There are so many sheep, and so many types of sheep, in this world. “The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (the FAO) estimated in 2006 that there are over 1300 breeds of sheep in the world, and this number does not reflect the extinct breeds.”1 It is ecologically important to have diversity in all things, including sheep breeds. These genetic adaptations have come about through changes in the environment as well as a fair amount of human fiddling around to achieve better meat production or to enhance various properties of the wool.
I remember that yarn shopping in the 1970s was a straight-forward affair. My favorite yarn store had a dazzling wall of colorful skeins stacked almost to the ceiling. Good old Germantown. It was 100% wool. Period. There was no clue as to what breeds were included in that skein of yarn. Actually I think it is a marvel that yarns made of blended wools can be produced with consistent results, time and time again. It takes great skill to create a blended yarn from all the various fleeces that come into a spinning mill. Most yarns are made this way–an amalgam of fleeces, mysterious to us consumers, but carefully calculated by the manufacturer to create a specific type of yarn.
Most breed specific yarns have been available commercially for just a few decades, other than Merino and Shetland, which are arguably the most recognizable breed specific yarns.
I liken varietal wines to breed specific yarns. Rather than blending different varieties of grapes (or the gene pools of different breeds of sheep), adhering to one variety, or breed, allows the characteristics of that type of grape, or sheep, to stand out. The strengths of that breed can be applied to its best use. Being a handspinner, I found myself naturally drawn to yarns from a single source.
So knowing the breed characteristics can guide you as to the best use for that yarn. Choosing a Merino or Rambouillet yarn, which is of a very fine fiber, to make a textured garment such as a gansey would typically yield patterning so soft it would not show as well as a crisper medium staple yarn, such as Colombia or Corriedale. Because the crimp is so high in finer wools, the light is absorbed more readily yielding a soft, matte look. Other wool fibers with less crimp tend to reflect the light, showing off textures to great advantage. But a fine, crimpy wool is very soft and perfect for baby clothes, or garments worn next to one’s skin.
In the mid-1990s yarns began to appear on the market that were made from one breed alone. I had started my online yarn shop and began importing breed specific yarns from the UK. Some of these breeds were quite special. The Wensleydale sheep, categorized as "at risk" by The Rare Breeds Survival Trust of the U.K., has a sheen like mohair, but can feel soft and buttery. I found it made spectacular Arans, creating deep textures that showed well with the shiny quality of the yarns.
The Suffolk I imported was the most bouncy, jubilant yarn I had seen and made the best cables and bobbles! (As a spinner I scoffed at the idea of Suffolk yarn at first, but learned that the Brits’ idea of Suffolk is completely different than the scratchy US version, which is bred primarily for meat.)
Herdwick wool is coarse and has these lovely bits of kinky white hair (kemp) in among the grey wool. I wouldn’t want to wear it next to my skin, but for outerwear that yarn would last forever.
Icelandic wool is often sold in cakes as a single ply yarn with little twist, called plötulopi. The fleece is double-coated, made up of a soft, shorter undercoat and a more sturdy, longer fiber. The garments made from this yarn are light, yet very warm. From the photo below, the coarser hairs can be seen, creating a fuzzy halo.
Shetland is historically used in color knitting for which it is well suited, in part because the genetics have been quite varied in the past, yielding a wealth of natural shades. It is a crimpier, finer yarn. While textures may not show as well with this yarn, it is perfect for stranded color work, such as Fair Isle garments.
The Norwegian Spælsau has been a domesticated sheep since the Iron Age, though to prevent extinction, the gene pool was enhanced in the 1960s and 19702 with Icelandic, Finn, and Faroe Island sheep. This lovely yarn holds up well over time, having a hair mixed in with the wool (an attribute of “primitive” breeds, where the hair has not been bred out of the breed). This yarn was used in the beloved Norwegian Setesdal Lusekofte, a garment that developed in the early 1800s. If you look closely at the photo below you can see the white hairs that give a fuzzy look to the garment.
The challenge for knitters then is to understand that even within a certain breed there will be wide variety. If you are buying a commercially prepared yarn, you can be assured that it has been made more homogeneous and will be relatively consistent. But there is something so special about working with a breed specific yarn for a project the yarn is so perfectly suited to. Educating yourself as to the strengths of different breeds is fun and enlightening. Knitting with breed specific yarns can become a lifelong passion.
I have listed on my website as many sources as I know of businesses that sell breed specific yarns. There are several books available now (listed below) that explore the wonderful variety of breeds and give suggestions for their respective uses.
Parkes, Clara. The Knitter’s Book of Wool. New York: Pottercraft, 2009. Robson, Deborah and Ekarius, Carol. The Field Guide to Fleece. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2013. Robson, Deborah and Ekarius, Carol. The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2011.
1FAO. 2007. State of the world's animal genetic resources for food and agriculture. 512 pp.
Beth Brown-Reinsel has been passionately teaching historic knitting workshops nationally, as well as internationally, for over 25 years. Her book Knitting Ganseys has been deemed a classic. She has made three DVDs: Knitting Ganseys with Beth Brown-Reinsel, Color Stranded Knitting Techniques, and Sanquhar Gloves with Beth Brown-Reinsel. Her articles and designs have appeared in Threads, Cast On, Interweave Knits, Knitting Traditions, Piecework, Shuttle, Spindle, and Dye Pot, Vogue Knitting, Knitters magazines, as well as The Knitter, a magazine of the UK. She continues to design for her own pattern line Knitting Traditions. Beth's website, blog, knitting patterns, and email newsletter can be found at www.knittingtraditions.com. Her Etsy store carries her knitting kits, DVDs and other goodies. She lives in Vermont and loves winter!