Cotswold, our new best sheep

Posted on July 15 2021

Cotswold, our new best sheep

Meet Neptune, the Cotswold. Photo courtesy of Tammy White, Farmer at Wing and a Prayer Farm.

The Cotswold is a longwool sheep developed in the Cotswold Hills of Southwest England, near the border with Wales. Their name is a combination of two words—‘cote’, Saxon for sheepfold, and ‘wold,’ meaning bare hill. Their given name indicates that sheep may have been grazing these hills for a very long time; perhaps they came with the Romans who occupied this area.

The open terrain of the Cotswold Hills was well-suited to sheep and, over centuries, the wool trade flourished in the region. During the Elizabethan Era, after the Black Death, the structure of society changed, and men who’d been forced to labor for wealthy landowners embraced their new social standing. As free men, they paid rent for the land they inhabited and worked as they pleased. The new entrepreneurial spirit saw an increase in the number of sheep on the hills followed by the creation of small wool manufacturers, circa 1480. The wealth that came along with the sheep industry is still manifest in local churches, referred to then as ‘wool churches’; to this day, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer sits on a ceremonial Cotswold wool sack to honor this breed’s contributions to the British Empire.

Cotswold the Sheep and Cotswold FleecePhotos courtesy of Tammy White, Farmer at Wing and a Prayer Farm.

The Cotswold as we know it was developed in the late eighteenth century, during the era of science appreciation and modern thinking, and the time at (around) which importations to the United States began. The native sheep were improved by introducing Leicester Longwool to the flocks, which produced larger lambs used for meat or kept for their heavy fleeces. While there was great success in crossbreeding, a lack of market demand for pure stock led to the near extinction of the Cotswold by the mid-1900s. Fortunately, in the last twenty years, the breed has experienced a revival, due primarily to the rediscovery of its wool by fiber crafters—yes, knitters saved the Cotswold!

Cotswold the Docile Sheep

Photos courtesy of Gale Zucker Photography for the Hudson Valley Textile Project.

The Cotswold is a relatively large framed sheep, weighing between 200-300 pounds at full maturity. If you’re a fiber artist interested in raising your own sheep, you’re in luck! The Cotswold sheep is known for having a docile disposition, and the ewes make for excellent mothers. Their faces and legs are free from wool, except for a heavy forelock that falls over the forehead. Their fleeces are dense—measuring seven to fifteen inches in staple length and weighing between thirteen to fifteen pounds—and the fibers have a lustrous, silky sheen. Until recently, only white sheep were considered part of the Cotswold breed, but registration is now available for black sheep. These sheep are called ‘black’ but their colors vary across a beautiful range—of silver, bluish gray, and charcoal hues!

Limited Edition Cotswold YarnOur Limited Edition Cotswold yarn is now available in six show-stopping hues.

Cotswold wool isn’t soft in a downy or squishy way; as a yarn, it’s sturdy with a soft sheen that takes dyes beautifully. We chose to spin Cotswold into a fine yarn because its crisp hand resists the pull of gravity, meaning that it’s great for lace patterns because yarnovers and eyelets stay rounded and open. The fiber has a pearly finish easily appreciated when you work elongated stitches that float over the surface of the fabric. Cotswold also has a halo reminiscent of mohair, which makes for a soft, romantic blur over stitch work. When you first knit with the yarn, you’ll note its slight stiffness; however, once spread out on the blocking board and given a good steam, watch it relax and even out, and show its modest beauty.

Ready to cast on your next project in Cotswold? Let us know in the comments below!


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