kate/bob wrote:I've got lots of information about how a fleece was turned into woollen fabric in a commercial way in 14th and 15th century, but I'm interested in what, if anything, was done domestically. I don't mean in a cottage industry kind of way, but more along the lines of our old sheep died so we might as well do something with it's fleece. Did people make "homespun" or the equivalent, or was a even a small loom just too expensive to have unless you were a weaver?
I suspect I know the answer (it didn't happen!), but would be interested to hear people's views
Then (as now) if you keep a small number of sheep you don't wait 'till it dies to have the fleece, it is sheered (or in some breeds, sheds) yearly. I know some farmers who keep small flocks who (in our economy now) find it uneconomical to package the fleece for sale and transport it to where the buyers want it - the fleece is usually burned. In the past if there were more local collection points before sorting and packing, or if a local larger manufacturer would take it to incorporate into their shipment, I would guess that would be a route for earning a supplement from a few sheep. In the absence of that and of widely available cheap clothing, I would guess that homespun would be a better option than burning - but that's just the economics now compared to then, not any kind of historical evidence from me.
Christopher Dyer (Making a living in the Middle Ages) - an introductory tertiary text at best, but with >20 pages of 'further reading' says that sheep were kept for wool rather than meat and typically slaughtered mature.
He writes of wool as a cash crop that could yield revenues in money for large landowners ("lords" is the term he uses), so concievably (my interpretation) fleeces could be used towards a rent paid to the local landowner. With little local weaving (local demand) this would only be possible if the "lord" had a ready export trade to absorb transport costs. He does say that some fleeces were woven on the estates but the bulk (1050 - 1100) was destined for the urban cloth industry in England and overseas. Wool can of course be stored which increases the opportunity to sell it on rather than use it locally. His sources appear to be manor accounts, so the evidence is of the larger holdings (some holdings of >7000 sheep and some cases of parcels of 80 in different locations making around 2500 in the holding). He does say that even end C13 English estates were still making 50 - 60% of their income from rents, so in sheep country ... (I conclude) that this may have included fleeces. However in the chapter on 1100 - 1350 he says that estates tended to concentrate on bulky staples (grain, wool) leaving smaller holdings to the niche for more troublesome, smaller scale production (poultry, eggs, fruit and veg.) : OTOH he quotes a tax of 1293 where one person in Merioneth was assessed at 4 oxen, 6 cows and 20 sheep - certainly surplus and a potential cash crop. This he says is "fairly typical in size, and throughout Britain there were many thousands of these modest flocks, an enormous number taken together. The scale of peasant sheep keeping can be appreciated from the total of 46,382 sacks of wool exported from English ports in 1304 - 5, the peak year"
. I am unsure how this total illustrates the proportion of small 'peasant' flocks to those of larger "lords" but it does seem to confirm that this would be regarded as a yearly cash crop.