Know Your Sheep (Breeds)!

Know Your Sheep (Breeds)!

posted on 11/16/2012 by Grace Jeffers

We may think of engineered fibers as a relatively new phenomenon. But a good sheepherder knows that wool is actually the first “engineered” fiber. “How so?” you may ask. Because sheep breeds were refined and crossbred so the wool fibers would have specific performance properties.  

Wool and hair are both types of animal fibers made up of proteins, primarily keratin (as opposed to cellulose plant fibers such as cotton or linen); biologists consider fibers in animals to be an organ like the heart or skin! Under a microscope, the outer layer of each fiber, called the cuticle, looks like it is covered in scales. These scales stick to each other like Velcro when the fibers are rubbed together. This is why wool fibers are perfectly suited for spinning into yarn. Felt is simply loose wool rubbed against a textured surface like a washboard, and the scales grab on to each other and become matted into a tight-surfaced, non-woven material. Wool is the original wicking fiber—it can contain up to 15 percent moisture by weight and still not feel wet, keeping the skin cool, and the fibers are completely mold and mildew resistant. Crimps in the wool fibers themselves hold in the air and warmth while still remaining breathable.  

It’s easy to think of wool generically, but each breed of animal produces a different type of fiber with its own specific qualities, based in equal parts on genetics and adaptation to differing environments.  Wool fibers can be identified by their length, coarseness, and kink or crimp (which gives loft or bounce, and also holds in heat).  Northern animals, such as Shetland sheep, living in harsh environments produce a longer fiber with more kinks in it—this makes it warm, tough, and bouncy, which is why it is such a great filling material (see my earlier post about Vi-Spring’s Shetland Superb mattress).  Merino sheep, on the other hand, produce a shorter, smoother fiber that is better for fine wool garments.

A newly published book, "The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook" by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius, is supremely informative eye candy for anyone interested in the nuances of animal fibers.

Cover image courtesy Storey Publishing.

The book gives specific information about more than 200 wool-producing animal breeds, from sheep to camels to oxen. It is chock-full of beautiful photographs, visually tracing each fiber from the animal to the loose wool to the yarn to a knitted example. It is hands down the most informative book on a material that I have come across.

Let’s look at three different wool fibers from the Sourcebook.

Hampshire: The Hampshire has a black face, ears, eyes and legs and the wool is white. Unlike many sheep breeds, the wool grows onto the face over the forehead and around the eyes. The leaf-shaped ears stick out horizontally from the eyes. One could say this breed--fluffy with wool--looks a bit like a pug dog. This breed of sheep is in the Down family. "Down" refers to the geographic location they originated in, in the south of England. This is not to be confused with “down” wool or feathers, which is the soft inner fiber on the fleece. The capitalization of “Down” actually indicates the breed as opposed to the type of wool. Down sheep fibers are known for being springy, elastic and strong. This wool is prized because the fibers are long and can be made into worsted yarns, which are both sleek and drape well. Hampshire sheep are one of the most dominant breeds in the world because they have the innate ability to thrive on forage, forgoing the need for specific feed.   

The Hampshire breed. Excerpted from The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook © Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius, photography © FLPA John Eveson/agefotostock (on right) and © John Polak (on left), used with permission from Storey Publishing.

American Miniature Cheviot:  Why is it everything miniaturized becomes exponentially cuter? The American Miniature Cheviot is no exception. This breed is white with very erect little ears that stand out at an expressive angle from the head like the arms of a star. The Cheviot family of sheep originated on the border between England and Scotland, but they have become a popular breed worldwide.  Cheviots have “clean” wool-free faces, long Roman noses and black rimmed eyes. The American Miniature Cheviot is a relatively recent breed—they are smaller than other breeds of Cheviot, standing about 24 inches at the shoulder, but produce large fleeces of versatile, sturdy wool with fibers in the 3- to 7-inch length range. Adults with a full coat resemble a haystack with tiny legs sticking out the bottom. Cheviot wool is most often white, with a distinctive, three-dimensional helical crimp. Their fleeces provide a medium wool with a long staple, perfect for hand spinning.

The American Miniature Cheviot. Excerpted from The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook © Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius, photography © Sue Weaver (on right) and © John Polak (on left), used with permission from Storey Publishing.

Musk Ox:  Most people think of the ox as related to the cow, but Musk Oxen are actually more closely related to sheep and goats.  They are native to Alaska, Canada and Greenland; near extinction at the beginning of the 20th century, due to protection and breeding over the last century their numbers have bounced back. Musk Ox produce qiviut wool, considered their “down fiber,” which is arguably the finest, warmest wool in the world—more sought after than cashmere!  It is incredibly soft and exceptionally warm—an ethereal, lacy scarf is all you need to keep toasty even in subzero temperatures. Qiviut is a silver-gray to gray-brown color, with a large range of fiber lengths, from ½- to 6- inches. Qiviut is unusual in that the fibers have no scales (so it can not be felted), and no crimp so it has no fiber memory. It is a great wool to blend with other fibers, lending soft luxury to any spun yarn.

Excerpted from The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook © Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius, photography © Radius Images/Alamy,used with permission from Storey Publishing.

Excerpted from The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook © Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius, photography © John Polak, used with permission from Storey Publishing.

For another post about "The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook" and for more reasons to choose nature’s premiere eco-fiber, go to