Follow the fleece

Sensemaking / Follow the fleece

Talk about traceability! Anna Simpson tracks the commodity that made West Yorkshire's wealth, from the Norman Conquest to the present day.

By Anna Simpson / 20 Jul 2012

Talk about traceability! Anna Simpson tracks the commodity that made West Yorkshire’s wealth, from the Norman Conquest to the present day.

Back in the 12th Century, a group of Cistercian monks sought out some peace and quiet in the remote moorlands of West Yorkshire. They wanted a pure life, with an emphasis of manual labour and self-sufficiency, and so they started to keep sheep. They got rather good at it – producing enough wool to send some overseas. In the 14th Century, this was the most profitable export trade in England.

By the 16th Century, the merchants were getting savvy about their business. They wanted to make sure they got the right price for their wool and so would brand each sheep using vegetable dye. This mark would stay on the fleece from the field to the mill – a splash of paint for a transparent supply chain…

It was in the 17th century that an Italian trader (apparently a disgraced brother of Galileo) arrived with a secret that had been pretty well kept – how to fix the dye. Then came the Industrial Revolution and Titus Salt built the biggest factory in Europe on the outskirts of Bradford, to take the trade to scale…

If you go to Bradford today, pop into the Wool Exchange (now a bookshop) on Market Street. The Venetian Gothic architecture – with its lofty roof, iron work and granite columns – testifies to the prosperity that grew out of those monks and their sheep.

I was witness to all of this last Saturday night, which I spent in the parish church of Menston – a village in the metropolitan district of Bradford. There, something quite extraordinary was taking place. The rise and fall of wool in West Yorkshire, from the Norman Conquest to the present day, was narrated and performed, with traditional songs, by a local troupe. ‘Follow the Fleece: A historical revue’ is the work of Nigel Schofield, a former presenter on Bradford’s Pennine Radio, whose father worked in the wool trade. He draws on everything from The Domesdaye Boke to the council archives of Bradford, Halifax and Leeds.

It brought home to me quite what a story a single commodity has to tell. The wealth, health, housing and habits of the people of West Yorkshire are all tied up in wool. It’s the foundation of county’s abbeys, cities and countryside.

Today, the most important textile in the world is cotton, accounting for approximately 35% of all fibres produced worldwide. I’m looking forward to tracing its past and its prospects in a forthcoming Green Futures Special Edition… – Anna Simpson

To find out more about how to be part of the Green Futures Special Edition, 'The Cotton Conundrum' email:

Photo: iStockPhoto/thinkstock

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