A Warm and Cozy History of Wool

A Warm and Cozy History of Wool - Blog by Resthouse Sleep Solutions

At Resthouse, we love wool: the warmth and weight of a fine wool blanket, the comfort of a mattress topped with wool and the customizable support of a wool-filled pillow. Wool bedding products available today utilize modern techniques that offer us restorative rest for our nights, beautiful textile accents for our homes, and durable enjoyment for years and years to come. But every wool item in the Resthouse showroom has origins dating back thousands of years, when the very first sheep herders realized the unique benefits of this singular material. Join us for a look at wool’s legacy and the comfort it brings our customers every day.

In the Beginning...

The story of wool begins around 10,000 years ago, at about the same time as the origins of animal husbandry. As soon as the people living in the region of Mesopotamia (modern day Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and portions of Syria and Turkey) figured out that they could domesticate livestock instead of hunting, they also realized they could double down on the output of their herds and flocks. From cows, beef but also milk; from chickens, poultry but also eggs; and from sheep, mutton but also perhaps an even more important resource, wool.

The fact that sheep produce wool fleece and Stone Age shepherds understood how to use it, meant that a herd could feed, clothe, and house a village. Wool could be made into clothing that was adaptable to a variety of temperatures and weather conditions. It was also well-suited to crafting items for homes in an array of climates, such as tents, carpets, and bedding. Plus, sheep are hardier and more adaptable to extreme conditions compared to other livestock, making them more portable, a true advantage when venturing into wild lands. Because of these qualities, it is likely that the utility of sheep and their wool helped civilization spread quickly from the Fertile Crescent outward, west into Africa and north toward the Eastern Mediterranean. The Romans especially loved their flocks, taking them along as they conquered most of Europe, establishing wool production in Winchester, England as early as the year 50 CE.

More Than Just Blankets

A big, flat rectangle of woven wool would have been one of the first innovations to arise from the raising of sheep for wool. Warm yet breathable, insulating even when wet, moisture wicking, and fire retardant, perfect for sleeping next to an open fire prone to sparks, the wool blanket quickly became a standard piece of bedding in every home and travel kit the world over. But wool proved its usefulness again and again. As rugged clothing for Neolithic peoples spending a lot of time out in the elements, and eventually as finely woven vestments for the wealthy. And also, as mattress stuffing.

The earliest humans slept on the ground or on a pile of leaves or straw. Eventually, they got the idea to stuff that straw into a big cloth bag and that became the first mattress. It was an improvement but not exactly ideal. Straw and similar organic materials are susceptible to mould, infestation, and don’t offer the forgiving, supportive sleep surface one might hope for. As a result, mattresses often had to be restuffed with new material each season. 

By the 16th century, however, wool batting had caught on for those who could afford it. Resistant to moisture problems, fire retardant, and resilient (it springs back into shape), wool was a far superior stuffing for the mattresses of the rich. And it didn’t need to be replaced: relatively simple maintenance called carding was enough to keep a wool mattress serviceable for decades, a fact that remained true into the early 20th century when mattresses stuffed entirely with wool were still common.

With a finely woven wool blanket on top and a carefully stuffed wool mattress below, it’s possible that King Henry VIII slept virtually encased in a material that only a few thousand years before was keeping poor shepherds warm as they stood watch over their flocks.

Wool in the Modern World

While other types of bedding have been adopted over the centuries, wool textiles have endured and evolved. Some wool products are made with traditional methods that wouldn’t look out of place in a Dickens novel, like MacAusland’s Blankets, which have been in production since 1932. Other items, like some of our favourite mattresses, combine wool with modern materials and forward-thinking design to produce a sleep surface unlike anything the shepherds of Babylon could possibly have imagined.

Wool blanket from MacAusland's Woollen Mills

Strangely, wool pillows weren’t common until the 19th century. Previous to the Industrial Revolution, pillows were largely considered to be a somewhat wasteful use of expensive fabric and batting and so were mainly reserved for the very wealthy. However, with the advent of modern weaving machinery, pillows became cheaper and a fixture of modern homes, from large wool-stuffed pillows for sleeping to small, decorative throw pillows on your grandma’s chesterfield. Today, wool pillows offer support, customizability, and luxurious comfort. 

The list of thoughtfully-designed wool bedding products continues to grow as people come to understand the true value of such a diverse material. From moisture barriers that don’t crinkle and rustle underneath your slumbering toddler, to thick, sumptuous mattress toppers that transform your bed into a dreamland, to comforters that breathe while keeping you warm and cozy, wool can be found throughout the 21st century bedroom.

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