Here we look at three important aspects of fleece and fibre: consistency/style, colour and animal health.
Consistency varies considerably between different breeds, within the breed and across the animal. We can have Gotland sheep, all of which have lustre longwool, with wide variations of thickness and crimp between different animals and a range of these across the body of an individual.
See also our future section on sorting and grading for more discussion on this topic. Here we will concentrate on only two aspects: variation of thickness and variation of fibre type.
Variation of thickness across an individual animal is generally not useful from the viewpoint of a processor, although it may be very useful for a hand spinner or craft worker, who will get greater variety within a relatively small amount of fleece. Generally, a sheep, goat or alpaca will have coarser fibre at the back end than at the front, with the coarsest being on the back legs. Breeders of Merino in particular spend much time working on getting as consistent a fleece across the whole animal as possible and this is also a key parameter in judging all Wool on the Hoof competitions. In fact we find that it is slightly easier to process fibre batch with some variation of thickness and length, as it tends to hold together better than a totally consistent blend.
Some animals have a typically varied fleece, the so-called double-coated sheep, such as Icelandic or North Ronaldsay, Herdwick sheep and cashmere goats.
Usually this has been developed by the animal so that the stronger coarser hair coat remains year-round and gives structure, while the finer down grows in the winter and may be shed or combed out in the spring. We can select either the whole fleece, as most commonly with Herdwick and North Ronaldsay, or deliberately only the finer fleece, as with cashmere, llama, Soay or Boreray.
Many sheep and alpacas get a greater proportion of coarse, medullated (hollow) fibres with age, and this is usually known as kemp hair in sheep. This reduces the quality of yarn, causing greater itchiness and a tendency to shed fibres.
Images courtesy of Nejad Rugs
A blend of coarse and fine fibres makes for a particularly highly insulating outer garment and in many cases the yarns are surprisingly soft, particularly if partially de-haired by combing. In the case of alpaca, the medulated fibres are smoother, giving a hairy yarn which tends to shed and are therefore better removed by de-hairing.
The original natural colours of sheep, goats and alpacas were generally muted camouflage shades of brown and grey. Over thousands of years of domestication, humans have selected for finer and whiter fleeces, resulting in the majority of sheep, goats and alpacas being white nowadays.
Images courtesy of The Jacob Sheep Society
The science of colour in sheep is fascinating as the different shades may be caused by dominant or recessive genes and mixing them together can create a wider or narrower range over generations. We have tended to select white sheep so that we can dye their wool more easily and there were significant concerns about thirty years ago that some breeds and colours might completely die out, because they were not valued. Today coloured wool sells for much less than white wool in most grades, although there is some demand for natural black. Shetland and Jacob are able to gain reasonable prices.
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust, the British Coloured Sheep Breeders Association and similar bodies in many other countries have been formed by people keen to prevent the loss of bio-diversity and colour in sheep and other domesticated breeds. At The Natural Fibre Company we are proud to be working with naturally coloured fibres in more than half of our production!
The nature of more primitive or original breeds is both that the fleeces are more varied and that the genetics are less certain. Most white sheep produce white progeny, with only an occasional “black sheep” to spoil the uniformity. Coloured sheep are much more varied, and this is also true of alpacas.
For detailed scientific analysis, the papers submitted to the four-yearly meetings of the World Congress of Colour Sheep Breeders are full of information, particularly those by Roger Lundie - a New Zealander who has studied the variations in coloured sheep for many years. A summary of his research is contained in Timeless Coloured Sheep, published in 2014.
Breed societies, such as David Kinsman of the Hebridean Sheep Society, Stanley Bowie of the Shetland Sheep Society and Ryeland Flockbook Society have done work to ensure that their breeds to remain consistent.
Husbandry and health
Healthy animals produce good fibre!
Images courtesy of Cute Things
Animals lacking the five freedoms (freedom from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain, injury and disease, fear and distress and to express normal behaviour) or just unwell for some reason will produce less good meat, offspring and fibre.
So it is important to ensure, particularly when we generally shear after the female has had her young and fed them, that they are well cared for.
One key aspect of this, to which sometimes insufficient attention is paid, is that animals will thrive in the environment to which they are suited. This is why the sheep breeds are named for areas and regions – where they developed and become acclimatised to the weather, soil type and resultant grass, especially as regards mineral balance. They will of course live elsewhere, but less well – merinos for example like dry conditions so do better in Australia than northern Europe.