This one-of-a-kind encyclopedia shines a spotlight on more than 200 animals and their wondrous fleece. Profiling a worldwide array of fiber-producers that includes northern Africa’s dromedary camel, the Navajo churro, and the Tasmanian merino, Carol Ekarius and Deborah Robson include photographs of each animal’s fleece at every stage of the handcrafting process, from raw to cleaned, spun, and woven. The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook is an artist’s handbook, travel guide, and spinning enthusiast’s ultimate reference source all in one.
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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
Sheep: Oodles and Boodles of Wool
I think I could sing and shear a few sheep at the same time.
— Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin singer/songwriter
If you were to travel the globe, judiciously noting what kinds of livestock people keep, you would see far more sheep than any other type of farm animal. China leads the flock with over 143 million head of sheep; Australia follows with more than 98 million.
By comparison, the United States has a paltry 7.7 million — a number that has been steadily declining as agriculture and food production have moved from small-scale farms to industrial production. Yet if you look for them, you'll find sheep in almost every corner of the country. A handful of large flocks in the western states and provinces accounts for the majority of the North American sheep flock, but small-scale farmers and backyard shepherds help maintain an amazing diversity of breeds, and lots of these folks got into shepherding in the first place thanks to their love of fiber. They may have only a handful of animals, yet these individuals and their families often concentrate on producing gorgeous fiber from happy sheep.
Britain may not have the most sheep, but the residents of these islands can reasonably lay claim to living in the sheep capital of the world. With a landmass equivalent to about 11/2 percent of that of the United States (an area just slightly larger than the state of Minnesota), the British Isles have more than three times as many sheep as the United States (around 25 million) and more recognized breeds than any other country in the world. Thus it shouldn't come as a surprise just how great an influence British sheep have had on fiber development and production, and just how many of the breeds we write about here are of British descent.
Blackfaced, Blackface, and Black Face
Blackfaced sheep have black faces because they are blackface breeds, but not all sheep with black faces are Blackfaced Mountain breeds. The usage of some sheep-related words presents conundrums to anyone who loves consistency, but breed names of sheep just aren't consistent. Nor are the spellings of the names for tools or fiber-shaping processes. We've carefully considered the spelling options, and there is method behind our apparent madness. If we call a breed blackfaced, we mean that it belongs to what we have defined as the Blackfaced Mountain family; if we say it has a black face, the color of its face is dark but it is not a member of that family.
Swaledale Sheep, Yorkshire, England
Sheep must be marvelously brave or stupid, or carriers of some instinctual flaw, to seek comfort from the cold night in wintry wet walls of Yorkshire stone, outcroppings in a lush hill, mossed gray walls far above the lights of the town where children play on the village green and old men sip ale at the local pub.
While silent smoke puffs from scattered chimneys, and warm barns, stacks of hay, privet hedges, massed heather and clumps of blackberries temper the sweetness of lower ground, the sheep gravitate towards dark caves in the hills beyond, frozen shoulders of rocks dripping icy shards, and draw solace from bitterness or peaceful ignorance, teaching us better than any Stoic philosopher how to embrace the inhospitable.
— Donna Pucciani, reprinted by permission First published in MacGuffin magazine (Fall 2004)
U.K. Means What, Exactly?
We Americans tend to think that Britain, England, the British Isles, and the U.K., or United Kingdom, all mean the same thing. With so many islands and subdivisions, not to mention name changes throughout history, it's easy for outsiders to get confused. For the record, Great Britain refers to the largest island in the group, which includes the countries of England, Scotland, and Wales. Each of these three countries also includes many smaller islands. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or the U.K. for short, is the preferred term for all territory under the same government. Ireland, also known as the Republic of Ireland or Éire, is a separate country. To make matters more confusing, it's officially okay to use the term Britain (not Great Britain) instead of the U.K., and some international codes still use G.B. instead of U.K. The term British refers to all citizens of the United Kingdom, including the Welsh, Scottish, English, and Northern Irish.
Surprisingly, there may be more variability between individuals within a breed than there is between breeds, and there are usually regional differences in flocks around the country or around the globe. We knew this before we started this project, but through our research we have come to appreciate just how dramatic these differences can be. Unlike many other books on fiber, which usually report information based on other published sources (including those that are generally the most reliable: the industry associations), we actually got workable samples for almost all of the breeds that are written up in this book. So the data you see reflect not only conventional wisdom but also our personal analysis of samples for the breed. We often received fibers that challenged our assumptions or contradicted published resource materials. Some were so outside the realm of our expectations for the breed that we sent samples to a laboratory to get a bit of scientific analysis, and yes, they were different indeed!
Since our samples consisted of measurements taken from a very small number of locks, the results cannot be used to make sweeping generalizations about the breeds. However, they gave us a way to objectively compare the wools we were holding to readily available information on the Internet or in other publications describing the associated breeds' qualities. For some very rare breeds, there is a dearth of published information, so our fiber and the analyses gave us at least one point from which to begin developing an objective understanding of that breed's fiber. As to the geographic differences, we can use Border Leicesters (see page 88 ->) as a good example of the kinds of things we discovered. In North America, Border Leicester fiber is reported to typically range from 30 to 38 microns (spinning counts 50s–40s), while sheep of the same breed in the British Isles ease off the fine end of that span, at 29 to 32 microns (spinning counts 54s–48s). Those from Australia overlap the coarser portion, at 34 to 38 microns (spinning counts 44s–40s), and Border Leicesters in New Zealand go even farther in the coarse direction, at 37 to 40 microns (spinning counts 40s–36s). Yet these are all still Border Leicesters!
We frequently report a much wider range of stats than you might see in other books or articles. Our goal was to give a good estimate of what you're likely to find in the field. We gathered information from a variety of sources, plotted the ranges reported for each breed or species on graph paper, and looked for patterns. We compared this to our samples, and then we drew tentative conclusions. This is all a work in progress! And because we are studying a naturally produced resource grown by ever-changing and evolving populations of animals, the fibers shift even as we study them. You may find, as we did, examples that far exceed the range of specifications found in the current literature, or even found here. Natural fibers are not manufactured — they do not have to fall within precise tolerances — although we'll note when breeds are especially consistent, or inconsistent, in the fiber they produce, and why.
Geography is just one factor affecting fiber variability. The animal's age, nutritional plane, general health, and stage of production (such as nursing ewe, growing lamb, or ram during the nonbreeding season) all have an impact on fiber characteristics. Climate, soils, and cultural approaches to husbandry also play large roles in how animals and their fiber grow.
Sheep are usually thought of as being woolly, but there is a class of sheep whose members are known for not producing wool, or producing only a small amount of wool that sheds out (shedding being common among wild sheep). These are known as hair sheep. The breeds of hair sheep raised in North America include Barbados Blackbelly, Dorper, Katahdin, Painted Desert, Royal White, St. Croix, and Wiltshire Horn. A dedicated and talented spinner may be able to spin some of the wool that these sheep shed in the spring and produce some interesting yarns from their fiber, but for the most part, these animals are of limited interest to wool enthusiasts.
A Starter Guide to Breed-Specific Wools
For supersoft infants' garments, luxury items (camisoles, ultrasoft shawls, special socks), and people who think they can't wear wool:
Bond Booroola Merino California Variegated Mutant Cormo Corriedale lamb Debouillet Delaine Merino Finnsheep Gotland lamb Merinos (finer grades)
For everyday sweaters, mittens, hats, knockabout socks, blankets — usually soft enough for most people to have in contact with skin, and the softer wools within most of these breeds are also suitable for many types of baby garments:
American Tunis Black Welsh Mountain Bleu de Maine Bluefaced Leicester Bond Booroola Merino (stronger grades)
For hard-wearing sweaters, blankets, pillows, bags, and other uses that benefit from increased durability:
Black Welsh Mountain Border Leicester Clun Forest Coopworth Cotswold Dorset Horn Dorset Poll Gotland Hampshire Hill Radnor Karakul Leicester Longwool Lincoln Longwool Lleyn Navajo Churro North Ronaldsay Oxford Perendale Romney Shetland Shropshire Suffolk Teeswater Texel Welsh Hill Speckled Face Welsh Mountain Welsh Mountain Badger-Faced Wensleydale Whitefaced Woodland Zwartbles
TO SPUR YOUR CREATIVITY
A lot of fun, and they'll push you out of your creative ruts, if you let them:
Cotswold Herdwick Leicester Longwool Lincoln Longwool Manx Loaghtan Navajo Churro North Ronaldsay Rough Fell Scottish Blackface Shetland Soay Teeswater Wensleydale
Blackfaced Mountain Family
The breeds of this clan, emanating from the hill country of northern England, Scotland, and Wales, are referred to as blackfaced mountain, black-faced hill, blackfaced heath, blackfaced moor, or just blackface sheep. Today there are six recognized breeds in the family: Dalesbred, Derbyshire Gritstone, Lonk, Rough Fell, Scottish Blackface, and Swaledale. There are other sheep with black faces, such as the Suffolks and Hampshires (which belong to the Down family), but they are not considered part of the Blackfaced Mountain family.
Until the early years of the twentieth century, when flock books were started for the different Blackfaced Mountain breeds, these were considered regional landraces of similar heritage, influenced more by their environment than by human selection. Although the exact origin of these breeds is unclear, it is known that monks kept sheep of similar description more than 800 years ago. Both written documents and textiles from the period support the assertion that sheep in the Blackfaced Mountain family have been around a long time in the hills and dales of the United Kingdom. Most agricultural historians consider the Lonk and Swaledale breeds to be the oldest breeds, with Dalesbred, Derbyshire Gritstone, Rough Fell, and Scottish Blackface as their progeny.
As the name implies, these breeds have dark faces, but they all sport distinct white facial markings as well. They also share other similarities, such as rounded, protruding snouts (known in sheep as "Roman noses"). They're quite hardy, in response to the harsh environments where they developed. In fact, it was their very hardiness that kept shepherds from creating flock books and practicing pedigree breeding; the shepherds believed that pedigree breeding would lead to selection for appearance over productivity, thus making them less robust.
Scientists recently demonstrated the mechanism that helps these sheep withstand the often cold, wet, and bleak conditions of the hill country: In their bodies, the blood vessels near the surface constrict when exposed to cold, thus helping to retain their inner body heat.
The only breed from the Blackfaced Mountain family that is readily found in North America is the Scottish Blackface.
Marley, Me & Sheep
If you saw the movie Marley & Me, you may recall a scene where the characters played by Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson take a much-needed trip to Ireland, leaving the irascible Marley with a doggy sitter. During their Irish trip, the travelers are stopped by a flock of Blackfaced Mountain sheep blocking the road.
The Dalesbred hails from the Yorkshire Dales of northern England and a bit of Wales (an area not much larger than Rhode Island). Ninety-five percent of all Dalesbred sheep are confined to that small area. The animals sport distinctive white patches, suggestive of large teardrops and known as smits, on either side of their nostrils. The muzzle around each sheep's mouth is gray, and its legs bear black and white markings.
The Yorkshire Dales are known for 70-plus inches (178 cm) of rain each year, and that rain is often bitterly cold. Because of this climate, the breed's wool needs to be rugged enough to protect the sturdy sheep that grows it. Many Dalesbreds are hefted, or very strongly attached to the particular piece of land on which they were born. They also play a role in maintaining the ecological balance of the landscape in which they traditionally live.
The animal and the wool are both similar to the Swaledale (see page 49 ->), another producer of carpet-quality wools, which can also be used to make tweedy or tough outerwear fabrics. Our Dalesbred sample spun up with more of a fine-wiry texture than we found in the Swaledale sample. If you made yourself a tightly knitted or woven jacket from one of the finer Dalesbred fleeces, you'd want to wear a softer layer underneath, but you'd probably feel well protected in rainy or snowy weather.
I See You
"Faces are highly emotive," says Keith Kendrick, a cognitive and behavioral neuroscientist at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge, England. "Even as very young babies, we find smiling or familiar faces attractive and comforting."
Having grown up around sheep, Kendrick decided they would make ideal candidates for research to learn if nonhuman animals have similar associations with faces. He said, "I wondered if sheep have sophisticated face-recognition skills, and whether they would respond emotionally to certain faces."
Using Dalesbred and Clun Forest (see page 237 ->) sheep in several different experiments, Kendrick has demonstrated that, indeed, sheep do recognize individuals (humans and other sheep) by their faces, sometimes long after they last saw the face (shown to them in a photo). They can have either a positive or a negative response, depending on the association with the particular face.
Excerpted from "The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook"
Copyright © 2011 Carol Ekarius and Deborah Robson.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
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