From Wool to Wheel
Students investigate the importance of wool in colonial America and compare and contrast the differences between processing wool then and now. Students spin, weave, and dye wool and watch videos illustrating how wool was processed in colonial times and how it is processed today. Grades 3-5
Activity 1: From Wool to Wheel
- From Wool to Wheel PowerPoint Slides
Activity 2: Dyeing, Spinning, and Weaving Wool
- Carded wool
- Wool spinning hooks
- Carded wool and spinning hooks can be purchased in a Wool Spinning Kit from agclassroomstore.com.
- Glass bowl
- Weaving Instructions
Activity 3: Then and Now
Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)
carded: wool that has been cleaned, separated, and straightened out
drafting: the process of pulling out a fiber to be twisted
homespun: spun or woven in the home
lanolin: also called wool wax or wool grease, a wax found in the wool fibers of sheep
loom: a frame or machine for weaving threads or yarns to form cloth
patriotic: having or showing great love and support for one’s country
plying: twisting together two or more strands of fiber
shearing: removing fleece or hair by cutting or clipping
shed stick: a tool used to create a temporary separation between the warp yarns
warp: the set of lengthwise threads on a loom that are crossed at right angles by the weft
weft: thread or yarn which is drawn through the warp to create cloth
Did You Know? (Ag Facts)
- The four main products from sheep are lamb (meat from sheep younger than 14 months), mutton (meat from sheep older than 14 months), wool, and sheep’s milk.1
- Evidence has been found that wool cloth existed as far back as 10,000 B.C.1
- Christopher Columbus came from a family of wool traders. In the 15th century, Spain's thriving wool trade financed the expeditions of its conquistadors.1
- Merino sheep, which produce fine merino wool, were so valued in Spain that until the 18th century, exporting sheep was an offense punishable by death.1
- During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson had a flock of sheep trim the White House lawn.1
Background Agricultural Connections
Wool played an important role in colonial America. Before the Revolutionary War, most of the finest textiles and fashionable styles were imported from Great Britain. Many colonists wanted to produce their own clothing and textile goods. Wool and linen were the most common materials used. Homespun clothes, clothes that were produced by the colonists, reduced the amount of clothing that had to be bought from England.
In 1699, under the rule of King William III, the British Parliament issued the Wool Act which prohibited American colonists from exporting wool or wool products outside of the colony in which it was produced. The king banned the export of sheep to the American colonies in an effort to protect England’s wool industry. Wool could only be imported into the colonies by Great Britain. The Wool Act was one of a series of taxes that divided Great Britain and its colonies in America.
The colonists began protesting the Wool Act by refusing to purchase or wear English textiles. Many colonists refused to purchase English goods. It became a patriotic act to wear American homespun clothing. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin are notable figures who wore homespun clothing as a patriotic statement of their devotion to American independence and freedom. In the American colonies, spinning and weaving wool became a necessity and a patriotic duty.
In colonial times, the process of making wool cloth began with shearing sheep in early spring with hand clippers. The wool was cleaned through a process called scouring in which the wool underwent a series of baths before it was laid out to dry.
Wool grease is produced as part of the wool’s growth and helps protect the sheep’s wool and skin from the environment. Scouring removes this grease from the wool. The grease can be captured from the scouring water. When it is refined, this grease is known as lanolin. Lanolin can be used in moisturizers, cosmetics, medicine, and industrial applications.
In preparation for spinning, wool must be carded. The colonists used hand carders to comb the wool, remove debris, and untangle the fibers, aligning them parallel with each other. Colonists used dye formulas that included insects, roots, flowers, nuts, seeds, tree bark, leaves, or berries. Because of the toxic chemistry, many of these colonial dyes have been deemed unsafe in our era. The dyeing process involved soaking wool in kettles of dye over fires for several hours.
Wool was spun into thread or yarn by tightly twisting the fibers using a spinning wheel. Weavers turned the wool thread into cloth using looms. Wool was also felted, a process of matting fibers together, to make products such as hats and slippers.
Interest Approach - Engagement
- Ask the students, "What happens when you grow out of your clothes?" After several students answer, explain that they are going to hear a story about a colonial girl who grew out of her clothes.
- Read the book Homespun Sarah by Verla Kay. Ask the students what happened when Sarah grew out of her clothes. Explain to the students that, in colonial times, many families raised their own sheep for wool that was used to make clothing.
Activity 1: From Wool to Wheel
- Explain to the students that wool played an important role in colonial America. The colonists raised sheep and used their wool to produce yarn and cloth.
- Use the From Wool to Wheel PowerPoint Slides to share with the students the importance of wool in colonial days and how it was processed.
Activity 2: Dyeing, Spinning, and Weaving Wool
- Explain to the students that they will have an opportunity to dye, spin, and weave wool. As they follow the instructions below, discuss how the processes and tools they are using compare with the way wool was dyed, spun, and woven in colonial times.
- Dyeing Wool
- In a glass bowl, combine 1 package of Kool-Aid, 1 cup of water, and 1 tablespoon of vinegar. Stir until the Kool-Aid completely dissolves.
- Completely immerse an arm’s length of wool into the Kool-Aid mixture.
- Place the bowl of wool and Kool-Aid mixture into a microwave. Heat on high for two minutes.
- Remove the bowl from the microwave and allow to cool. BE CAREFUL; IT’S HOT!
- After the mixture has cooled, rinse the wool in cold water and allow to dry.
- Spinning Wool
- Give each student a piece of wool approximately 1/4" wide and 14" long. Fold about 1/2" of wool over the end of the spinning hook and begin spinning.
- Back your non-spinning hand out as the wool is spun; this is called drafting.
- Draft out the wool so that the spun wool is taut, but not “bumpy.” If you get twisted bumps in your spun yarn, draft (or let out) more unspun wool. When you have twisted the entire length of the wool, don’t let go—it will unspin. You are now ready to ply your yarn.
- Plying the yarn will keep it from unspinning and make it stronger. Plying is the twisting together of two single strands of spun wool. Have someone hold the center of the twisted wool while you hold the ends.
- Bring the ends of the wool together in one hand so that there are two strands side-by-side. Have your helper let go, and let the wool twist together. It should spring into a twisted strand. The double strand is now called plied yarn.
- Note: You can view a demonstration of the wool spinning process here.
- Weaving Wool
- Note: Refer to the Weaving Instructions guide to view photographs of each step of the weaving process.
- Cut a rectangular piece of cardboard to your desired size. We used a 5" x 5" piece. This will become your loom.
- Use scissors to cut 1/4"-slits 1/2" apart along two opposite ends of the cardboard.
- To create the warp on the loom, tape one end of the string to the back of the cardboard. Then string it through the first notch, around the front of the cardboard piece from top to bottom and into the opposite notch. Continue until all of the notches have been filled. Tape the second end of the string to the back of the cardboard.
- Tie several strands of the spun and plied wool from step three together to make one long piece.
- Use the spinning hook from the wool spinning kit as your shed stick. A shed stick is a tool used to create a temporary separation between the warp yarns. Feed the shed
stick over and under the warp with every second string being raised.
- Weave the yarn across the loom following the pattern of the shed stick. This yarn is known as the weft. To weave the second row, feed the shed stick in the opposite over under pattern from the previous row and follow the pattern with the yarn. Use the shed stick to gently push each row together. Repeat this process until the weaving is finished.
- When the weaving is finished, insert a twig or dowel above and below the woven piece.
- Detach the string from the cardboard notches and tie the loose ends to the twigs. An extra piece of yarn can be tied to the top twig for hanging.
Activity 3: Then and Now
- Lead a discussion with the students about the continued importance of wool today. Explain that they will be viewing two short movies about how wool cloth was made in colonial times and how it is made today.
- Show the students the 18th Century Wool Production and Woolen Mills Tour videos. While viewing the videos, ask the students to use the Wool: Then and Now Venn diagram to list similarities and differences between how wool was processed in colonial times and how wool cloth is made today.
- As a class compare and contrast the processes used then and now for shearing, cleaning, carding, dyeing, spinning, and weaving wool.
- Discuss the modern advances in technology that allow for more efficient wool processing.
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- Wool production played an important role in colonial America.
- Modern technology has made wool processing much more efficient.
Suggested Companion Resources
- Hands-On With Wool
- Charlie Needs a Cloak
- If You Lived In Colonial Times
- If You Want to Knit Some Mittens
- The Surprise
- Tuttle's Red Barn: The Story of America's Oldest Family Farm
- Unraveling Fibers
- Weaving the Rainbow
- Where Did My Clothes Come From?
- Wild Rose's Weaving
- Wool Samples
- Wool Spinning Kit
- America's Heartland: Bachelor Sheep Ranch
- America's Heartland: Wild & Wooly Roundup
- From Fiber to Fabric... Wool's a Natural
- How It's Made: Wool
- Wool Ewe Keep Me Warm? Video
- Sheep 101