One sheep’s fleece supplies half a dozen trades. Shepherdess Carrie MacDougal spins the tale.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.
The Leicester Longwool sheep looks like a walking mass of curls. The ringlets fall into their eyes and spiral off their bodies in thick tufts. This abundance of wool meant an abundance of work for colonial tradesmen and women. Carrie MacDougal, the shepherdess, or animal husbander, is here to tell us more.
I have heard, and don't know if it's true, that sheep were not dreadfully popular in Colonial Williamsburg. Is that true, or not true?
Carrie MacDougal: Well, we are an English colony, and the English were very fond of beef. But they were certainly eating mutton. By the records that we can go through, it appears that the sheep holders, or people who owned sheep in this particular area, not everyone did, but the average number was about 10. In Patrick Henry's area, which is Hanover County, at this time the average was about six. George Washington had 600 at Mount Vernon alone. Wealth had something to do with that.
Lloyd: The Leicester Longwools are a rare breed. Why do you have them here?
Carrie: First and foremost, they play an important part in our livestock history. I'm sure you've never heard the name Robert Bakewell.
Lloyd: That's right, I've never heard of Robert Bakewell.
Carrie: Most people haven't. But he has affected our agriculture in ways that we probably will never truly understand. With our sheep, he created an animal that had offspring that looked just like the parent. We understand that today as a breed. He developed it by forming – he didn't call it a breed standard – but he formed a breed standard and bred to it exclusively.
By the 19th century, there were breed standards for everything, including chickens, and doves, and rabbits. All of that is because of the work that Robert Bakewell did with our Leicester Longwool sheep. In fact, it was illegal to import wool sheep to the colonies starting very early in our colony's history.
When George Washington wrote to a fellow back in England, he wrote – and I'm going to paraphrase because it's a very long letter that deals with a lot of different things. It's easily found if you go to Mount Vernon's Web site and pull up George Washington's letters to Arthur Young, it's very easy to find. But in it, I'm going to just paraphrase, George Washington writes, "It really is a shame that it is illegal to import these Bakewell sheep, for they have greatly improved my flock.
Lloyd: At least Bakewell did something worthwhile. It's worth remembering.
Carrie: He made a good deal of money with that particular notion of sheep. In fact, in an era where 90 percent of the population is involved in agriculture, everybody had seen a sheep. They would hold letting fairs where you would be able to observe all of the sheep, and then all of the rams, then bid on the ram that you thought would most improve your flock.
Well, Robert Bakewell put all of his sheep in a tent where they could only be viewed against other sheep – other Leicester sheep – and then charged people to look at them. And people paid. All these other farmers are, "Hey, look at this man, look at the money he's making." So this notion caught on very, very quickly.
Lloyd: Well it would, if you could make money at it.
Lloyd: Leicester Longwools implies a lot of wool. Good for the colonies?
Carrie: If they could get it. Now as I said, George Washington was a very wealthy man, and he apparently broke the law to acquire these sheep. By the way, further on in that letter, he does say, to his benefit, that he would never encourage a ship's captain to take on such a risk as breaking the law. Since this one already had, he felt obliged to relieve him of those rams.
So, the sheep that George Washington was breeding were only half Leicester. He sent nine of those fleeces back to England to be commercially produced. Five of them were combed, and four of them were carded and then woven into various products. Arthur Young gave statements regarding almost all of the products that came out of those products that were incredibly favorable. So yes, it was a very important animal to us. How much of it was spun and woven in Colonial Virginia? Probably not a whole lot because it was illegal to import them and you had to be very wealthy in order to acquire them.
Lloyd: Do we still do any wool work here?
Carrie: I'm so glad you asked. In fact, yesterday, I sheared a sheep, and I'll be shearing another ewe today. It will be the last of my ewes, and they'll be ready for lambing at Easter time. So please come back and see us at Easter to see our lambs.
We shear the wool, then we would sell the fleeces to hand spinners. They're probably our biggest customer here at Colonial Williamsburg. Because it is a rare bred, there are only 600 registered Leicesters in the entire country. If you want to get your hands on a fleece, here's a good place to find one. It is a long staple. It can be six to eight inches in length, and as a hand spinner, it can be really fun to work with, that kind of length of wool.
Now, Max Hamrick is weaving right now a Leicester Longwool blanket, which, March 8th and 9th, we hope to be fulling. Fulling is a process that takes fabric right off the loom and works it to bring the fibers closer together and fluff up the nap. You want a blanket that's nice and warm and fluffy. If you join us March 8th and 9th, we would love to have you help us full this blanket.
Lloyd: What is fulling?
Carrie: It's the process of taking this fabric off the loom. You put it hot water and then you add soap and Fuller's earth, and then you get a lot of people to help you beat it.
Lloyd: OK, that I understand.
Carrie: And then you pass it to the next person. You're working as a team so that the wool doesn't get worked a whole lot in one particular area. You're working with that wet wool. If you've ever taken a really favorite wool sweater and accidentally got it into the washing machine and the dryer, you've fulled it.
Lloyd: Whether I wanted to or not.
Carrie: It's going to be a lot smaller than when you started.
Lloyd: Does that happen to this blanket that gets fluffy? It shrinks?
Carrie: It will, it will shrink in length and width. That's part of the fulling. You have to know when to stop. Then you will put it on something called a tenter's hook.
Lloyd: That sounds familiar, but not favorably.
Carrie: It's a frame that has nails on it. You would put this wet fabric on there so that it dries in the type of shape that you would like. If you took that wet sweater out of the washing machine and pulled it, it will probably not go back to its original size, but it will be in better shape than if you hadn't done that.
Lloyd: Now, when you get it on this frame, I was going to say, as you have been fulling it, the fabric has been shrinking because it's wet and it has soap and something called Fuller's earth.
Carrie: Yes, it's kind of an abrasive.
Lloyd: Now, when you stick it on this tenterhook frame, would that stretch it out?
Carrie: You're going to stretch it so that it's … you want a blanket to be blanket-sized. You don't want it skinny in the middle, or too fat in the middle. You want it to be pretty uniform around the edges. It helps with that, and you can stretch it some. Back in 1550, there were laws passed by the English government on the Welsh, because they were stretching it way too much. So you don't want to stretch it too much.
Lloyd: What would happen if you did?
Carrie: I believe it would injure the integrity of the blanket. It might make it weak in some spots.
Lloyd: How did you learn to do that? How did you learn to full sheep shearings the old way, or I presume the old way?
Carrie: Actually the sheep-shearing part of the process is what brought me to Williamsburg. I wanted to learn how to shear sheep with hand shears. Hand shearing is very, I think it's a very peaceful process. You take this very wooly, nearly blind sheep with wool in her eyes, and when she gets up and runs away from you, she's going to be absolutely shiny and clean-faced and clean-legged and look like a beautiful clean animal. What's left on the ground in front of you is, it looks like the shape of a bear rug, and it's fiber that I can make a multitude of things out of.
Lloyd: Why did you want to be a sheep shearer, a hand sheep shearer?
Carrie: The difference between hand shears and regular scissors -- which people usually associate them with -- is scissors require you to open and shut them with your hands. Hand shears, you just close them. There's a spring action in the end of the shears that allow it to spring open with every, it's called a blow. Every cut you take is called a blow. And so, with every motion of your hand, it springs back open. You only have one motion you have to make when you're shearing. As to why I would prefer hand shears over electric shears, electric shears are very loud and scary and noisy to the sheep. You can't talk to someone else while you're shearing if you're using these loud things. Probably the biggest reason is that electric shears go very, very fast. You don't have that problem with hand shears.
Lloyd: What trades use wool, or used wool in the 18th century?
Carrie: You would be amazed how many trades use wool products. We could start with the wigmaker's, that's the first one that comes to mind. They will be using sheep fat rendered into making a pomade to dress the wigs. They have stuffing, it's a pad that they use beneath the hair to elevate the hair on the wig. That pad is made either with ox hair, or sheep's wool.
Lloyd: Sheep's wool sounds a bit more comfortable. Is it?
Carrie: It's just a pad. It's encased in fabric that allows you to elevate your hair without having to tease it a whole lot.
Lloyd: Who else?
Carrie: Of course, the mantua makers, the tailors, they'll be using wool in their garments. They also use it in crewelwork to make beautiful embroidery. You're using it at the apothecary. The apothecary has some very interesting ways of using wool. You think about poultices, which we don't talk about much today. A poultice was used to draw out boils and poisons and things like that. Well, your poultice would be applied to wool flannel, and then applied to the skin to keep you from getting burned from the actual poultice.
Let's see, the coopers are helping us, because they make objects that hold water and feed. Their trade affects ours greatly. Foodways, of course, use our sheep in a whole different manner. We won't go into that a whole lot. It's amazing how many, across the boards. Even today, right now, the Eiffel Tower, its original elevator that was installed in the mid-1800s, is still being lubricated with mutton fat. Because with all of our technology, we haven't found anything better than mutton fat to keep this elevator going.