Wool Gathering

Merriam Webster defines “wool gathering” as an indulgence in aimless thought or dreamy absentmindedness. I’ve been guilty of this from time to mindless time, and I suspect other family members may be indulging in this “wool gathering” activity, but I’m not naming names, you know who you are. 


Inside of a Manor Built with Wool Money

Some of our Sherman kinsmen in England, beginning in the 12th Century, were literally “gathering wool,” and making a good living at it.  I might add that these tight groups of our ancestors were Puritans, and if they had caught us indulging in “mindless daydreaming” they would have condemned us, probably excommunicated us, or worse.  H.L. Mencken and Mark Twain had similar takes on Puritanism; basically, that it was the haunting fear that somebody, somewhere, is having a good time. I know it’s a little harsh on our Pilgrim forefathers, but I think they were a little too serious, too scrupulous, and too superstitious, and even too hard working. There’s just enough of this Puritan ethic in my DNA to make me feel guilty when I’m conducting my own non-literal “wool gathering” sessions.


The earliest record is in 1274, when a license to trade in wool was granted to Richard Sherman, and from that point forward we find many Shermans prominent in this real “wool gathering” occupation.  Many of the Shermans living in America can trace their ancestors to Suffolk County, located on the east coast of England. Our “wool gathering” ancestors lived in the neighboring villages of Diss, Yaxley, Colchester and Dedham.


If you’re looking for another vacation destination, or just indulging yourself in dreamy absentmindedness, you couldn’t go wrong by adding Suffolk County to your list of vacation destinations.  Some of the best preserved historic towns in Suffolk are the “Wool Towns,” with their beautiful cathedrals and timbered homes, complete with thatched roofs, made possible courtesy of the lucrative wool trade profits.  It’s said a visit to one of these towns is like stepping back in time to the 15th Century.


 Looking for lodging?  There are self- catering cottages all over the county, little hide-a-ways by the North Sea, or country half-timbered lodges. For those of you that might want to indulge in dreamy “wool gathering” you won’t want to miss “The Magic Dell of Elveden, replete with elves and fairies.


The Shermans who made money in wool did not actually gather wool, or even shear the wool from the accommodating sheep. They waited until it was washed in lye to remove the grease.  Then it was dried, beaten, combed and carded.  The Sherman middlemen would then buy the wool from cottage weavers after all this preliminary work was finished.


Our Sherman ancestors would then proceed to improve the quality of the cloth.  We find “clothier” in many Sherman obituaries.  It’s misleading because they didn’t actually make clothes, but they were middlemen who improved the quality of the basic cloth.


Shearing the Cloth to Improve the Quality

The first step after buying it was to soak and dye the cloth in a vat, then follow up by stretching the wool on a frame to dry.  A Shearman (possible origin of the Sherman name) would then finish the cloth by raising the nap with teasels (thistle-like plant heads) while it was still damp.


After it was totally dry they would shear it with great flat shears, three or four feet long. The finest cloth was shorn, and re-shorn, each shearing improving the quality of the cloth.  The cloth was then brushed, pressed and folded.  A final step was to bale the cloth and imprint the Sherman trademark on it before it was taken to a weekly auction and sold to dressmakers and tailors. 



I have gained a new appreciation for my wool sweaters and pullovers, even if the modern process is automated.


15th Century English Wool Market


Most interesting to me is when I find something that lets us look into the day to day life of one of our Sherman ancestors.  I was able to find several wills of our direct kin.  The wills give an indication of what they accumulated, and more importantly, how they chose to distribute it on their death. Some of those Sherman kin who dealt in cloth accumulated substantial wealth and land. Their children acquired good educations and some became lawyers or took government positions.  Their “wool gathering” wealth provided the means with which they were able to afford coming to America to escape the persecution in England for their heretical Puritan beliefs.

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