Limited Edition Yarn: Gulf Coast Native
Posted on December 01 2020
This week at Stone Wool we are welcoming a new limited edition yarn: Gulf Coast Native! Also occasionally known as the Pineywoods Sheep, Scrubs Sheep, Louisiana Native, Woods Sheep, Florida Native, or Common Sheep. We've transformed the fleece from these rare and beautiful sheep into a gorgeous, full and bouncy yarn that is deliciously soft. Our Limited Edition Gulf Coast Native yarn will be available for pre-order later this week but we wanted to take some time today to share the process sheep to skein!
Please enjoy this interview between farmer Joanne Maki and Pam Allen about the business of sheep-farming and below watch a live interview with Mary Jeanne Packer of Battenkill Mill where the yarn was spun.
How did you end up with 45 head (40 ewes and 5 rams) of Gulf Coast Native Sheep.
Growing up I always wanted to be a veterinarian. As a kid living in the suburbs, we had cats and dogs but from an early age, I wanted a pony and planned to be a horse veterinarian. In college, prior to applying to vet school, I took cattle production and sheep production classes. I needed to learn about livestock since I had no previous farm animal experience. I really enjoyed the sheep class but never thought I would end up having a flock of my own.
While in veterinary school, I worked in a research laboratory focused on transmission of a fatal viral disease, equine infectious anemia. I really enjoyed the field and lab work and realized research was what I wanted to do as a career. After graduating vet school, I found there were many research opportunities. A job offer in Athens, Georgia led me to buying an old farmhouse in the country complete with a few rustic out buildings, a leaky roof and overgrown pastures.
Once I settled in, I bought a few goats as everyone recommended them as the best way to clear the pastures. They quickly ate all the young gum trees, briars, poison ivy and privet. I was quite impressed. Within a few months, my overgrown pastures look great but the goats started eating the barn, stripping bark off my pecan trees and destroying my new fences. I liked the fact that they mowed the grass but they were also quite destructive and always getting into mischief.
A neighbor of mentioned that he and his wife were going to Mississippi to purchase a few sheep for their farm. The story was that they were buying a special breed of sheep that could survive well in the South. I knew British breeds are very susceptible to internal parasites and can suffer from heat stress in Georgia. He said the Gulf Coast Native breed descended from a variety of breeds brought to the southern US in colonial times. They were naturally selected over many generations to thrive in our southern climate. I was intrigued and asked him to bring back a few ewes with the idea they would take over the pasture maintenance job from the goats.
In April 2006, four yearling ewes arrived from a flock originating in Mississippi owned by a person named, Otaria Davis. We named the girls Dorothy, Clara, Twiggie, and Lucy. They became the foundation ewes of my flock. The following year we borrowed a ram and the third year we purchased another ram from the same neighbor. Since this breed usually has twin lambs each spring, my flock grew rapidly. I started selecting for characteristics I felt were important to the overall quality of the breed. We had the sheep shorn and all of a sudden I had piles of wool to deal with. I decided to learn how to spin and dye fiber as a hobby. I soon became passionate about raising GCN sheep and did not think much about horses again, until recently, as I look at what else I’d like to do in addition to raise sheep when I retire.
What’s unique about GCN? Can you tell a little about their history and that connection to the current sheep?
Gulf Coast Native Sheep are a landrace breed, which means the breed was improved by traditional agriculture methods of selection. GCN are not a genetically distinct breed arising from a specific line of sheep. Instead, they were naturally selected by surviving for many years in the humid and semi-tropical environments of the Gulf Coast area of the US (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida). Over time, different strains appeared in geographic areas but they are all part of the same breed known for their hardiness. A closely related breed, called the Florida Cracker, is very similar to the GCN. GCN arose from descendants of sheep that were transported here from other countries. The origins may be from Churro sheep brought by the Spanish in the 15th century. These, Criollo-type sheep mixed intermittently with British and French breed while some strains may also show Tunis influence (from Wikipedia – GCN).
Selection by Nature may be harsh, but the result is a thrifty sheep that has natural resistance to internal parasites, foot rot and heat stress. Lambing in the environment selected for vigorous lambs and good mothers and ability to breed year round. For these reasons, the GCN demonstrates hybrid vigor. It’s my opinion that their most desirable characteristics are due maintaining a diverse gene pool that has not been overly influenced by man. Selecting my sheep for desirable fiber characteristics is introducing a selection process favoring good fleeces. Doing so, while maintaining other characteristics is a challenge. I don’t want to select just for a pretty fleece and potentially create genetic weakness in other heritable traits. Since GCN is an endangered breed recognized by the Livestock Conservancy those of us raising this sheep have the responsibility of preserving it as best we can for future generations.
How do you encourage as clean a fleece as possible with a sheep that roams?
My sheep graze out on pasture most of the year. I constantly try to prevent thistle, cockle burrs, blackberry and greenbrier from invading my fields as they can damage the quality of a fleece. The other scourges are gum trees and pecans. I have my sheep sheared in mid-March to avoid contaminating their wool with debris from both of these trees. I have three shed barns where the sheep can go when it rains or when the flies are biting. I feed a small amount of grain every evening in tubs spread out on the ground. I do this for two reasons, while the sheep are eating, I can look for health problems before they get serious and I can also look at their fleeces. At feeding time, it’s easy to compare fleeces and I often see that some sheep are just cleaner than others. I would say the two biggest challenges in keeping them clean are preventing vegetable matter from hay collecting in the neck area and ensuring there are no breaks in the wool due to the stress of lambing or parasites. I feed square hay bales in fence racks. I don’t throw hay on the ground or feed large round bales to minimize fleece contamination. I also supplement my ewes with grain and hay so they can produce a nice fleece at their maximum staple length.
What does a good fleece look like?
My sheep produces fleeces that range from three to six pounds each. They are sheared once a year prior to lambing (if all goes according to plan). A good fleece needs to be consistent over all areas of the sheep with little to no hair. Selecting locks of wool from the neck, back, sides and croup (over the hips) and looking at crimp and staple length is my test for consistency. Each year I ask my shearer to start with the sheep that I think will provide my best show fleeces. When he shears the wool away from their neck and it lays back, glistening white, I can tell immediately if it has potential, or not. As he goes down the side of the sheep and the pile of shorn wool continues to grow, I want to see the same crimp pattern in the wool and lanolin shine on their bodies that indicates a healthy (and hopefully not skinny or too fat) sheep. At shearing time, you’re looking at an entire year in that sheep’s health and wool growth cycle. Sometimes a fresh fleece can almost sparkle in the sun. I bag each fleece separately and if it’s a winner, it goes in a special pile. Shearing time is one of my favorite times of year when owning sheep.
To select my show fleeces I lay each one out on the skirting table and identify the different sections. The neck wool is often the best part of the fleece but it also has the highest chance for collecting hay, grain and vegetable matter. (When I find hay or grain, I lecture myself on finding new ways to improve my husbandry methods!). I identify the britch wool found on the back legs and often remove it if the quality is poor. Britch wool varies greatly in this breed and is where I may find hair. So quite often, this wool is discarded. After finding the neck wool and britches, I arrange the fleece on the table as it would be while still on the sheep. Then I take a step back and ask myself a list of questions, “Is this a fleece I would want to knit with?” “What would I pay for this fleece?” “Is it clean?” “Are the locks well defined and even?” “Is the staple length consistent?” “Does it have a soft hand that makes me want to spend hours on a drum carder processing it?” “When I hand spin it will it give me satisfaction by being consistently fine, evenly crimpy and lustrous?” I rarely finish asking these questions. Within a few moments of putting the fleece on the skirting table, I can if it’s a really good fleece, or not.
Why do you raise sheep?
This question made me reflect a bit. On bad farm days, I would tell you I raise sheep because I must be crazy. Doing so is a lot of work. Raising any type of livestock makes it difficult to get away on vacations, makes you worry about bad weather, holes in fences, coyotes, and vet bills. On good farm days, it’s the best lifestyle anyone could ask for. Walking the pastures in the evening watching my sheep graze with the sky painted with beautiful clouds is therapy for the soul. I guess I raise sheep because the good days outweigh the bad and doing gives me peace and satisfaction. The satisfaction lies in watching a pair of strong baby lambs stand up and find their first drink of milk; it’s selecting a ram lamb and watching him mature into a strong herd sire. It’s watching the flock run in from pasture in the cool of the evening when even the older ewes jump and play just for the fun of it. It’s the competition of fleece shows and the friendship found there with people who love raising sheep as much as I do. It’s adding my sheep’s wool to a simmering dye pot and producing something unique that can be woven or knit into a scarf or mittens and given to someone as a gift that can worn for years. A freshly shorn sheep leaves the barn each spring, raises her lambs and returns a year later wearing another fleece. After fourteen years, it’s still satisfying to experience the cycle of the seasons and produce wool from a heritage breed of sheep.
Stone Wool Gulf Coast Native Yarn with Mary Jeanne Packer of Battenkill Mill