All About Romney
Posted on January 04 2021
This week at Stone Wool we wanted to take a few moments to tell you about some of our favorite sheep and the fabulous yarn they make. Our Romney + Merino combines two classic and important sheep breeds. We've outlined some of the important history of Romney sheep, the breed that makes up half of our beloved yarn.
The first thing to know about Romney sheep is that they grew up with wet feet. They can be traced back to herds found on the marshy coast of southeast England, marshes drained and reclaimed for cultivation by Romans during their first few centuries as conquerors of Britannia. The sheep from this region outlasted the Romans, who were gone by 467 CE. A copy of a charter from 697 shows permission given to the monastery of Lyminge to pasture their 300 sheep on Romney Marsh. These sheep also survived wet feet; they evolved into a hardy sheep resistant to foot rot.
Romney progenitors may have been sheep brought to Romney Marsh by the Romans, or perhaps they were already part of the landscape. Either way, their adaptation to wet conditions made them good material for improvement. They were hardy sheep, but their fleece was coarse and not particularly dense. In the early 1800s, shepherds began to take an interest in breeding selectively. Up to this point, rams and ewes were kept together and mating was random. But now the sheep were kept separately, and rams and ewes were selected for desirable characteristics and then mated. To further improve fleece quality, breeders looked slightly north to the county of Leicester, where a very deliberate better sheep, the New Leicester, had been developed by a studious farmer, one Robert Bakewell.
Over time, Romneys developed into a dual-purpose breed, one good for meat and for wool. The breed was so successful that the sheep were exported to many parts of the world, as distant from each other and the marsh as the Falkland Islands and New Zealand.
Romney may have first arrived in North America with a group of settlers who landed in Massachusetts in 1607. However, if they made it across the ocean, they didn’t live long in their new home. All sheep that emigrated with the first Massachusetts settlers were eaten during the initial harsh winter in the new colony. The first official record of Romneys arriving in Massachusetts indicates that they came over in 1624. A little less than three hundred years later, they were imported from Australia to the West Coast where they were particularly well-suited to the moist climate in Oregon and Washington.
Because Romney are so dispersed, their fiber can vary, depending on where they live. Like all living creatures, over time the sheep adapt to local conditions and that in turn affects certain of their characteristics, notably, their fleece. Although Romneys are categorized as longwools, a category of sheep determined by the length of their wool fiber, in general, their wool is softer than traditional longwools. George Washington who imported sheep from England and took an interest in husbandry and breeding, is said to have boasted that the wool in Virginia was the finest in all the colonies, and that his particular fleeces were as fine as wool from Kent--that is to say, Romney.
Today the breed is well represented in the US and in other sheepy parts of the world. Although Romney come in colors, shades of gray and brown as well as white, international Romney associations limit certification to white sheep. Happily, if you’re a lover of tinted wool, the America Association includes colored Romney.
Why combine Merino and Romney? To get the best of both worlds. Romney is a longwool fleece, meaning that the fibers are long and silky, and therefore durable. Merino is short fiber, soft, fluffy, delicate. Put them together and you have long-wearing lustrous yarn with plenty of halo, a yarn both durable and soft.
Check out out selection of amazing colors and try some Romney + Merino for yourself and knit with a bit of history in your hands!