The Field Guide to Fleece: 100 Sheep Breeds & How to Use Their Fibers

The Field Guide to Fleece: 100 Sheep Breeds & How to Use Their Fibers

by Carol Ekarius, Deborah Robson


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With this compact portable reference in hand, crafters can quickly and easily look up any of 100 different sheep breeds, the characteristics of their fleece, and the kinds of projects for which their fleece is best suited. Each breed profile includes a photograph of the animal and information about its origin and conservation status, as well as the weight, staple length, fiber diameter, and natural colors of its fleece. This is a great primer for beginners, and a handy guide for anyone who loves working with fleece.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612121789
Publisher: Storey Books
Publication date: 08/27/2013
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 552,523
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Carol Ekarius is the coauthor of The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook, The Field Guide to Fleece, and Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep, and the author of several books including Small-Scale Livestock Farming, Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds, and Storey’s Illustrated Breed Guide to Sheep, Goats, Cattle, and Pigs. She lives in the mountains of Colorado.

Deborah Robson is co-author of The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook and Knitting in the Old Way. She is a former editor of both Shuttle, Spindle & Dyepot and Spin-Off magazine, and she is currently the editor and publisher of Nomad Press, which publishes books on traditional and ethnic knitting and spinning. Robson is also an artist, working in textiles, printmaking, and oils. She lives in Colorado with her daughter.

Read an Excerpt


A Love Affair with Wool

We love wool. We love sheep. That's why we wrote The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook. Many readers have asked for a smaller book that they could carry with them or give to friends who are new to fiber arts. We listened!

Why are we so fond of wool? Well, first, it is all natural. It's also surprisingly diverse and exceptionally practical. It provides warmth in cold climates, while it also makes a great cool fabric for warm weather. Desert-living people — from Navajos to Bedouins — have long histories with sheep and wool.

Not all wools are created equal! There are more than a thousand breeds of sheep, each with its own intrinsic wool characteristics. Some grow negligible wool, while others have superlong fleeces. Some fine wools can be worn comfortably by babies, while strong wools can last for centuries in heavily used rugs. Some wools felt readily, while others won't felt at all. Some are springy, while others are dense and supple. For us, learning about these diversities of sheep and experimenting with their wools is a great adventure.

Fiber characteristics vary widely not only between breeds but also within breeds, and sometimes even throughout an individual fleece. Wool changes with an animal's age, health, and environmental circumstances. A lamb's first fleece will be its finest and softest. A sheep that was sick or subjected to other stress may grow a fleece with weak spots. The next year that same animal could grow strong and beautiful fiber. Every fleece has distinct, individual qualities.

Wool comes in many natural colors, but it can also be dyed. White wool is the usual choice for dyeing, while overdyeing naturally colored wools can create lovely, nuanced colors. Wools from different breeds take up dyes differently. Dyeing offers infinite possibilities!

Learning What a Fiber Can Tell You

When you are learning to tell one wool from another, consider its crimp, fiber length, and fiber diameter, and look at the types and mix of fibers in the fleece.

Crimp. Crimp, which consists of the natural kinks or waves in individual fibers, forms as those fibers grow; it is permanent. Crimp can be tight and well organized, or loose and disorganized. The crimpier the wool, the more elasticity it has, so crimpy wools make great socks or other items that need to stretch and rebound. Wools with less crimp drape elegantly.

Fiber length. Our estimates of fiber lengths represent common annual growth. Many fleeces (even in our sample photos!) fall outside those ranges.

Fiber diameter. Historic grading approaches, like the Bradford Count and Blood Count, were based on the educated fingers and eyes of trained evaluators. Technology has allowed us to report fiber diameters based on micron counts. A micron is a measurement equal to one-millionth of one meter. An interesting thing about micron counts is that two fibers can report the same micron count, yet feel different in your hand. Think of it as two pieces of paper that weigh the same, but one is slick magazine-type paper and the other a natural rice paper: you know the difference as soon as you feel them, even if they weigh the same. And trained or not, our sense of touch is still one of our best guides to fiber quality.

Single-coated; double-coated. A fleece can be single-coated (containing only wool); double-coated (containing two coats, a coarse outercoat and a fine undercoat); or composed of three types of fibers (add in kemp).

Wool; hair; kemp. The term wool can apply to an entire fleece, but it also refers to a specific type of fiber within a fleece. Wool fibers are relatively fine, and have crimp and elasticity; even coarse wool fibers are much finer than hair fibers. Hair fibers are straighter, smooth, strong, and inelastic. Kemp fibers are coarse, brittle, and almost always shorter than the other fibers. Dye "hides" in the hollow centers of kemp, a trait that is used in producing true tweeds.

So, with this brief intro, we wish you well as you explore the wonderful world of wool and sheep!


American Miniature Cheviot

These small sheep were originally given a name that may or may not be an appropriate reflection of their origins, and results in confusion with the Brecknock Hill Cheviots of Wales, which are about twice their size. For miniature sheep, they produce an exceptional weight of good-quality wool. Like the fiber grown by the other Cheviots, it is high-bulk and resilient. While most Cheviot wool is white, American Miniature Cheviot fleeces come in a variety of natural colors. The breed standards and some of the genetics (by way of transferred semen) are being used to develop a miniature Cheviot line in Australia. See Cheviot for dyeing and use information.


Arcotts: Canadian, Outaouais, and Rideau

Because the Arcotts were intended for meat production, there are no wool specifications in the breed standards and fleeces are called "variable." That doesn't mean they don't make pleasant and rewarding spinning!

All three breeds represent very mixed ancestry. The Canadian Arcott was bred primarily from Suffolk (37%), Île-de-France, Leicester, North Country Cheviot, and Romnelet. The Outaouais Arcott came mostly from Finnsheep (49%), Shropshire, and Suffolk. The Rideau Arcott was produced with Finnsheep (40%), Suffolk, East Friesian, Shropshire, and Dorset Horn. Other breeds that contributed small percentages to one or more of the Arcotts include Border Leicester, Corriedale, Dorset, East Friesian, Finnsheep, Île-de-France, Lincoln, North Country Cheviot, Romnelet, Shropshire, and Southdown.

Effect of dyes. Luster, and therefore dye brilliance, varies although they all dye well.

Best uses. Expect midgrade white wools from them all, with specific qualities depending on which pieces of the fiber genetics are expressed in the individual sheep. The yarns are suitable for making items like sweaters, hats, mittens, and blankets.



Badger Face Welsh Mountain

Bred primarily for meat, this breed produces sturdy, firm-textured fleece. Locks are rectangular, with short, tapering tips and a definite crimp.

Effect of dyes. Light-colored fleece from this sheep is interesting to dye, and yields tweedy results.

Best uses. While too rough for next-to-the-skin wear, Badger Face Welsh Mountain is a good choice for tweeds and other outerwear, rugs, baskets, upholstery, and other durable items.



Balwen Welsh Mountain

The coarse, short fibers of this primarily meat breed have striking coloration and produce a dark, robust, almost tough wool. Locks are blocky, with short, curly tips. Whether you flick or card it, this wool requires a delicate balance between grist and twist.

Effect of dyes. Only dark gray fibers will take dye at all.

Best uses. Balwen wool is best used for outerwear, tweeds, and sturdy fabrics, and will yield relatively lightweight items that can take a lot of abuse.


Beulah Speckled Face

Although little known outside the Welsh countryside, this breed grows fleece that is easy to prepare, with locks that open nicely, and textures ranging from medium to quite coarse.

Effect of dyes. The fleece is so consistently white that dyeing it produces clean colors.

Best uses. The resulting yarn is crisp enough for good stitch definition. At the finer end, these fleeces can make a springy, multipurpose yarn suitable for everyday garments and textiles. The coarser fleeces are suitable for rugs, pillows, and other household items that need to be hard-wearing.



Black Welsh Mountain

The relatively uniform fleece of this breed is uniquely solid black, dense, and firm, with almost no kemp. Locks are easily separated, and spinning from the lock is an option.

Best uses. The resulting yarn has good loft, and is relatively soft, lightweight, and extremely durable, making it appropriate for use in many garments and household textiles, including sweaters, hats, mittens, and blankets. You can blend Black Welsh Mountain wool with similar length/diameter white wools to produce a spectrum of grays.


Bleu du Maine

Although not well known as a breed-specific fiber for textile work, Bleu du Maine offers easy-to-process fleece with good fiber length. Its long staples have short, pointed tips and a well-developed, wavy crimp pattern. You can flick or tease and spin from the locks, card, or comb. The wool is pleasant to spin with either woolen or worsted techniques. A woolen approach will emphasize the fiber's loft; a worsted approach will still have a light quality.

Effect of dyes. Dyeing yields clear colors with a hint of shine.

Best uses. Bleu du Maine's midrange, versatile yarns can be soft or sturdy, with nice bulk and a satisfyingly full hand. Bleu du Maine yarn is best suited for making sweaters, hats, mittens, blankets, and other homey, everyday textiles.


Bluefaced Leicester

Favored among fiber-lovers for its lustrous, silky, longwool fleece, Bluefaced Leicester is also one of the most predictable fleeces available in terms of grade, fiber length, and fleece weight. Often given the shorthand title BFL, it's a fairly easy-to-find, uniform fleece with no kemp or hair and a distinctly springy appearance in the locks. Locks can be slippery to prepare, so less-experienced spinners should start with commercially prepared top; loosen the top before spinning.

Effect of dyes. It takes dye colors clearly.

Best uses. Incredibly versatile, wool from the Bluefaced Leicester is fine enough to be comfortable next to the skin, yet durable and long-wearing. It blends well with other fibers, adding resilience to silk or mohair while maintaining drape and luster. Use it to make soft but hard-wearing sweaters, socks, mittens, and hats, as well as nicely draping woven fabrics for clothing and household use.



The cross of Lincoln rams on Merino ewes specially selected for fine wool resulted in Bond sheep, originally known as Commercial Corriedales and sometimes still called Bond Corriedales. Individual shearings from Bonds and Corriedales can be quite similar, but the Bond's wool is, overall, finer, with longer staples and heavier fleeces. Bonds are known for softness, good bulk, and elasticity, due to their well-defined, organized, and even crimp pattern.

Effect of dyes. Takes color well; results influenced by underlying natural tones.

Best uses. If your goal is soft, thick singles, Bond is a better choice than Merino, while Bond also makes excellent fine yarns in a lovely array of natural colors that can be used to make a variety of textiles, ranging from camisoles through sweaters and hats to blankets.



Border Leicester

The sturdy, reliable fleece of the Border Leicester is known for its versatility, luster, and crisp texture, as well as the relative ease with which it can be prepared and spun. Like other longwools, Border Leicester can be spun from the lock, picked and spun, combed, or flicked. Its individually distinct locks, with their lustrous curls, can be spun for texture or for smoothness.

Effect of dyes. It takes dye clearly.

Best uses. Border Leicester's crisp hand and fiber length lend themselves to novelty yarn treatments. This wool felts reasonably well and is great for household textiles, like pillows and upholstery fabric, and durable goods, like bags. The finer fleeces make hard-wearing, comfortable everyday garments like sweaters, mittens, hats, and socks.




Coming as this breed does from a group of small islands quite far from the Scottish mainland, perhaps it's not surprising that it's not very well known. But the Boreray, once vital to the livelihoods of a few hardy families, remains with us both on the island it's named for and in small flocks around Britain.

Boreray fleece has indistinct, open locks with slightly pointed tips and — sometimes — the sticky base ends that are characteristic of a fleece that sheds. Boreray fleeces vary widely in fiber length and diameters from quite coarse to surprisingly fine. Begin your fiber preparation by opening the butt ends, and determine your next steps according to the profile of your individual fleece. You can spin from the lock, card, flick, or comb.

Effect of dyes. Any dye colors you use will be influenced by the wool's underlying tone.

Best uses. While most often suitable for tweeds, rugs, pillows, and other sturdy applications, an especially fine Boreray fleece could produce soft, strong garments.


Brecknock Hill Cheviot

Slightly finer than the fleece of other Cheviots, the dense, crisp, even fleece of the Brecknock Hill Cheviot has a bit of luster along with the Cheviot family's three-dimensional crimp. It may contain some kemp. The shorter staples will hand-card well, and there is usually enough length for flicking or combing.

Effect of dyes. This wool dyes clearly and well, although without the brilliance of the longwools.

Best uses. Brecknock Hill Cheviot yarns make great sweaters, socks, and other everyday garments, as well as household textiles such as blankets and pillows. Some of the finer fleeces may be suitable for next-to-the-skin wear.


Excerpted from "The Field Guide To Fleece"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Carol Ekarius and Deborah Robson.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

A Love Affair with Wool


American Miniature Cheviot

Arcotts: Canadian, Outaouais, and Rideau

Badger Face Welsh Mountain

Balwen Welsh Mountain

Beulah Speckled Face

Black Welsh Mountain

Bleu du Maine

Bluefaced Leicester


Border Leicester


Brecknock Hill Cheviot

British Milk Sheep

California Red


Castlemilk Moorit



Clun Forest








Dartmoor Greyface

Dartmoor Whiteface


DeLaine Merino

Derbyshire Gritstone

Devon and Cornwall Longwool

Devon Closewool

Dorset Down

Dorset Horn

Dorset Poll (Polled Dorset)

East Friesian

Est a Laine Merino

Exmoor Horn






Gulf Coast Native

Gute or Gutefar

Hampshire Down



Hill Radnor

Hog Island




Karakul, American

Kerry Hill

Leicester Longwool

Lincoln Longwool




Manx Loaghtan



Navajo Churro

Norfolk Horn

North Country Cheviot

North Ronaldsay


Oxford Down








Romeldale and CVM


Rouge de l'Ouest

Rough Fell



Santa Cruz

Scottish Blackface





Spaelsau (New)

Spaelsau (Old)

Stansborough Grey






Tunis, American


Welsh Hill Speckled Face

Welsh Mountain and South Wales Mountain


Whitefaced Woodland



In Case You're Curious




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