt them, but it is a more efficient use of land. If you started by catching a few lambs in nets, and raising them to know you, it would be easy to domesticate sheep.

At first people only kept sheep for their meat and their milk. These early sheep only had hair, like goats. They didn’t have any wool to make into clothes. But as people began to breed sheep to make them more useful, they began to breed them with longer hair, and gradually sheep got woollier. By around 3000 BC, you could spin sheeps’ wool and weave it into cloth. Even then, sheep had much less wool than they do today, after 5000 more years of breeding.

People also bred sheep to be much stupider than wild sheep, so they would be easier to watch over, and not try to get away. And they bred them to want to all stay together in one herd, which also made the sheep easier to watch over.

The most interesting thing about wool is that sheep didn’t always have wool, or not enough to notice. When people first started hunting sheep, they hunted them for their meat.

Sheep hair was more like deer hair is today, short and thick, not long and fine and curly. Like goat hair.

Then around 10,000 BC people in West Asia began to domesticate sheep(tame them) and take care of them, so there would always be plenty of meat around. At this point they began to use the milk from the sheep also, either drinking it fresh or making it into cheese. When they had killed a sheep, of course they would also make the skin into leather, and maybe leave the hair on to make it warmer, like a fur coat. But still there was no wool as we know it today.

Sometime not too much later people also began to make clothes, instead of just wearing furs. Since they had sheepskins around, one of the fibres they used was sheep hair. They noticed that although none of the sheep hair was really any good for spinning, because it was too thick and brittle, some of the hair from the stomach, the underside of the sheep, was better than the rest. And people began breeding the sheep that had the most good hair together, trying to get some hair you could spin. It took thousands of years, many many generations of sheep, but by about5000 BC, people could begin to spin wool.

Wool has a lot of advantages over vegetable fibres. It is easier to prepare it for spinning: you just cut it off the sheep and comb it out. It is easier to spin than cotton or flax, and quicker. It is warmer (that’s why sweaters are made of wool, and sometimes socks, and blankets) (though this is also a disadvantage in very warm climates like Egypt). The lanolin on the wool makes it shed water, so it is a good fibre to wear if you will be out in the rain (as shepherds often are). And you can dye it more easily than flax, so you can have clothes in pretty colours and patterns.

Spinning has probably been around almost as long as people have. Every group of people known on earth at least knows how to pick some long grass or animal hair (or some of their own hair) and roll it back and forth along their leg or between their hands until the grasses all twist together and make a stronger piece of twine (twine after all just means something that is twisted). You can try this yourself with some long grass or some of your hair (don’t cut it! Your parents will kill me. Just break off a few strands). This kind of spinning makes a good string for setting a trap or tying a leather bag closed. You can even use it to make a grass skirt, with a belt of braided grass and some twisted fibres hanging down. Some people think that wearing a skirt like this meant that you were ready to have babies.

But it isn’t very good for clothes that are actually going to cover you and keep you warm. For that people used fur and leather at first. But as there got to be more and more people around, say by around 5000 BC, it was hard to kill enough animals for everyone to have fur coats.

So people began to think of new ways to make cloth. Someone invented the spindle. A spindle is basically a thing that spins. It spins like a top: you give it a twist and let it go, and it spins for a while and then falls down. In fact it is a kind of top, and spinning is sort of a cross between using a top and using a yo-yo.

In order to make a spindle, you take any fairly straight stick you find lying around (there’s no need to take the bark off even), about a foot long. And you take a gob of clay and make it round like a ball, and then flatten it a little bit, and you push the gob of clay over the end of the stick so the point of the stick shows out the other side a little. And you let the clay dry. (if your stick is a little thicker near the bottom, it will help the clay stay on). The stick is called the spindle and the clay part is called the whorl.

Then you take some wool and you twist a little up on your leg or between your hands, and you tie that to the top of the spindle, and you give the spindle a twist and let it go, like a top, falling to the ground slowly, like a yo-yo. Meanwhile with the other hand you feed out more wool from a bunch you are holding. The spindle twists it up for you as it falls. When it stops spinning, or reaches the ground, you flick it back up into your hand (like a yo-yo.), wind on the thread you’ve made, give it another twist and let it go again.

All of the cloth used in the ancient world was made with thread produced in just this way. (well, there are different methods where the whorl is at the top, or the spindle stays on the ground, but they are not very different). Also, thread and rope for nets and ships was made this way.

As with a yo-yo., people who have been practising for a while can spin while doing other things. People spin while they are walking somewhere, or riding a donkey. People spin while they are talking to their friends, and even in the dark after the fire is out for the night. Both men and women could spin, though women did most of the spinning for clothes, and men did the spinning for nets and rope. Women probably did more spinning. You need so much thread to make clothes and blankets that women probably needed to spin pretty much all the time.

There are a lot of different fibres that people used to spin. Probably people began by spinning plant fibres, like hemp and flax (when you make cloth out of flax that is linen). Then they began to spin wool as well, and then cotton and silk. Then you have to weave the cloth


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