Sheep, so many ways

Posted on March 31 2020

Sheep, so many ways

There are estimated some 1400 different kinds of sheep in the world. Imagine.

Some are wooly round, all white and fleecy, with small ears that stick out at 10 and 2 o’clock. Others are lanky, covered with locks of hair (not wool), and their ears might droop to 4 and 7, depending. 

At some point in time, all various sheep were one and the same, but as they proliferated and wandered or were taken to distant parts of the world, they adapted over time to the conditions they found themselves in. Traits like wool and hair came or went, depending on how well they contributed, or didn’t, to survival. 

Of course, not all varieties of sheep evolved in direct response to their environment. Over millennia, we’ve been encouraging the mix of one kind of sheep with another in order to garner the most useful (to us) qualities of both. Many of the breeds that we think of as distinct began as a deliberate cross and, once established, were given their own name. Cormo is a splendid example of an engineered sheep, bred for a consistently soft, white fleece.

Not all crossing is deliberate. Put a Targhee, a Columbia, and a Romney in the pasture together and in a few years’ time you’ll have sheep with features of their forebears, but they’ll no longer have the identity of their original breeds. Most wool in the US comes from sheep that are a mix of several breeds, not a carefully controlled and deliberate mix, just a mating of varieties that live together on the range. All good.

That said, diversity is the engine of life (says Darwin), an engine that is slowing down on our planet. In Maine, there used to be hundreds of varieties of apples, today you’ll find some 15 in a well-stocked farm stand. 

So it goes with sheep. Consistency is often valued over distinctness. Commercial yarn is graded not by breed or name but by its qualities: softness (micron count), length of staple, crimp, and whiteness. Again, all fine and good. But a world without distinct breeds is a world of one kind of apple. And it’s a world without sheep history and without an important part of our own. 

Why the comments above on breeds? Because Stone Wool is dedicated to sourcing wool from various sheep who still wear their individual traits on their backs. So far, we’re spinning Cormo, Corriedale, Cheviot, Delaine Merino, and a marvelous blend of Romney and merino. We hope shortly to offer a limited edition of a rare breed, a sheep in danger of disappearing forever. So, keep a lookout.

We hope you’ll join us in breed knitting. And if there’s a sheep that you’d like to see in a yarn, let us know. Who knows, we might just be able to make it.

Photo: University of Wyoming, American Heritage Center, Charles J. Belden Photographs, Accession Number 598, Box 8, Item 638


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