Browse Exhibits (9 total)
During the American Civil War of 1861-1865, more than 2 million men served in the Union army. Early in the war, American textile manufacturers had trouble procuring enough new raw wool to meet the burgeoning military demand, and incorporated recycled wool, called shoddy, to eke out supplies. This greatcoat (overcoat), an M-1851 model, was probably made before the war began. It is made of a dark blue all-new-wool broadcloth, tightly woven in a plain weave, and heavily fulled (washed to prevent shrinkage and increase durability), with a brushed surface (nap).The dark blue color indicates that it was an officer’s overcoat; the enlisted man’s regulation greatcoat was of ‘sky blue’ kersey, a twill (diagonal) weave. The power-driven looms of Northern US textile mills produced millions of yards of woolen textiles for the military. Less than half of the raw wool required came from American sources.
New Wool or Shoddy? The technical term for recycled wool fibre is “shoddy”. A small percentage of shoddy added to new wool and spun into weft yarns decreased the cost of a cloth without seriously affecting its wearing properties. In the early months of the Civil War however, some Northern US textile manufacturers responded to huge demand, low supplies, and the potential for large profits by adding shoddy in amounts beyond the norm. Soldiers complained that their uniforms fell apart; newspapers investigated, and the “Shoddy Scandals” erupted. Quartermaster’s regulations began to specify ‘pure new wool’, a term still very much in use today with its associated logo.
The throwaway culture of textiles that many now take for granted—in which synthetics are so prominent—came into being partly as a result of manipulated shortages during wartime of the natural fibres that were, before the 1950s, the only options. Wool, in particular, was a major strategic imperative during a century of mass, cold-climate warfare.
Between the 1850s and 1950s, the global wool trade would witness pulses of great demand during a series of wars in which nations jockeyed for access to wool while simultaneously searching for its elusive replacement. This textile politics was a key factor in the rise of synthetic fibres to rival wool and other natural fibres.
This is in many ways a lost history or one seen only in parts--national or regional. New insights arise if the history of the wool industry is viewed transnationally and comprehensively, from land ownership to sheep pastoralism, to transport and marketing, to thread and textile production, and finally to the end users including various militaries and the complex politics that arise in wartime.
Where did the land come from to raise the millions of sheep whose wool fed the factories of Europe and the U.S.? For the most part, from lands that were taken by colonial powers, or at least colonial capital, at the expense of indigenous populations, and indigenous ecologies.
While wool has never only been an asset to be exploited for the enterprise of war, the fiber’s physical qualities have always been critical to making extreme weather conditions even somewhat tolerable to soldiers and sailors. As sheep pastoralism and the woolen industry both expanded in the 19th century, so did the scale of many wars. Armies which had once numbered thousands of men began to count in the tens, then hundreds of thousands, then millions of combatants. For most countries with an active woolen textile industry, dependence on foreign sources of wool and extended supply chains remained a significant economic drain—especially in wartime. And the economies of nations create political agendas.
From the 18th century threat of death for smuggling a merino sheep out of Spain, to the 'shoddy scandals' of the American Civil War, to Britian's imposition of compulsory purchase of its Dominion's wool clips in the two World Wars, to American maneuvering to acquire wool during the Korean War, politics and wool have been intertwined.
Introduction: What happens when wool is in short supply during wartime?
“So you see that for every 1,000,000 men we send over the ocean we must have 20,000,000 full-grown sheep here at home or in some other part of the world, and this is in addition to the vast amount of wool we need to clothe our own people.”
Frank G. Carpenter, “Twenty Sheep Needed for Every Soldier”
The Boston Globe, Jan. 27 1918. pg.SM9
The politics and economics of war require combatant and neutral nations alike to consider how they are going to acquire and control the commodities they rely on both for civilian populations and for their military needs. And until the mid-1950s, after the end of the Korean War, when new fibres derived from petrochemicals began to be introduced fairly regularly, wool was one commodity very few nations could do without.
The Fabric of War
Fabric of War connects textile histories, military histories and social histories. It also explores the wider histories of Australia and New Zealand - specifically how these nations fit into the global culture of commerce and power politics.
The short films available here connect archival footage, interviews, material culture, and documents to explore the various themes related to wool and war.
“…nearly all countries contain sheep, and the wool of each possesses distinguishing characteristics, while, as an example of the diversity of wools grown in one country, it may be mentioned that, for the purposes of valuing wool grown in the continent of Australia, it was necessary to draw up a price list containing 848 separate classes.”
Dorothy M. Zimmern. “The Wool Trade in Wartime.”
The Economic Journal. Vol 28, No. 109 (Mar 1918) p.8
What is it about wool that has made it not only an important global trade item for civilian purposes, but vital to military preparedness? Explore here not only the physical properties of wool, but also how sheep husbandry was used historically to manipulate those characteristics, in the interests of breeding sheep that would thrive in new lands and grow wool that would match the needs of mechanized factory production.
“In a tour of Frankfort, we saw woolen suits at $200, others in shoddy cotton at $75, and still others of paper at $12.”
Lincoln Eyre. "CONDITIONS IN GERMANY AS FOUND BY A CORRESPONDENT OF THE POST-DISPATCH." St. Louis Post - Dispatch (1879-1922), Dec 26, 1918.
A suit made of paper? In post-Armistice Germany? Who wore such a thing, and why? And what exactly was a paper suit?
Thanks to some curious travellers, two such suits were donated, in 1923, by two different donors, to the Newark Museum, in New Jersey. One of the donors was a paper company executive, and had perhaps acquired the suit at the end of the war as a souvenir of a novel technology. Today, these suits also remind us of the fact that during World War I, Germany and her allies were shut out of most of the global trade in textile fibers, particularly wool and cotton. And as a result, substitutes had to be found.