There are so many well-known breeds that are much heralded for the usefulness of their fibre, and there are so many lesser known breeds, especially those bred specifically for particular climates and for special uses. There are over 1000 sheep breeds worldwide making sheep the animal with more registered breeds than any other livestock species.
Knowing the breed and fibre characteristics is important when choosing the best fibre for your projects. Wool sheep can be mainly classed in four general categories: Fine wool breeds, Long wool breeds, Medium wool and Carpet wool breeds. Our interest is is the fine, medium and longwool breeds.
Fine wool breeds are mainly based on the Merino so these breeds have characteristics of soft, luscious wool measuring between 16 and 24 microns in diameter. Their fibre is easy on the skin so a wonderful choice for baby items. This fibre will spin beautifully, felt very easily and take dyes well. As well as Merino, some of the fine wool breeds resulting from crosses with Merino are Corriedale, which is a cross of Merino and Lincoln longwool, the Polwarth, which is ¾ Merino and ¼ Lincoln and Rambouillet, a Merino longwool cross from 18th century France.
The medium wool breeds mostly have shorter and thicker fibre (25 – 31 microns) but can be lovely to work with, especially when they have been crossed with Merino or when the fibre used does not require the soft qualities of Merino. Some examples of notable breeds in this category are Maori, Friesian, Finn, Targee, Dorset, Southdown, Suffolk and the ever comical but lovely Jacob with its amazing horns and wonderful colouring.
Longwool sheep are lovely to look at, the real poster kids of the clan! Just stand and admire the regal look of a Wensleydale , Romney, Gotland or Bluefaced Leicester and you’ll understand the magic of the longwool breeds. Other longwool breeds are Coopworth, Cotswold, Border Leicester, English Leicester, Lincoln and Teeswater.
Although it is not as soft as a Merino or Dorset, longwool fibres are strong and desirable for spinners due to the strength they offer knitted items and to the shimmery lustre they bring to the product. The longer fibres and the wild and substantial locks makes felters and spinners work harder, but it is still worth it when you see the results of the extra effort.