Thanks to Ted, who suggested that I check out an article by Charlene Schurch in the winter '02 volume of Spin-Off, which talks about how to use up small amounts of yarn to make lengthways scarves. Perfect for when you've produced dribs and drabs of handspun that you aren't sure what to do with.
Reader Soo recommended In Sheep's Clothing, by Nola and Jane Fournier. It's funny: I was going to recommend this book myself because it's one of the few sources that includes detailed discussions of various sheep breeds. I scored a used copy a few years ago after much searching on-line (I didn't want to pay an obscene amount of money but at the time, it was out of print), then shortly after I found a reasonably-priced copy, it was rereleased in an updated edition. You might also be interested in Handspun Treasures from Rare Wools, by Deborah Robson. This is a slim book which also talks about various endangered sheep breeds and shows photos of items made from breed-specific wools.
Here’s a brief description of some different kinds of wool you may encounter, either in yarn or roving/top form. I've put the fiber length and diameter in parentheses after the name so you can get a sense for how hard or easy it is to spin (the longer the fiber, the easier to spin) and how fine it is (the higher the second range of numbers, the finer and probably softer the wool). The ones in bold are ones that I sometimes have in my Etsy shop.
Merino (2.5 to 4 inches; diameter 60 to 70s): Probably the breed most knitters are familiar with is Merino. That's because Merino is one of the most widely available breed-specific fibers. Merino wool is so widely used because Merino sheep produce much of the finest and softest wool available, perfect for next-to-the-skin wear, even for babies and those with sensitive skin. Because merino is such a supersoft wool, it’s often mixed with luxury fibers like silk or cashmere to produce blends that have the advantages of both. Sometimes merino is marked “extra fine” which signifies that the fiber diameter is the smallest available for the breed (and therefore even softer). You’ll pay more for merino than something marked generic "wool," and if it’s superfine quality, there'll be a markup on top of that. There are a lot of superwash merinos on the market, which for many people makes it an even more attractive choice.
Corriedale (3 to 5 inches; diameter 50 to 58s): Another soft and popular wool, first bred in New Zealand by crossing various Leicesters with Merino. I believe that Corriedale blended with Merino is what Manos del Uruguay yarn is made of, but if that's wrong, I'm sure someone will let me know. Corriedale is soft and has good loft. I've spun Corriedale and it's easy for beginners to spin, dyes well and feels good spun up.
Wensleydale (8 to 12 inches; diameter 44 to 50s): A while back, Berroco used to have a few breed-specific yarns, one of which was Wensleydale. (Of course, they discontinued the cool breed-specific yarns in order to bring you more fugly novelty yarn with hoo-di-hoos hanging off it. Is it any wonder I'm bitter? But I think Webs might carry something similar under their own house label.) Wensleydale wool is curly and long and lustrous (it shines almost the way mohair does). It's soft relative to most other longwools, but if you are used to shorter-fiber wools, it may seem hairy to you. On the other hand, because the fibers are longer and coarser, it’ll be very easy to spin, especially for newbie spinners.
Blue-Faced Leicester (3 to 6 inches; diameter 56 to 60s): No, they don’t have blue faces, exactly; instead, their skin has a bluish cast that shows up especially around their heads and faces. BFL sheep are very popular, especially in Britain. BFL is a medium-length wool, soft and fairly fine. It's also a good wool for newbie spinners (one of my faves). As I recall, BFL was the other breed-specific yarn by Berroco. It seems like lately you can find more and more BFL in yarn form, rather than just roving, and it's a great all-purpose yarn.
Romney (4 to 8 inches; diameter 46 to 50s): Very important in New Zealand, this wool is strong but tends to be used either as part of a cross-breed or in sturdier garments or upholstery. It’s got a longer fiber length which makes it excellent for new spinners. Good for outdoor sweaters, rugged socks, and so on, but not so much a next-to-the-skin fiber.
Shetland (2 to 5 inch fibers; diameter 50s – 60s): Shetlands are small, hardy sheep, which is why they survived on the rugged islands north of Britain. Shetlands come in lots of colors (check out the undyed Shetland yarn by Jamieson’s which go from white through all kinds of browns, grays and black). It's a fine wool; not baby soft like merino, but very strong and durable. You can find Shetland wool dyed in nearly every color of the rainbow, since it's the authentic choice for fair isle garments.
Targhee (3 – 5 inch fibers; diameter 58 to 64s): You'll see a lot of Targhees in Montana, which makes sense, since the breed was developed in the US especially for the western American climate. Targhees were bred by crossing Rambouillet, Lincoln and Corriedales. Targhee wool has lots of loft and sproing. It dyes well and is soft. It doesn't seem to be as easy to find breed-specific Targhee wool as some others, but it's worth it if you can. Sweet Grass Wools in Montana (Google it, okay?) sells some.
Cormo(4 to 5 inch fibers; daimeter 58-64s): Cormos were bred in Australia from Corriedales crossed with a kind of merino (get it? the “Cor” is from corriedale and the “m-o” from merino). They have a medium-length fiber, dense and soft, with good elasticity.
Rambouillet (2 – 4 inch fibers; diameter 60 to 80s): Rambouillets were bred in France in the late 1700s from a flock of Spanish merino sheep. So, like merino, Rambo wool is fine and soft (next to the skin soft), with good elasticity and loft.
Columbia (3 to 6 inch fibers; diameter 54 to 62s).: Another breed that was developed in America (the first to be created in America, as a matter of fact), by crossing Lincolns with Rambouillets. The wool is lofty, a little crisp and a good all-around wool choice. I got some undyed Columbia and it'll go up in the Etsy shop soon. It's a nice, soft wool and I think I'm going to order more.
So there you have it. Here's where it gets interesting: my esteemed readers now get to chime in. What are your impressions? What are your favorites? Discuss...