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It appears that the Chinese Year of the Sheep is probably technically a Year of the Goat, but cuddly sheep mascots are more fun than goat ones! The Chinese word can be used for either animal and the year is supposed to herald prosperity and kindness.
Interestingly, in Ptolomeic astrology, we have Aries, the Ram, a fire element sign, and also Capricorn, the Goat, which is an earth sign, though we don’t seem to have a Sheep – but is the Sheep generic and indeed is a Sheep always female? We have ewes or yows, wethers or wedders, too but they don’t seem to figure as much as symbols of the year or of fortune – but then they are a bit more useful in wool production, possibly sometimes with a little less personality (not the case of Gotlands!).
For The Natural Fibre Company, we distiguish between sheep and goats, although some sheep fibre is more like goat than others. We spin kid mohair from angora goats pure, but need to blend it with wool when it comes from older animals, as it does not hold together as well. Sheep wool, particularly from the downland sheep or fine sheep like merino, really holds together well. The reason for this is that the scales on individual fibres are more pronounced and can therefore catch together when the fibres are spun – by contrast the hairs of goats, alpacas and the lustre sheep are smoother. Coarse, lustrous wool such as Devon and Cornwall Longwool needs as much as 50% of less smooth fibre to hold a yarn together and make the sustainable garden and festive twines which we sell.
Thus superwash treatment of wool either shaves off or closes down the scales, which will then catch less on each other when the wool, yarn or a garment are agitated or rubbed, as when washed for instance. It is also the case that when a wool garment “shrinks” in the wash, it has actually not lost any weight – simply the fibres have been locked together, making the whole thing smaller – it will weigh as much when shrunk as it did before. Our Rosy Green Wool has been superwash treated using an organically approved process so can be machine washed with less worry than non treated yarns. However, an untreated wool will felt when required, which of course superwash treatment prevents! So it does depend on what you want to do with the wool, and infact modern washing machines with a wool handwash cycle will not normally damage wool if the instructions are followed carefully.
This is also of course why some fibre has lustre, since its smoothness reflects light more. This is the case for some alpaca, mohair, and the lustre wools such as Cotswold, Wensleydale, Teeswater, and semi lustre such as Blue-faced Leicester. Gotland is particularly interesting as a fibre, because it is very like mohair, and quite difficult to spin, but it also felts very well, while mohair and alpaca are less easy to felt. Norfolk Horn, North Ronaldsay, Llanwenog, Portland and Ryeland are typical of non lustre wools.
Why mention all of this? Well the Year of the Sheep is an excuse really … to talk about the incredibly rich variety of styles and types of fibre and thus also of the almost infinite number of possible uses to which it can be put – and actually many of our special and rare breed wools are on offer at present, which makes an ideal opportunty to celebrate the New Year with a little extra kindness and prosperity for your wallet!
There is more information about individual breeds, with particular reference to their wools in our Meet the Animals section, or you could consider Sue’s book, Pure Wool which links the breeds with knitting patterns suitable for the yarns they make.