Wool
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Basic Information

Wool is, crudely put, sheep hair and has a long and extensive tradition of being appropriated by humans for use in textiles. The term may also be extended to the hair of other species including goats, various camelids (including llama and alpacas) and even rabbits - but sheep remain the default and the largest volume providers. The coat of hair is generally called a fleece - a name it retains when separated from the animal (although it may also be called a clip1 at this point).

The natural properties of wool make it a good insulator and surprisingly fire resistant, but it is also prone to absorb water up to a third of its mass and dries slowly once wet.

The hair is sheared from the source animal, cleaned and spun into thread, which can then be woven into cloth or made into thicker cords or rope. Alternatively wool may be "felted", which essentially involves bonding wool fibres by hammering them together into a continuous mat - this process appears to predate weaving as a textile making technology. Woven cloth may also be felted and felting may be used to repair holes in other woolen cloths2. Dyeing may take place at any point in the process but is typically performed on either the spun thread or the cloth. Unspun wool can also be used for stuffing or as an adsorbent or filter medium. Prior to the invention of shears, wool either had to be gathered from bushes where it had snagged or combed from the sheep by hand - neither of which is an especially efficient process.

As sheared, wool also contains a significant quantity of natural oil known as lanolin. This may be retrieved by washing the wool in hot water and skimming the oil from the surface but is sometimes left in place to serve its original function as a waterproofing agent - the Roman army cloak known as the sagum and many similar garments were made this way - this yields a greasy, smelly and un-dyeable material, but one which avoids wool's normal tendency to soak up water.

Historically, wool production was a highly significant economic activity outside the few areas where cotton is indigenous and it remained a major trade good until the widespread adoption of artificial fibres in the late twentieth century when its significance declined considerably.

Sources

Bibliography
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