Sheep are common, everyday animals, especially in the lives of knitters. We are inundated with images of sheep and we notice them everywhere. We go to fiber festivals and watch them being sheared and we purchase their yarn and fleece. Even a simple drive on a country road and we look for the sheep who bring us so much pleasure with their wool. So it seems odd to talk about sheep being rare or endangered.
But farming has changed over the last hundred years. Instead of being primarily local, farming has become national and even global. Gone are the days when your wool (or your milk or your apples or your chicken) came from the farmer down the road. Agriculture is dominated by large conglomerations and corporations who have shifted focus to producing a limited number of breeds, breeds designed for maximum production. Other breeds are being left to die out and, possibly, disappear forever.
I found out about rare sheep breeds when Spin-Off magazine did an article a few years back about endangered breeds, and why the loss of fiber from those breeds was a loss for spinners (and knitters) everywhere.* The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is a nonprofit organization that aims to preserve unique livestock breeds -- not only sheep breeds, but also cows and pigs and goats and even bunnies. As the ALBC puts it, these breeds are "part of our national heritage and represent a unique piece of the earth's bio-diversity. The loss of these breeds would impoverish agriculture and diminish the human spirit. We have inherited a rich variety of livestock breeds. For the sake of future generations we must work together to safeguard these treasures." On a more practical level, our food supply is at risk when we narrow our agricultural production to a few breeds: just one germ that is particularly virulent in the cross-bred commercial species could spell disaster.
Among the most critically threatened breeds in North America are CVM/Romeldale, Gulf Coast, Hog Island and Santa Cruz sheep. (See? you probably never heard of at least one of those breeds, did you?) The "threatened" category includes Cotswold, Jacob, Karakul, Leicester Longwool, Navajo-Churro and St. Croix breeds. Dorset Horn, Lincoln, Oxford and Tunis on are the "watch" list, and -- gratifyingly -- several breeds have made it to "recovering" status: Shetland, Clun Forest, Barbados Blackbelly, Katahdin, Shropshire, Black Welsh Mountain, Southdown and Wiltshire Horn.
Spinners have more opportunities to work with different and unusual sheep breeds: in fact, one of the most common questions newbie spinners ask (and I've been there myself) is what kind of wool is good for a beginner to spin with. (In case you, too, are wondering, breeds with longer fibers like Corriedale, Blue-Faced Leicester, Coopworth, Lincoln and Romney are good starter fibers.) For knitters, it can be a little harder to find these yarns already spun and ready to knit, and if you do, they are likely to be undyed. (Berroco used to offer a line of breed-specific yarns -- there was a Wensleydale Longwool and a Blue-Faced Leicester, and you could easily buy a sweater's worth in a selection of colors -- but they've sinced discontinued that line.)
Hearing about these breeds got me interested in knitting different sorts of wool, from breeds of sheep with which I wasn't familiar. When I go to fiber festivals, I look for small farms and vendors producing fiber from these breeds. Now that I'm dyeing a lot, these yarns and rovings are especially fun and sometimes challenging, as their fresh-from-the-sheep nature and unique characteristics make them take dye differently than commercial yarns. While I waited for shipments of the commercial sock yarns you know and love, I had fun playing with these farm yarns, which I will list later today on Etsy:
Clun Forest sheep are now in the "recovering" class, meaning they have made progress and are no longer on the verge of extinction, although still not widespread. They have a fine wool with low luster and short fibers. They produce yarn that is lofty and elastic. These batches gave muted colors, with an almost stonewashed feel to them.
Dorset sheep are on Britain's vulnerable breed list) but are more popular in America. The yarn I used is organic Dorset from Britain. Dorset are one of the only major sheep breeds where both male and female sheep have horns.
Ryeland sheep are, like the Clun Forest, a breed which was more endangered in the past than now. They originate in Hertfordshire in Britain, on land on which rye grass was grown -- hence the name. They are placid sheep, with long-fiber wool that spins well. This yarn, also organic, feels sturdy and unbelievably elastic -- very sproing-y!
Cotswold wool -- on the U.S. endangered list -- has longer fibers, a bit of curl and is lustrous -- it's often used for doll hair. Hundreds of years ago, Cotswold wool was a major export in Britain; after a period in which the breed nearly died out, it's starting to be revived. Cotswold sheep are hardy and easy to herd, and have a gentle nature. This yarn reminded me of mohair a bit: it's sturdier than most commercial wools and has a bit of a halo from the longer hairs. It took the colors nicely and has a great luster.
Perendales are the result of crossing Romney sheep with Cheviots. They are very popular in New Zealand, and are kept to produce wool and meat. Their wool is springy and elastic and holds its shape well. I have read that there are only 5 known Perendale flocks in the U.S. at the present time, which is a shame, because I really liked the feel of this Perendale as I worked with it and it took color beautifully.
If you're looking for a little bit of knitting adventure, or want to help save a piece of our ovine heritage, try one. These yarns may look and feel a little different from some of the processed merinos you're used to -- crunchier, sturdier -- but keep an open mind and be receptive to their unique beauty. In the meantime, a box of sock yarn has arrived chez Go-Knit-In-Your-Hat-Lady and is about to visit the dyepot...
*You can find Deborah Robson's article on Interweave's Save the Sheep project in her article "Rare Wools from Rare Sheep-Part Two: Why endangered sheep matter to spinners," Spin-Off 23, no. 1 (Spring 1999).