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Chapitre I

Wool

Comprendre ce qu'est la laine - et pourquoi elle est une matière d'avenir

Pictorial representations of mouflons and other animals from rock engravings in France.

Sheep, human and wool

At the heart of our history

To focus on wool is to look back to the foundations of human societies, to our “prehistory”.

Sheep were one of the first species domesticated by humans: the first evidence of sheep farming dates back to the 9th millennium BC and is located in the Fertile Crescent.

The benefits of domestication have helped humans to settle down.
The transition from a nomadic to an agricultural life has led to the growth and expansion of our population, the complexification of our social structures and the emergence of technological innovations.

Humans have long been closely linked to sheep.

A brief overview to better understand our relationship with Ovis Aries.

La Grotte des Combarelles, located in the Dordogne, decorated with numerous animal representations dating from around 13,000 years ago, highlights the historical relationship between man and the mouflon.

Sheep genetic evolution

From Ovis Orientalis to Ovis Aries

From a wild animal – the southwestern Eurasian Mouflon – the domestic sheep gradually emerged.

This transformation can be seen as a series of genetic mutations – spread over about eleven millennia.

These human-induced mutations – and certainly occasionally influenced by environmental conditions – were motivated by the search for specific characteristics in sheep: their size, horn size, reproductive capacity and wool quality.

Today, there are over a thousand breeds of sheep in the world – including 58 in France.

Detail of the wool of a French sheep.

What is wool?

Millennial material

Most mammals have ‘fur’ – an accumulation of hair that insulates the body.

In some species (sheep, goats, rabbits, camels, yaks, etc.), part of the coat has historically been used for utilitarian purposes (to make yarn, clothes, tapestries, etc.). In these animals, the “wool” is ultimately the down – the hair closest to the body – which is shed naturally at the end of winter.

In the particular case of the sheep, the down of the ancestral species has been transformed, developed, in the course of its evolution – under human influence. The coat has changed: reduction of the roughest, weakest and shortest fibres, loss of pigmentation.
 
In this species, the wool became more important than the other parts of the coat, so much so that it ended up growing continuously – freeing itself from the seasonal rhythm.
Over time, certain breeds of sheep* have become the ‘champions’ of wool – producing an entirely woolly fleece with long, fine, strong, abundant fibres.
*The sheep wool recognised as being of the highest quality comes from the Merino breed – originally from Spain and now favoured in wool producing countries.
In France there are 4 Merino breeds directly descended from the Spanish “rustic” breeds: Mérinos d’Arles, Mérinos de Rambouillet, Mérinos Précoce and Est à Laine Mérinos.

Other wools – not from sheep – are particularly appreciated for their quality.
For example: mohair (from the Angora goat), cashmere, yak wool, camel wool, Angora rabbit wool, alpaca wool, etc.
These are fibres derived from down, obtained from the combing of hair clippings at the time of the animal’s “moult” at the end of the winter.

Wool's quality

Outstanding material

The unique complexity of wool fibre gives it outstanding properties that cannot be imitated with synthetic materials.

Detail of the structure and properties of a merino wool fibre.

Diagram of the composition of a wool fibre, showing its different components and their physical characteristics. Source : Woolmark.

How to transform wool

Adaptable fibre

The transformation of a raw fleece into a garment is a complex process carried out in several stages.

Photo of workers combing wool in French workshops in the 20th century.

Wool combing in the French industry at the beginning of the 20th century – a skill and industry that has almost disappeared. Source : Berthaud Frères.

French wool

Precious heritage

In France, until a few decades ago, sheep were raised to sell their wool.
Now – since 2002 – recognised by the European Union as an “animal by-product”, French wool – despite its proven quality and diversity – is often badly valued.

As a result, France now exports the vast majority of its wool abroad – only 4% of wool is used domestically.

A quarter of the world’s wool production is now produced in Australia, and the country supplies almost all the wool for the fashion industry.

Natural heritage too precious to be thrown away or devalued in the eyes of many actors, many are those who are mobilising to promote French wools – and their transformation on the national territory. We are proud to be one of them.

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