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Connect with the Past: Exploring ‘primitive’ sheep breeds

Connect with the Past: Exploring ‘primitive’ sheep breeds

Apr 24th 2013

As we delve deeper into the wonderful world of fiber, we'll discover that there are many breeds of sheep who have quite literally weathered history unchanged by modern breeding programs. Many of these breeds can be traced back hundreds of years - some even a thousand! Iceland, Norway and the UK are just a few countries whose sheepy inhabitants have their own unique history.

The complex fleece of primitive breeds also tells their story. These breeds grow double coats consisting of a soft, insulating undercoat coupled with a hardy outer coat which protects them from the harsh elements which they have endured over centuries. These coats typically come in a variety of natural colors beyond white, most likely to act as camouflage for sheep who had to fend for themselves: many breeds were deposited on remote islands by the Vikings and Spanish explorers as a sort of "insurance plan" in the event of a shipwreck so that the crews wouldn't starve.

Today we'll profile three primitive breeds whom you may have encountered at a fiber festival: Icelandic, Jacob, and Shetland. You can find out more about primitive breeds in Deb Robson and Carol Ekarious' Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook or Clara Parkes' Knitter's Book of Wool.

icelandicsheep Icelandic Sheep 

This breed's history can be traced back over 1,000 years, when the Vikings introduced this hardy breed of sheep to Iceland. Their dual coat is unique because it can be spun together in a traditional Lopi-style Icelandic yarn, or separated by hand for a special project. The soft undercoat (called the thel) boasts a micron count of 19-22, a fineness that is similar to Merino; the coarser outer coat (called the tog) has a micron count of 27-30 and often behaves similarly to mohair. This breed comes in a variety of natural colors and is excellent for outerwear and felting projects. 

For more information about this breed, please visit the Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America website.

jacobsheep Jacob Sheep 

These sheep were once a popular 'novelty' animal, roaming parks and estates in England for many years dating back to the 1700s. Their large horns and spotted black and white coats are quite striking, and unlike other primitive breeds, they do not have a dual fleece. However, each color patch is often unique (both in staple length and micron count) which gives this fleece a broad micron range of 27-35 microns.

For more information about this breed, please visit the Jacob Sheep Breeders Association website.

shetlandShetland Sheep 

This breed dates back to the bronze age, most likely deposited on the rocky islands from which they get their name by the Vikings over 1,000 years ago. This breed is available in a variety of natural colors; despite having many colored variants bred out of the line at the height of the Shetland woolen industry, 11 natural colors and 30 markings remain today, though some are rarer than others in the quest for bright white wool. The fleece is a joy to spin with; each fiber can be drawn from the lock with ease.

For more information about this breed, please visit the North American Shetland Sheepbreeders Association website.

All the best,

Chris, Nancy, and the entire Woolery team