A Wool-wind Adventure in Manhattan

The world used to revolve around wool. Days were filled with spinning and weaving and knitting and caring for sheep. Bodies and homes were dressed with wool. Roadways were established where communities drove their sheep to market. Riversides were lined with mills to clean, spin, and process wool. 

There are parts of the world where this is still true, but with the consolidation of land uses, there are people who can make it well into their adult lives before they see a sheep. Mills for processing the fiber have largely congregated in one area of the world, though there are holdouts still scattered about and small mills continue to be established around the world. And people have largely abandoned wool for clothing and household use. Is it still even possible to spend a day surrounded by wool and sheep if you don’t specifically work with wool?

I decided to see if it was still possible to have a wool-filled day. And rather than heading for the countryside, I decided to give it a go in one of the most modern areas of the world: Manhattan.

My husband decided to tag along. We live a few hours away from the city, so we were up and out early to catch the train that would drop us off at Penn Station in the heart of Manhattan. I had done a bit of research ahead of time about potentially wooly activities along with opening times, so we weren’t flying blindly through our day. Though I questioned whether my plans were possible.

The train arrived in the city at 8:45 am, leaving us just enough time to get to our first stop of the day: Mood Fabrics.

Mood is a sewist’s dreamland. There are multiple floors of fabrics, trimmings, and notions. I do not enjoy sewing, but my younger daughter does, and I’ve been to Mood several times before with her. I had noticed the “Wool” signs along some aisles in the past, but had never taken the time to really poke around before. 

To say it was an education would be a massive understatement. I knew about the wool suiting area, which made sense. But I expected the rest of the wool in the store to be a selection of tartan-like flannels and “art” fabrics for more daring designers. What I found was a truly surprising range of options.

Several aisles awaited, filled from floor to ceiling with wool fabric. And while some were blends of other natural and man-made fibers, many were not, and a lot of them had surprising (to me) characteristics as 100% wool fabrics, like this wool crepe that was woven to have a degree of natural stretch without any spandex or other artificial fiber blended in. 

Another surprising find were bolts of fabric that, in look and feel, had me double checking the bolt labels to make sure they weren’t actually cotton. They were the perfect weave and thickness for dress shirts. I had seen that there are companies like Wool&Prince that offer wool dress shirts, but I’d never entertained the idea of ordering them, because surely they would have been noticeably different from their traditional cotton counterparts. To me, the fabric looked indistinguishable, and thanks to this hands-on opportunity, I suspect Santa will be bringing my husband some new shirts for Christmas. 

I spent longer than I expected walking through the aisles of wool, feeling and admiring and calling my husband over again and again to, “Touch this!” and agree with me that it was shocking that what we were seeing was indeed wool. I had long ago converted him to merino wool base layers, which mimic the look and feel of cotton t-shirts. (But better!) Now, we were both stuck on the possibilities of swapping over to wool for other styles of clothing, too. 

But, we were on a timeline! We had to see if we could have a wool-filled adventure in New York, and a stop in the Garment District was just the beginning of our day! I stopped by one of the walls of buttons to pick out a handful I would need for a new cast-on, and we made our way out to the street to a nearby subway station. 

Our next stop was at the American Museum of Natural History. The subway system has a stop that takes you to the corner just outside of the museum, which was hugely convenient.

As a woman of a certain age, I knew that the AMNH had several displays of sheep in the wild. Sure, they were taxidermied, and no one is going around shearing White Sheep in the Rocky Mountains, but they were sheep, and I was standing in Manhattan. A win is a win.

What I didn’t remember about the AMNH was that it also had many dioramas featuring people, focusing on different cultures. It’s an area of the museum that feels extremely dated, and borderline inappropriate these days, to be honest. But, in among the questionable displays are some unquestionably beautiful artifacts and wool crafts from around the world. 

Unfortunately, many of the artifacts and wool crafts are presented with minimal interpretation, including what materials were used in their construction. There was a huge selection of rugs from the Middle East to be seen. This is just a small sample. Display after display featured them from areas focused on Turkey through to India. Wool also featured as the cords in beaded jewelry from South America as well as death masks.

There was more in the museum that I suspected was made of wool, but, again, the labeling left a lot to be desired. In many cases, the placards just said what the item was. Often it gave the location where it came from. But information on construction, the home culture, or supplies used was sadly lacking.

We poked around the museum for about an hour before moving on. This time, as it was a beautiful day, we walked over to the corner and crossed into Central Park to walk to our lunch destination: Tavern on the Green.

Part of my pre-trip research involved plotting potential sheep- and wool-related stops into Google Maps. As I did so, I noticed a section of Central Park was labeled as Sheep Meadow. Now, I’d been in Central Park before and had no memory of seeing sheep in Central Park, so I got Googling. 

When Central Park was first laid out, the designers left room for a military parade ground. Not surprising given the young nation’s history of revolution. The plan was approved in 1857, just a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War. But, after that war ended, New Yorkers had had enough of war and petitioned to have the parade grounds given over to sheep grazing to evoke a more pastoral feel.

In 1864, the first sheep arrived on the 15-acre site. At first, the flock was comprised of Southdown sheep, but Dorsets were added in later years. 

A brick sheepfold was built to house the sheep until the flock finally left the park in 1934 so that their sheepfold could be converted to a restaurant, and Tavern on the Green opened to the public that same year. Elements of the original sheep fold architecture can still be seen inside and outside the building, but for the most part, unless you know, it would be hard to tell what its original purpose was. 

The restaurant still proudly refers to its origins in their branding. It has become an iconic New York restaurant for tourists and locals alike, and has featured in dozens of films. Meals there are definitely a “treat yourself” experience. Embracing the theme of the day, I had the lamb. It was delish.

After lunch, I left my husband to wander on his own for a bit while I hopped on the subway to head back over toward the natural history museum, because just down the street is an iconic New York yarn store: Knitty City.

It would have made sense to visit Knitty City as we left the museum earlier that day, but their opening hours didn’t line up for that to work. That’s ok, though. The subway got me close enough that I didn’t mind the walk that got me there. 

It’s easy to know when you’ve found it, because the tree out front is always yarn bombed. Currently, it serves as a tribute to Pearl Chin, the owner of Knitty City who recently passed. The store is still in the family and is a widely loved gathering spot for knitters. 

Every bit of the store is full of color. The shelves are completely stocked with a wide range of yarns of various fibers and types, with baskets along the ground to hold additional yarn. Bookshelves toward the front of the store are a complete library for fiber artists. The counter front serves as additional stock space. Space is limited in cities, and Knitty City makes full use of theirs.

I knit the Wonder Woman Wrap earlier this year using the recommended fingering weight yarn. I chose Malabrigo for mine, and despite knitting the larger size, it wasn’t as big as I had hoped, so I gifted it to a friend. So, I couldn’t resist when I saw they had the same colors of Malabrigo in DK. These lovely hanks came home with me, and a new Wonder Woman Wrap will be making its way on my needles soon. 

My next destination was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had not yet had a chance to visit the Anna Wintour Costume Center, and I figured that would be a great place to find some wool clothing to admire. However, as I checked in with my ticket, the docent explained that there was nothing on exhibit in the center at the moment. I had somehow missed that on the website. 

She pointed me to a different exhibit that was currently on show, though: Kimono Style. I hadn’t told her that I was there to look for woolen items, and having spent time in Japan, my first thought was that everything on display would be cotton or silk. However, Japan does have winter. And the memory of the thinner wool fabrics I encountered at Mood that morning prompted me to give it a look. 

I was right in that the traditional kimono on display were all silk or cotton. But, to my surprise, there were wool kimono on display, too, in the form of firefighter uniforms from the 1800s. They took two forms. The men’s uniforms were worn with helmets, because they were the ones who actually worked to put out fires and get people out of the building to safety. However, once the people were outside, they needed to be protected. 

Female firefighters were trained to patrol the area around the fire to keep evacuees safe. They also offered medical assistance as needed. Their wool hoods kept them safe from flames and falling embers.

As much as I would have loved to continue poking around the Met looking for more wool, I needed to reconnect with my husband. And, I had not yet seen actual living and breathing sheep. So, off to the zoo!

I made it to the zoo before my husband did, which meant that I had time to poke around in the gift store while I waited for him. I was really pleased to see that they had some wool items for sale! There was a display of needle felted Christmas ornaments, as well as this display of ornaments and bird houses. A wool felt bird house! I thought I’d heard of all the uses of wool there was!

I can’t show you the full display, because some of these may have made their way home with me for stocking stuffers and gifts for friends for the upcoming holiday season.

My husband made it not long after I had satisfied myself that I had found all the wool items available in the store, so we met up and walked over to the children’s zoo entrance. The zoo ticket will get you into both the main zoo and the children’s zoo, but you can only go into each one once, so make sure you’ve seen all you want to see before you switch to the other.

If you’d like to see Southdown sheep like the ones that once lived in Central Park, the Central Park Zoo still keeps a handful in the children’s zoo. The enclosure is far less pastoral than the park, and it was unseasonably warm on the day we visited. The sheep weren’t as excited by our presence as I was by there, so after oohing and ahhing for a few minutes, we moved on.

Our next destination was the Museum of Modern Art. My husband had a seat in the foyer to work from his phone for a bit while I went in search of a very specific sculpture that featured a sheep and… was on display in 2016. Again, I had misunderstood the website while I was researching the day. But I saw this as an opportunity: could I find something related to sheep or wool in the museum, just because it happened to be there and not because I sought it out?

I made my way to the top most floor of the museum and began walking through the galleries. I had my eye out for landscapes that featured sheep, or people wearing wool, or art installations that used wool. Anything wool related. Anything. 

Anything at all.

I saw lots of amazing art. Most notably Van Gogh’s Starry, Starry Night, which I did not know was at the MoMA. It was a lovely surprise, and I did take the time to appreciate it, dear Reader. I’m not that wool obsessed that I would give up the opportunity to absorb any of the art that was around me. I took my time and gave my attention to anything that struck my fancy. 

I didn’t, however, find anything on that floor that had anything to do with wool. So, I went down a floor and had the same experience. Lots of incredible art, but nothing with even a passing reference to wool.

As I stood before a canvas of an industrial landscape, it struck me: I was in the museum of modern art. Many of these artists were already at least a generation removed from wool production. Many had grown up well past the start of the Industrial Revolution, in cities where sheep lived in zoos not outside their door. Yes, I was looking at the work of artists who lived 50-150 years ago, but the closest they got to wool was commentary on the effects of industrialization. No references to what came before at all. No references to what was still going on outside of urban landscapes unless they were fetishizing the people who lived in it. 

Wool was completely absent from the discussion taking place on the walls around me. And, I’ll admit that my heart sank. Yes, many of these artists were still wearing wool, as they lived before the advent of petrochemical alternatives. Their bodies were clothed in linen or cotton in the summer and wool in the winter. But none of the portraits used clothes as commentary. The focus was more on the body itself. 

I nearly gave up and moved on. Time was getting short and I still had two things I was hoping to do before we needed to get the train home. But I went down one more floor. 

Finally, I found wool in use by three artists. I cannot describe the relief that flowed over me. I was not only saddened by the absence of wool in the lives of the artists, but I had been kicking myself for coming to the MoMA at all when I could have fit in another activity that was wool-focused on my quest to find wool in life even in an urban setting. 

The first piece was a massive art installation by Barbara Chase-Roboud. The Albino is made of bronze with a black patina, wool, and other fibers. Up close, you can see that the “wings” are made up of hanks of different types of black yarn interlocked with one another. The piece can also be installed with the “wings” raised up to the ceiling, rather than draping down to the ground. When displayed like that, the piece is called All That Rises Must Converge/Black. Fans of Flannery O’Connor may appreciate the reference. 

Riscos IV (Cliffs IV) by Olga De Amaral is made of woven strips of wool and horsehair. Her artwork, generally speaking, in inspired by the landscape of Colombia, where she is from. The strips and lines were inspired by Incan quipu.

There was a whole gallery of installations by Salvadoran-American artist Guadalupe Maravilla. Maravilla tried sound therapy when he was undergoing cancer treatment. The gallery held several of these platforms that incorporated gongs, loofah, plastic, straw, and more, which Maravilla gathered as he retraced his migration route. Guests could lie on two of the platforms and experience a “sound bath.” Several of the platforms also incorporated a strip of wool fleece at one end.

You may have noticed through the window that the day was coming to a close. I lingered as long as I could, appreciating the oddly appealing work of Maravilla, but I finally had to step away. I found my husband in the lobby, and we hopped in an Uber to head back in the direction of Penn station to continue our adventure within walking distance of the train so we didn’t miss it.

Just a few blocks from the station is the Museum of Fashion at FIT. This is a free museum connected to the Fashion Institute of Technology. It has two galleries. The first housed a comparison of the work of Dior and Balenciaga. 

The designers were contemporaries of one another, but came to fashion through different avenues. While they often produced styles that resembled each other, the actual execution of the designs, when seen presented together, point to each designer’s unique style. 

These day ensembles, both worked in black wool, both featuring buttons placed to the side of the wearers, are in the same design “neighborhood” as one another at first glance. But Dior’s creation (on the left) reflects his interest in architecture. His garments often required women to wear shape wear to fit their bodies to his creation, or he built structural elements within the garments to create unnatural shapes that suggested “more”: extra curvy hips, for instance. 

The basement gallery featured an exhibit of shoes. While I own some wool shoes, I didn’t expect to find any in a gallery full of Jimmy Choos and hand made leather boots, but there was one pair of sneakers with wool uppers that tied with a bow on top. And I love them. And I want them.


Outside of the museum, one of the campus buildings has equally sized panels along it, and each year, the graduating students each get a panel to paint. Many students were there that evening, working away at their panels, and we took our time appreciating their work. I was pleased to see a couple of panels with wool/knitting themes to them. 

At this point, we were footsore, hungry, and a little over-stimulated by all the running around in search of wool. As we started making our way toward the station, we passed a restaurant called Naya that catered to the student-heavy area of FIT. They functioned like a Chipotle or Subway, but for Mediterranean wraps and bowls. We popped in for one last meal in the city.

I had the lamb.

We made our train with time to spare and got home before midnight. All told, we were in the city for 11 hours. We saw a remarkable amount of wool while we were there: on the hoof and off, directly and indirectly. I’m pleased to report that it is possible to enjoy a wool-related day in New York City. And, of course it is possible: wool continues to clothe, inspire, and tie us to the land, even on a tarmac surface.


Anne Frost hosts the knitting podcast, I Thought I Knew How. A knitter for over 20 years, Anne has developed a more-than-casual interest in heritage crafts and wool and shares what she learns with listeners and those who join her on knitting tours to Shetland. She recommends that if you wish to recreate her itinerary, you spread it over 2-3 days.