Wool, Fabric of History – National Geographic 1988

March 17, 2016


Look what I found.

Well, what my sister found. Her neighbour was moving (or downsizing) and she snagged his National Geographic collection. Boxes and boxes of issues dating back to the early 1950s. She kept a selection and passed the rest onto my Step Dad, who very nicely picked out a few issues he thought I’d be especially interested in.

What a treasure. Both the article and this little glimpse into magazine history. There’s only a few articles inside, they’re long, and a grand total of two advertisements (Tropical Forest Project and Toyota Corolla).

I’ve snapped some of my favourite images from the 40 page spread and highlighted a few cool facts about wool. The bulk of the article discusses the history of the wool trade and an analysis of what it looked like then in 1988. I’d love to include the whole thing, but I’m not sure if that’s kosher…


“48-year-old Gur Jan has raised eight children in this felt yurt near Urumqi in western China.”


As you may already know, the magic of wool lies in the teeny tiny scales fibers of wool are covered in. When you put wool in warm water and agitate it (aka throw the sweater your partner knit you in the washing machine) all those little scales lock into each other and the fibres shrink until they’re very densely packed and felted (aka your partner brakes up with you).

Why Wool Is So Cool

  • “Wool provides great warmth for little weight.” It’s insulation properties come from the air that’s trapped between fibres. Why does it feel warm? Fewer fibres touch the skin than other fabrics, so less heat is conducted away from the skin. Smooth cotton feels cold, fleecy blankets feel warm!
  • Wool also is great at keeping things cold. The insulation properties work both ways — trapped air also keeps things cold. It can be used to insulate cold room doors and Bedouin wear wool in the desert to keep cool (!!).
  • Wool is super absorbent. The surface is water resistant, and the interior is highly absorbent. It absorbs as much as 30% of its weight without feeling wet to the touch (compare that with cotton which absorbs 8%). What does this mean? It prevents your skin from feeling clammy — it keeps you warm in the winter and cool in the summer as the water is absorbs slowly evaporates.
  • Wool doesn’t wrinkle easily — it can be bent 20,000 times before breaking (compared to 75 bends for a synthetic like rayon). That’s good news for your clothes, no one likes ironing. Also because of it’s crimp, it absorbs oder and noise.


Behold, the oldest carpet in the world, from fifth century B.C (aka a gazillion years ago). Found in a frozen tomb of tribal chief Pazyryk in southern China.


How a Mongolian family in China makes felt for building material. First they put a layer of fluffy wool on damp felt and wet it all. Next they roll it up around a poll and wrap it in a fresh yak skin (yum?). Then they drag it behind a horse for hours until all the bouncing around has caused the fibers to compact and felt.

The finished felt will be used to line the inside of a family yurt.


Wool is naturally flame resistant. It requires a higher temperature to burn because it holds moisture and contains the protein keratin. When it does burn, it burns slowly and gives off little heat. So, a wool blanket is a good way to smother a fire.

Wool it also used as an alternative insulation in houses (Woolful has a good podcast about that making a comeback in the US).

language-woolNote: Just click on an image to make is bigger so you can see the detail.


“Australia’s economy was built on sheep and wool.” At the time of this article, 1988, Australia produced 1/4 of the worlds supply.

Australia’s arid Nullarbor Plain may not be suitable for people but it’s perfect for sheep who survive on minimal vegetation and salty water.

Fun fact. The fibres of five merino sheep joined end to end could tie a bow around the world. Like… WHAT?! One merino can produce nearly 5,500 miles of fiber in a year.


Me in 50 years.

JOKES (I can feel my Boyfriend wincing somewhere). This is just a New Zealand knitter from the 80s with a very niche sense of humour. That knit woman on the right is “unraveling herself to make the baby she has always wanted.”

… That’s my dreams haunted.


A Chayas Indian couple from the mountains of southeast of Cuzco wearing traditional wool garments for market day.


“Children here seem to learn woolworking skills by osmosis.”


Just incredible, right?

I do hope it’s okay that I’m sharing these photos and snippets here. I’m purely sharing them as an educational resource. I’m very lucky to have access to these older issues and I know others would appreciate the content too.

Wool, Fabric of History pages 522 – 591
National Geographic
VOL. 173, NO. 5
May 1988

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