Dear folks


   I would like to pass on a wonderful trove of information on the question of sheep wool production and household consumption levels that has come my way through the kindness of the Zooarch network and especially to pass on the email I have gotten from my colleague in Iceland Orri Vesteinsson. Orri is at the U Iceland and is one of the co directors of the long running Landscapes of Settlement project in the N, but as you will see he is also an economic historian when not digging. I pass this on with his permission, only caveat he would like to send is that  the information was gathered quickly and that there may be more out there in the Icelandic literature. Please contact Orri for more gems!


Other data I have suggests the numbers below are right on as far as Icelandic sheep go, and it is interesting to see that 5 kg wool / person/ annum is a fairly widespread standard, but see the info below for much more insight.  Depending on age and breed, wool production per Icelandic sheep is rather variable, from less than 1 kg / fleece to as much as 5 kg (exceptional). Washing makes a large difference (as Terry noted), reducing the wt of the clip considerably, again dependent upon the breed and the amount of grease present.


On the web, I had great luck with the many breeders of Icelandic sheep in Canada, most of whom seem to have websites and all of whom were very helpful in terms of wool wt production figures, meat production, and diary as well. There is as you know lots of individual variation and it is clear that weathers and older barren ewes tend to give more and better wool than ewes that are also lactating. Dr. Stefan Adalsteinsson has some very interesting things to say about early sheep including Shetland- there is a downloadable lecture given by him on this a couple of years ago- search google for his name and you will get it. There is an interesting doctoral thesis (1995, U Arizona) by Jon Haukur Ingimundarson (now at Stefánsson Arctic Inst in Akureyri- Jon Haukur is a very helpful cultural anthropologist with a longstanding interest in historical animal production and the social correlates thereof.) in which the problems of managing sheep flocks to produce multiple products is discussed with lots of hard data from the Icelandic end, basically as you would think it is a metabolic zero sum game in that frequently pregnant and lactating ewes just do not have the energy to also produce a fine pelt as well. So in practice most early modern Icelandic farmers did not try to get multiple products from the same animals, but instead managed effectively two flocks, one for wool production (old weathers up to 7-8 yrs) and one for reproduction and milk centered on much younger ewes. These two flocks were effectively managed differently too, with more winter housing and feeding provided to the milk ewes and the weathers often being used as ‘leader sheep’ to keep the flocks together in the highlands in summer (Wonder if this shows up on rates of tooth wear?).  


So our reconstruction of a substantial number of older, larger sheep in the 9th-10th c collections makes us begin to seriously suspect the presence of the weather-heavy wool producing flock, and it looks like the trend continues in the 11th-12th c. But given the rather substantial needs of the average household (see below) one suspects that the 9th-10thc flocks are probably not generating a huge surplus to exchange with anyone, though the later ones may be producing a modest surplus. Especially as it appears that these early 9th-10th c farms in  Iceland are running lots of goats (up to 2 sheep per goat on the bone ratios) in their O/C mix. This changes to nearly all sheep in the later collections. In Greenland (as Inge’s really wonderful report on the GUS fauna illustrates really well) the Norse seem to have maintained a goat-rich flock right down to the end, again probably not producing a substantial wool surplus.


These comments of course are all for Icelandic sheep, but these are fairly unimproved mid sized animals probably similar to many others in medieval Europe, and the data we have on size and conformation from the Viking age animals from N Iceland suggests that there are few differences visible between these and modern animals (except that the modern animals tend to be heavier right now, but there is an excellent withers ht/wt match with flocks recorded in 1900-1920). We are working on a publication of all this, and will also make a presentation at the upcoming NABO meeting in Copenhagen in May (more on this soon), but I can send data to anyone interested.


MANY thanks to all for your help, and good luck with any flock reconstruction models!






-----Original Message-----
Orri Vésteinsson [mailto:[log in to unmask]]
Tuesday, October 14, 2003 12:41 PM
'Thomas H. McGovern'
Cc: [log in to unmask]
Subject: RE: Sheepish questions


Dear Tom


Skuli Magnusson (late 18th century) says that you need 5 kg of wool to clothe one person per annum.  In a good year you get 1,5 kg of wool from a sheep, so you need 3,3 sheep to clothe a single person.


Skúli Magnússon (1784): “Sveita=Bóndi.” Rit þess Islenzka Lærdóms=Lista Felags IV, p. 156.


Magnús Ketilsson who criticised many of Skuli’s calculations agreed on the 5kg rule of thumb (1786).


At length about this in Helgi Thorlaksson’s Vadmal og verflag (1992), pp. 267-334.


Some interesting remarks from his work:


Both laws and actual figures from the middle ages suggest that 12 cows and 80 ewes was the normal ratio and size for an averege farm.  Numbers of wethers are in addition and fluctuate more, from 3 ewes to the wether to 2 wethers to the ewe.


Wool specialists are apparently in agreement that wethers (geldir saudir) produce the best wool (p. 276).  Wool from uncastrated rams was considered the worst


H concludes that an average Icelandic farm had 60-70 wethers, total sheep no then 140 (against 12 cows)


According to Gragas 20 ewes should produce 1 vætt of wool, the vætt normally considered to be 36,2 kg = 1,81 kg per ewe (Gragas I (1852), 248, 195) – possibly this is unwashed wool.  In late medieval Bualog the wool from 1 ewe is considered to be 8 marks or 1,76 kg – also probably unwashed because 18th century estimates give lower figures for washed wool (1-1,2 kg).  According to John M. Munro, ‘Textile technology’ in dictionary of the Middle ages 11 (1988), 694, the weight of the wool was reduced 15-25% by washing – so this makes sense.


A 1398 letter says that 10 wethers and 15 ewes gave 8 quarters of wool = 1,4 kg on average (washed?)


Skuli Magnusson caluculates that 168 wethers give 250 kg of washed and ready to process wool = 1,48 kg per wether


It seems that these authorities do not consider there to be any difference in the quantity of wool from ewes or wethers – it is just the quality that is different, but another 18th century commentator, Magnus Ketilsson gives the following table for wool weights (based on his own measurements of his own animals:


6 15 month sheep          5,25 kg             = 0,875

24 ewes                        33                    = 1,375

6 2 yr old wethers          8,25                  = 1,375

6 3 yr old wethers          11,25                = 1,875

6 4 yr old wethers          12                    = 2,0


On average = 1,49


Magnus Ketilsson (1786) ‘Nockrar Athugasemdir …” Rit þess Islenzka Lærdóms=Lista Felags VII, 86, 91-92.


In 1976 the average in Iceland was 1,7 kg per ewe.


HÞ thinks that the 5 kg of wool per person only covers clothes, not bedclothes


1 ell of homespun equals 700 gramms of wool


In the middle ages a boarder at a monastery (usually well off people) was to have 20 ells of homespun = 14 kg of wool (10 sheep or so) whereas an incapable person (a child, disabled or infirm) was considered to need 8 ells 5,6 kg – there are also examples of 6 ells considered to be enough.


The workers at Skalholt in 1502 and workers at Bessastadir in the 16th century got 7-8 ells on average – again close to 5 kg.


In 1552 fully grown students at Skalholt got 10 ells per annum (7 kg), but the poorest and less fully grown got 7 or 8 ells each.


It is also apparent that these figures relate to what in Icelandic is called “slitklaedi” - wear-clothes, i.e. the clothes people used every dag and which would need regular mending or replacing.  If people owned Sunday clothes that would be in addition to these figures.


It also appears that these figures do not allow for underwear – which presumably got worn out more slowly than the work clothes.  In the 18th century it seems that it had become general practice to have underwear from linen.


Helgi concludes that an average farm (20 hundreds with 8 grownups and 2 children) some 60 kgs of wool would be needed annually for clothes.


In addition allowance needs to be made for bedclothes and this Helgi estimates, based on mainly 16th century sources, to be 2,8 kg per person per annum (apparently you wear up your bedclothes biannually – I am sure you didn’t know that) or 27 kg for the average farm with 8 grownups and 2 children)


Helgi also mentions that many households would have needed sails and tents – but there are no figures available on what this usage was and he gives no information on how much wool would be needed for a tent for an assembly booth for instance.


Wool was also used for drapes and wall hangings – these would have a much higher production cost than ordinary clothes and it is of course difficult to estimate how necessary they were considered to be.  The available examples are all about tapestries a la Bayeaux or church drapes


Helgi concludes that the average farm (10+2) needs


60 kg for clothes

30 kg for bedclothes

10 kg for sails and sundries

12 kg for tax and tithe

upto 70 kg for land rent (although it varied considerably in which medium this was paid (butter and fish being the main alternatives)


He also thinks that the wool requirements were greater during the middle ages than in the 18th cenrtury – he then goes on to try to calculate how much wool would have been available at the average farm for export and to discuss production costs


Hope this is of some use


All the best















Thomas H. McGovern, Professor

Coordinator North Atlantic Biocultural Organization (NABO)

Director Hunter Bioarchaeology Laboratory

Anthropology Department, Hunter College CUNY

695 Park Ave, NYC 10021 USA


fax: 212 772 5423

phone: 212 772 5410

email: [log in to unmask]