Learning more about sheep and the industrial wool production chain has made me a more informed and discerning wool consumer. So to that end, I thought I'd start a mini-series on sheep. Maybe it'll interest some of you as well...
Sheep were amongst the first animals (after dogs) to be domesticated, about 10,000 years ago. It’s thought that hunter-gatherers in and around Iran and Turkey would bring home orphaned wild “mouflon” sheep to rear for later consumption (at least 3 subspecies appear to have been involved in this process). The sheep were initially kept for meat and hides, but were soon bred for milk. Raising for wool presumably came shortly after.
Several so-called “landraces” evolved, when the humans moved north into Europe and took their sheep with them, between about 10,000 – 5,000 BC. These “landraces” were not really formal “breeds” of sheep (there was no selective breeding going on), but the animals adapted over time to the natural and cultural environment in which they lived.
These sheep are still around, although rare. They are small (knee-high), slow-growing, have short tails (modern sheep have naturally long tails which are amputated as part of normal farming practice), and have wool-free faces and legs. They come in many colours (some individuals can even be multicoloured!) and with many different configurations of horns - there are some varieties with 4 and even 6 horns! Some landraces “moult” so that you don’t need to shear them - clearly an advantage in the days before scissors! Some have double coats - a long, shaggy and coarse outer layer and a fine, soft, undercoat; and most have some “kemp” – coarse wool hairs – interspersed with the regular wool. The sheep tend to “browse” (ie. eat everything they can reach) rather than “graze” (ie. eat only grass). They do herd, but in some cases cannot be “worked” using sheepdogs because they scatter when chased. Because they retain many of their “primitive” survival instincts, they are typically easier to care for than modern breeds. Some are simply left to go feral on confined islands – easy on the Neolithic shepherd! They also do not give uniform fleece - some animals of the same landrace will have coarse hair, some curly and fine. Different body parts of the sheep give different grades of wool as well. These features were actually an advantage in the "good ole days" when subsistence farming communities had small flocks, and all the fiber needs (for rugs, rugged outerwear, and fine underwear and Sunday-best shawls) could be met by that flock. Nowadays, however, such animals have no place in the modern industrial complex, which requires very uniform input.
[Faroe Island sheep]
So the landraces of sheep are now mostly confined to the very outer corners and remote islands of England and Northern Europe, and in some cases are in danger of extinction because it is so difficult to make money farming them. Some of them serve a niche market, and these you might have heard about:
- Icelandic – brought to the island about 1200 years ago with the settlers. Dual-coated with a rough outer coat and a very fine inner one. The fibers can be separated, or used together. Lopi uses both together. A special sub-breed, called the “leader sheep” (very intelligent animals which lead and protect the herd) exists. You can buy Lopi direct from Iceland these days, or get it via your LYS.
- Shetland – originally from Shetland, but now found throughout the world. Very soft, fine fleece prized for its natural colours by the spinning and knitting crowd. Jamieson's of Shetland is the famous producer of shetland yarns specifically meant for traditional fair-isle sweaters. Jamieson and Smith is a different company that also sells shetland yarns. I particularly love the natural colours!
- Scottish Blackface - used in the production of the famous Harris Tweed. This is the most economically important sheep in the UK. It's not usually sold as knitting wool.
[Manx Loaghtan sheep]
I really like exploring the fibers from these sheep. They are quite different from each other. If you don't spin, it's harder to find commerically spun wool from some of the less well-known breeds. But you might find some on Etsy or Ebay. There's Blacker Yarns in the UK, which spins up different breeds, and you might also find "direct from the mill" or "direct from the farm" sales on the internet by searching for specific breeds.
By purchasing these yarns, you help to keep these breeds around. And, since I like to think that my knitting is of heirloom quality, I don't mind spending more to get the traditional stuff. I like that connection with history; I enjoy being part of keeping it alive.