Promoting Natural & Cultural History
Discussions and proclamations were frequent on the subject of sheep wool in Sweden – as to which breeds were the most advantageous ones and how they could be cross-bred to achieve the best and softest wool in such a manner as at the same time would favour the country’s policy of self-sufficiency and minimise the need of imports. The large sheep estates, together with the ManufacturContoir of the Four Estates of the Realm, were the leading advocates for breeding from the imported stock and there were already in the country several foreign strains mixed with the domestic ones, something which was not always without its complications. This essay focuses on wool fibres and cloth samples from the Skåne province in 1751, registered and kept by the Board of Commerce. The preserved samples will be compared with journal observations by the naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), from his journey in 1749 to the southernmost province, assisted by other contemporary printed decrees etc., revealing details of wool and cloth in this geographical context.
Wool was the most important spinning material for clothes and other textiles for keeping warm during the 18th century; no material could warm as wool, and that is a reality that can be traced a long way back in history. In addition, the material is regarded as humanity’s oldest spinning material and the reason for that, besides the warming properties, was probably the ease and simplicity of preparing wool as compared to the complex methods of hemp and flax. The popularity of wool is also due to its varied areas of use for anything from the thinnest conceivable gauze-like fabrics, fine broadcloth to coarse wadmal, knitted garments, felting, decorative embroidery, woven textiles for interior furnishings or upholstery etc. In the early decades of the 18th century, Sweden as a country did import substantial quantities of wool fibre and woollen cloth, but just as was the case with flax and hemp, the inhabitants of the country were also encouraged through the Hat Party’s policy to buy sheep either to process the wool further themselves or sell it on to the manufactures. In contrast to the handicraft taking place all over the country for everyone’s needs, textile manufacturers in towns and cities hallmarked their produce – with a stamp of authenticity – and had to follow the rules and regulations linked to their trade. Sheep breeding was also disseminated across all layers of society, from the large sheep-breeding farms/estates to the poorest crofter. On his provincial tours, the naturalist Carl Linnaeus repeatedly recorded noteworthy events to do with sheep breeding and wool, whereas notes on the more everyday occurrences of handling wool and sheep are rare.
The parliament of 1741 also presented plans for how the farmers would be rewarded and encouraged to improve and renew their stock of sheep. That formed one of many decisions taken by the political leaders, who after that were informed via enlightening “small prints” about new regulations, bans, and news for the benefit of the country’s inhabitants. The farmers were not, however, so easily convinced about novelties, their old traditions of how to process wool fibres being deeply rooted in the countryside. The new softer kinds required a different and more cautious handling, and Jonas Alström (1685-1761) of the manufacturing mill at Alingsås in Västergötland province spearheaded the development of the new knowledge. He was of the opinion that trainees should be trained at the mills and large sheep farms so as later to be able to instruct the country folk in the best ways of washing, sorting, carding and spinning the wool.
According to the late historian Sven T Kjellberg’s in-depth studies of wool, the importance and advantages of the wool from the Swedish native breed of sheep for coarser woollen textiles had not been fully appreciated by the Board of Commerce until the early 1830s, by which time the domestic wool had changed through breeding and crossing with foreign breeds to the point of being unrecognisable. That was one development for which Carl Linnaeus, among others, had been an advocate in his day nearly 100 years earlier, thanks to the newly gained popularity of the English and Spanish breeds, which yielded wool so much softer than the domestic sheep’s coarse equivalent. For the best potential for the country’s manufacture and sheep farming, he kept talking about those foreign breeds, which should preferably be separated from the other animals. On his journey to the province of Skåne, for example, he wrote on 2nd June 1749: ‘The sheep wandered in the fields near Cimbrishamn (marked out on the map and situated in the southeast corner of the province) almost in greater multitude than I have seen in any other place, and they were both of better and worse kind. The town of Cimbrishamn alone had 500 old sheep and 500 young ones and a few English rams. Gladsax, on the other hand, had even more sheep and several English rams.’
Spinning was also very much seen as a child’s work, something which Linnaeus strongly advocated, as did his other contemporaries. It was regarded as self-evident that children from the age of seven or eight should contribute to the livelihood of the peasantry and the poorer section of the people. In Malmö, ‘such a nice institution for poor children’ (12th July 1749) existed – where sewing, spinning and bobbin lace were taught. There was also a clothing factory in the city, as in many other places in the country, as there were good prospects for such activities to expand at the time. That was due to the political directives on a self-sufficient clothing trade, which placed completely new requirements on the quantity of yarn that had to be produced to cover the country’s needs.
Linnaeus showed a great interest in the largest broadcloth manufacturer of the town when he visited Malmö on 18th June 1749, where mainly ‘fine broadcloth, swanboy [thick, soft], rask [thin and smooth], camlet, plush [often with flower designs], felt, flannel, shag or nap, Freisian or fearnought, so-called molton [tightly woven, soft and thick]’, in other words, woollen fabrics of varying quality and thickness. He described the activity as follows: ‘... established by Mr Mayor [Josias] Hegardt, consisted of 5 rough looms and 2 finer ones, besides the ones belonging to the son, Johan Hegardt, who had 3 rough looms, 2 cloth looms and 2 stocking looms. Here I saw more wool than ever I had seen in any one place. Many a man goes dressed in fine broadcloth, who would never dream of the number of processes the wool goes through before it can become a garment.’ Furthermore, it was noted there that the production required thirty-seven different stages, from the shearing of the sheep to the making up of the garments. At the time of his visit, the manufacturer was at its peak with 113 employees, most of whom were ‘scrubbers, carders and spinners’ who numbered 74. Other occupational categories consisted of ‘4 masters, 5 journeymen, 9 apprentices, 2 sorters and washers of wool and 1 feller with 2 help-mates, 1 cutter with a journeyman and 1 help-mate, 2 burlers and 2 dyers’. A book of samples (1744) with manufacture-woven fabrics is still kept at The National Archive, including, among many Swedish manufacturers, a large number of broadcloth qualities in different colours by Josias Hegardt of Malmö. The fabrics from that enterprise were divided into categories of differing quality and price; there it shows the most common thickness as named 9/4, the finest 11/4 and the coarsest 7/4. Other manufacturers in Malmö in the year 1749 were: J Falkenbladh, who made ‘wool, stuff, sweaters and stockings’ and N Suell, who produced felt caps. That the weaving and knitting of stockings were linked to many manufacturers in the country was not recorded by Linnaeus, though, except for Johan Hegardt’s ‘2 stocking looms’ (Kjellberg: p. 737).
In conclusion, two additional pages of the total of 41 pages from the award-winning wool fibres with a seal and woven samples from the province in 1751 will exemplify the importance of good qualities for individual sheep owners as well as the estates of the nobility to be able to deliver to broadcloth manufacturers in towns and cities.