Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Worldbuilding: wool

OK, how many of us love the clothing side of fantasy writing? Show of hands? Love those silks, velvets, lace? Or do leather straps and buckles float your boat? Why should it have to be one or the other, right?

For this post, I'm going to stick to fiber, though. I'm a knitter and crocheter, you see, so I'm going to geek out a little here.

"The knitting Madonna." She's almost
done, too, just putting the neck on with
a set of double-pointed needles.
As near as anybody can tell, knitting came to Europe sometime during the medieval period. The earliest for-sure knitted artifacts (regardless of what Wiki says) date from the Renaissance, but it looks like knitting was mainly used for everyday things that got worn to bits, such as stockings, socks and slippers. So there are not a lot of knitted artifacts.

There were forerunners to true, multi-needle knitting -- nalbinding is the most well known.

Crochet was invented much later. We think. It became popular in Europe in the 19th century as an alternative, easier, faster and therefore cheaper way to make lace. Easier and faster than traditional bobbin lace and tatting, that is.

Let's talk about wool. Wool is a lovely thing. If you think it's scratchy and nasty, two words for you: merino, and lambswool. Better yet, merino lambswool.

Merino is a particular breed of sheep, originally from Spain but now raised everywhere. Their wool is fine and soft because they were bred specifically for their wool (not for meat) starting sometime in the late medieval period or the early Renaissance.

Some sheep are bred for eating and the wool is an afterthought. Sometimes tough, scratchy wool is what you want -- for rugs or tapestries.

"Wool's hard to take care of" -- for fantasy folks who don't have washing machines, it's no harder than anything else. Wool will felt (as in, compact down int a solid, smaller mass that won't fit you anymore) when it's dunked in hot water and agitated. Washing machines are good at that. When washing by hand, it's not something you're likely to do accidentally. Felted wool has its own uses, of course -- it's tougher and even warmer than un-felted wool.

Knitted wool shawl, pinned out
Before modern fibers came along, wool was your go-to for warmth if you could not get fur. Unlike some modern fibers, wool will let your skin breathe. It insulates even when it's wet. It's stretchy and it has "memory," unlike plant fibers. I've knitted some Shetland lace shawls and there's this magic moment -- you finish the piece and it comes off the needles in a sad little crumple. You soak it briefly in water and then block it by pinning it out (on a bed or something) taut, under a fair amount of tension. Pulling all its little details wide open. Let dry. When you unpin it, it stays in that open shape. It's like butterfly wings emerging.

Wool comes off the sheep in a surprisingly coherent, sheep-shaped piece and is steeped in both the sheep's natural oils (lanolin, which your skin likes too) and whatever filth the sheep has been rolling in. Clean wool that has not been stripped of the lanolin has a scent to it... your best bet would be to find some unscented lanolin hand lotion if you want to smell it. Sometimes you can find "unstripped" wool with the lanolin at specialty yarn shops.

The natural colors of wool are lovely (I'm fond of earthy palettes) and can range from ivory through grey to natural black. There's also a range of browns from a light fawn to a reddish brown to chocolaty shades.

If you're still reading (lol) and you have questions about wool or knitting or crochet for your character-costuming needs, I'd be glad to talk your ear off or at least point you in the direction of an answer.

8 comments:

Sarah McCabe said...

I'm a sewer myself and I love working with natural fibers the most. Silk, wool, but I love linen the best. It's delightful to work with.

Bluestocking said...

This is great. Never knew untreated wool came in so many colors. I mean I knew sheep weren't all white, but never made the connection to wool. The details about how it insulates were really helpful to me.

AE Marling said...

As a soldier in the writing campaign, I salute you. As a fantasy writer, this is useful information for me. Some people read fantasy specifically for the costumes, and I admit my current projects both feature protagonists with magic dresses.

Also, have you heard of blue mountain sheep? Supposedly, their wool has a blue tint to help them blend in with the cloudy skies.

Best wishes on your writing.

Trisha said...

Hey there - just stopping by to say hi. I'm a fellow Campaigner and I'm in your Sci Fi group! Take care!

Emilia Quill said...

Thank you for the post it is very useful. I'm nearing the end of my fantasy novel and I realised that I had neglected their clothes. I describe the colours but I wasn't sure about fabrics in the medieval age, particularly among regular folk.

MKHutchins said...

Cool post! I know some moms who knit diaper-covers out of wool, too, because it apparently wicks moisture away from the baby.

L. said...

@MKHutchins -- that reminds me of a couple more interesting properties of wool.

It's elastic, up to a point of course, whereas plant fibers like cotton are not. Cotton will stretch, but once it does there's no going back. Wool is more forgiving, and the elasticity plus the "memory" means you can make and wear some pretty snug sweaters out of wool that would not work in cotton or man-made fibers like acrylic or rayon.

Wool can also absorb more water than you would think. Maybe not what you want to hear in connection to diaper covers, but... ;)

Kate said...

This was awesome! I don't write medieval fantasy, but I am a knitter and a spinner, so this was just awesome for me. Where do you get your info? I'd love to read more.

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