Silver Threads

a knitting blog with occasional side trips


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Wool gone bad

I’m reading Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, and as you can tell from the subtitle, the focus is more on the history of elements’ discoveries and uses than the chemistry involved. In the section on radium, Aldersey-Williams not only talks about Marie Curie, but also describes how radium was promoted as a cure-all (he likens it to anti-oxidants nowadays). Companies added it to all sorts of unlikely products, including knitting wool:

Oradium wool for babies was ‘endowed with a physico-chemical treatment of remarkable power: radioactivity’: ‘Everybody knows the extraordinary effects of organic stimulation of cellular excitation passed on by radium…Wool so treated combines the standard advantages of the textile with undeniable hygienic value. To knit Baby’s layette, children’s woollen garments, your underclothes and your pullover, use LAINE ORADIUM.’

(pp. 166-167)

You know, it’s a miracle the human race makes it from one generation to the next.

(Curious, I Googled “laine oradium,” and found some photos of the advertisements on this blog along with a photo of a sister product, LE COTON RADIUM (radium cotton). They’re towards the bottom of the post, but even if you don’t speak French, you can enjoy the other pictures of radium-saturated products as you scroll down. Another source claims the ad is from 1934, well after radium’s dangers were known—sheesh!)

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Good breeding

A bit of history for us wool-lovers:

The new vitality was also reflected in breeding programs. Nearly all the great cattle breeds—Jersey, Guernsey, Hereford, Aberdeen Angus, Ayrshire—were eighteenth-century creations. Sheep likewise were successfully manipulated to become the bundles of unnatural fleeciness we see today. A medieval sheep gave about a pound and a half of wool; re-engineered eighteenth-century sheep gave up to nine pounds. Underneath all that lovely fleece, sheep were gratifyingly plumper, too. Between 1700 and 1800, the average weight of sheep sold at Smithfield Market in London more than doubled, from thirty-eight pounds to eighty.

Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, p.138.

I may never be able to see another sheep without the phrase “bundles of unnatural fleeciness” flashing through my mind.