The natural fibre we use to spin yarn comes from four different kinds of animal: sheep, alpacas, goats and very occasionally angora rabbits.
Sheep are the main source of our raw materials, and on this page you can effectively meet the animals. It was Rudyard Kipling who wrote ‘poor little lambs have lost their way’ and ‘little black sheep who’ve gone astray’. If you think black sheep don’t exist, or that if they do, then one sheep is the same as the next, think again!
There are more breeds of sheep on the planet than there are of all other forms of livestock, probably over 1,000. While the Merino is dominant in Australia and New Zealand, there are over 60 different breeds living in the UK and well over 40 in the US. Since we moved into the mill in 2005, we’ve processed fleece from over 50 different breeds. The ones we use most, and the reasons we use them, are listed below. Where possible, we’ve included a link to the relevant UK breed society. We also have a handy downloadable map of UK sheep breeds.
If you are interested in some more unusual sources of fibre, you can meet some other animals by going to more about wool.
Although the sheep themselves are unlikely to bleat a complaint, the list is in alphabetical order. Opinions differ, and the views expressed below are from our experience. For more detailed information on 17 different breeds, together with patterns suitable for the yarns they produce, see Sue Blacker’s book Pure Wool (link is external). (link is external)
The main characteristics of the different fleeces are summarised in this downloadable file which includes two tables, one related to wool and yarn types, the other to fleece characteristics and yarn types. Please note, we focus on the fleece here; you can find out more about the other attributes of specific breeds by following the links to the breed society web sites listed below.
If you are interested in trying out some of these, look and see which rare and local (link is external) breeds are currently producing fleece for Blacker Yarns. For a wider selection, or yarns and products from individual farms and no-kill flocks, please visit the lists and directory at Woolsack.org (link is external).
This small and rare breed comes from the Tywi Valley south of the Cambrian Mountains in Carmarthenshire. The Balwen is a mainly black, hardy Welsh mountain breed although there are white blazes (which is what the word Balwen means in Welsh) and white on the feet and tips of the tail. Their fleece is coarser and paler than that of the the Black Welsh Mountain, making a yarn with character and white kempy hairs for contrast. Good for thick rugs and blankets. For more information contact the Balwen Welsh Mountain Sheep Society (link is external).
Black Welsh Mountain
Some people believe there are no such things as black sheep. While some breeders may not welcome them, this is nonsense. In fact Black Welsh Mountain sheep were specially developed in the early 20th century to provide black wool. Black Welsh Mountain sheep have been bred selectively to reduce or eliminate ‘kempy’ (coarse) fibres. Of all the black sheep the fleece from this breed is generally both the finest and darkest. But weather and sun will bleach black wool, so even black lambs’ wool is more an ‘off black’ shade than truly black. Follow this link (link is external) to find the yarns that are currently available. Blacker Yarns not only spins the yarns pure but also adds this fleece to several blends, such as Blacker Classic (link is external) and Westcountry Tweed (link is external). For more information contact the Black Welsh Mountain Sheep Breeders’ Association (link is external).
The aristocratic Roman nose on Bluefaced Leicester sheep gives them a certain distinction and the wool follows suit. This very popular pure wool is quite creamy in colour, particularly when worsted spun, and can be used for baby clothes. You can also use this lovely, fine, soft and semi-lustrous wool to blend with mohair creating a drapey yarn which is particularly suitable for woven items. For more information contact The Bluefaced Leicester Sheep Breeders’ Association (link is external). There are a few specialist flocks with black (really a dark brown) Blue Faced Leicesters and Blacker Yarns uses these fleeces to add colour and softness to fine yarns.
This Northumberland breed is a direct descendant of the Dishley Leicester sheep created by Robert Bakewell in the eighteenth century and is said to be the largest of the the indigenous breeds in the British Isles. Tall, white and with distinctively large ears, these elegant sheep produce good, medium-fine wool with some lustre which works well for outer garments in knitwear and takes dye beautifully. For more information contact the Society of Border Leicester Sheep Breeders (link is external).
The rarest of all British breeds, the Boreray has a double fleece of coarse and fine fibre similar to North Ronaldsay (see below), but tending to browns rather than greys. Jane Cooper helped us to collect enough fleece to produce the first-ever commercial batch of 350 balls in 2012 and as a result these sheep are growing in numbers. Normally best for aran and chunky yams, Boreray fibre provides extra bulk and warmth. When de-haired, the Boreray also produces a lace yarn, and is used in the Blacker Yarns St. Kilda (link is external) yarn. For more information contact the Soay and Boreray Sheep-Society (link is external).
This breed emerged in the 1980s when the Macauley Land Use Research Institute in Scotland’s Bowmont Valley crossed Saxon Merino sheep with Shetland. The idea was to produce a hardy breed for the Scottish climate, but with a good fleece to give a dual (meat and fleece) income for Scotland’s hill farmers.
Although the fleece was good, the breed was not taken up by farmers and there are now only a few hundred true Bowmonts although demand for fine wool has encouraged some resurgence recently. The finest fleece, white with an excellent crimp and an average staple of 3-5 inches, has a 17-21 micron count and comes from sheep with more Merino, about 75%, than Shetland. The Bowmont Blacker Yarns uses comes from both Scotland and Wales and generally has an 18-22 micron count.
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust classes this breed as vulnerable. The sheep are small with short, brown fleece. They were bred from Manx and Shetland in the early twentieth century specifically to graze parkland. Although the colour is attractive, the shortness makes the fibre difficult to spin, so it is sometimes blended with silk or alpaca. When knitted up, the short fibres make our pure Castlemilk yarns bulky with a plush, velvety handle. For more information contact the Castlemilk Moorit Sheep Society (link is external).
The ‘Cotswold Lion’ is the most venerable of the UK’s large sheep. Not only was the fleece used for the British Army greatcoat, but it also provided the foundation for the once-thriving Cotswold textile industry, now sadly confined mostly to museums. Cotswold is one of the oldest English breeds and is said to have come to Britain with the Romans. These hardy, golden white long lustre-woolled sheep are effectively responsible for the smooth landscapes of Gloucestershire!
Their wool makes a fine, soft worsted-spun knitting yarn or a strong, woollen-spun hardwearing yarn for rugs or throws, and also takes dye well. Cotswolds are now bred in relatively small numbers so the breed is classified as a ‘minority’ breed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. For more information see The Cotswold Sheep Society (link is external).
Devon & Cornwall Longwool
Classed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust as both local and vulnerable, the Devon & Cornwall Longwool was so at risk that the two county breed societies combined to help the continuation of the breed. The fleeces are among the longest and heaviest of all the British breeds and the fibre is coarse. The wool has to be chopped and blended for processing and Blacker Yarns uses it to make a tough, sustainable garden and craft twine (link is external) which uses the lamb’s wool.
Falkland Island Wool
Falkland Islands wool is an excellent alternative to Australian Merino on which we are less keen for a variety of reasons. Falklands wools come from sheep selectively bred for fine fleeces. The original breed was Corriedale, but increasingly Merino is being used. The Corriedale, developed largely in Australia and New Zealand, is the oldest cross breed of them all coming originally from breeding Lincoln or Leicester rams with Merino ewes. Adding Merino from Australia or South Africa produces a lovely, white, fine and crimpy yarn soft enough to wear next to the skin. Falklands wool is used by Blacker Yarns for the single farm Blacker Swan (link is external) and the summer linen blend Lyonesse (link is external) yarns. For more information go to the Australian Corriedale Association (link is external), Merino New Zealand (link is external), the Australian Association of Stud Merino Breeders (link is external) or the Dohne Merino Breed Society of South Africa (link is external).
This interesting breed, descended from Ireland’s only native sheep, was created to include the characteristics of native Irish sheep and remove the qualities inherited from the imported Leicester breeds. The sheep produce a lovely bulky, white, semi-lustre fleece with a length ideal for woollen and worsted spinning. They’re classed as rare in Ireland, and in fact some of the fleece we use comes from specialist flocks in England. For more information see the Galway Sheep Breeders Association (link is external).
We have a soft spot for this Swedish breed developed on the island of Gotland over 1,000 years ago, and it’s probably our favourite. This has nothing to do with the fact that Sue Blacker’s flock is Gotland! There are only around 1,500 in the UK, and they were originally imported to Scotland from the island they take their name from in the Baltic Sea directly south of Stockholm. Their wool is wonderful and makes very light garments. It comes in a variety of greys from silver to charcoal; it’s very fine, long and lustrous and felts easily and natural and dyed Gotland yarns are available from Blacker Yarns. For more information contact the British Gotland Sheep Society (link is external).
These small dark sheep are almost, but not quite black. They have lovely characters, look after themselves and are therefore very popular for conservation grazing. The older ladies go grey which adds a second shade when the fibre is woven, or makes a knitting yarn more interesting. The fleece is fine and long and sometimes has lustre, but it can easily get matted, which can be a problem at the sorting and grading stage. The wool blends very well with Mohair, which makes a silvery charcoal grey, or with Manx Loaghtan, which produces a richer mid-brown and, when available in good quality and quantity, both are used by Blacker Yarns. For more information contact the Hebridean Sheep Society (link is external).
This is probably the hardiest of all the UK’s mainland breeds and lives largely on the Cumbrian fells which are among the highest parts of England. The young sheep have dark fleeces, but by the time they are two to three years old these go grey or white. The wool dyes beautifully and works well for mats, rugs and floorings, but it can also be knitted into accessories, bags and body warmers. It is perhaps the only yarn for a ‘real’ fleece jacket? For more information contact the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association (link is external).
Most people recognise the distinctive dark brown and white fleece produced by Jacobs, an ancient breed of horned sheep. The two colours can be sorted to create up to five different shades with the mixed dark and pale producing an interesting grey/brown and we regularly have Jacob yarns (link is external) at Blacker Yarns. It’s odd, but true that brown and white together appear grey. The yarn looks browner when worsted spun because of the way it reflects the light. This is a deservedly popular wool for outer garments and when blended with mohair it makes a soft yarn ideal for scarves. For more information contact the Jacob Sheep Society (link is external).
An illustrious older breed, but now endangered in the UK. The sheep are large with a long, lustrous fleece which comes in white and grey/brown. The wool is softer and shinier when worsted spun and similar in many ways to Cotswold (see above). It dyes well and is good for outerwear and is a contributor to Blacker Yarns’ Tamar (link is external) blend. For more information contact the Leicester Longwool Sheepbreeders Association (link is external) whose name is as long as the fleece.
This breed comes from the Teifi valley of Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire in West Wales and was created by using Shropshire Down rams, with their distinctive black faces which at times look like shiny leather, and local Welsh Mountain ewes. The result produces an attractive, bone-white wool with occasional dark kempy hairs. The yarn is firm and good for outerwear. Interest in the breed has increased since it is was listed by the Rare Breed Survival Trust in 1994. For more information contact the Llanwenog Sheep Society (link is external).
Ten years ago this native Welsh breed was little known outside the Lleyn Peninsula, but it has recently become more popular with farmers as a good breeding ewe. This is good news for knitters as the fleece is good, fine, mid-length and lustrous. Probably best for blending, Lleyn also produces a nice yarn on its own, and is particularly good if used for felting and dyeing. For more information contact the Lleyn Sheep Society (link is external).
With a surname as unpronounceable as it is unspellable, these sheep have up to six horns, so the wool has a lot to live up to! It is short, strong and crimpy and a lovely deep rich brown in colour. It’s good when used on its own for outerwear or rugs and produces a softer, hard-wearing yarn, ideal for socks, when blended with mohair. The sheep are natives of the Isle of Man and go blond in the sun which makes for a range of colours that can produce a heathered effect. When blended with Hebridean, Manx makes an attractive, rich chocolate brown yarn. For more information follow this link to the Manx Loaghtan Sheep Breeders’ Group (link is external).
A Mule is a cross breed, in practice mostly Blue-faced Leicester rams with mountain ewes from Wales, the Pennines or Scotland. The resulting fleece is often long, very soft, fine and highly crimped. We select carefully as the range of ewes inevitably produce a range of results! The illustration here shows what came from a Suffolk ram and a North of England mule. For more information contact the North of England Mule Sheep Association (link is external) the Scotch Mule Association (link is external) or the Welsh Mule Association (link is external).
This breed is at risk, but one ram, called Nobby for some unaccountable reason, has become well known, if not notorious, as the star of The Sheep Show (link is external) which appears at agricultural shows throughout Britain. Another great sheep show is Sheer Sheep (link is external), which also tours shows regularly. The wool is bouncy and firm, quite short and white, although there are often dark spots in different hues which add character to the yarns. The fleece is firm, but resilient and most suitable for outerwear, accessories and felting. For more information contact the Norfolk Horn Breeders Group (link is external).
Another rare breed, one that has learned to graze on seaweed on the Orkney Island from which they take their name. Due to limited grazing, they are fenced out to the beaches to conserve grass for cattle and ewes with lambs. The fleece is a coulbe coat with quite coarse hairs, and very soft inner fleece and comes in a range of colours from white through to grey and brown. This creates design opportunities for knitwear, perhaps in the style favoured by a certain Danish TV detective. The sheep are small with strong wills. For more information contact the Orkney Sheep Fellowship (link is external).
This breed was originally developed in Australia from 75% Merino crossed with 25% Lincoln. The sheep produce a lovely very fine, soft and crimpy white wool on sheep which are hardier than Merinos and so better suited to the wet UK weather, although there are a few UK flocks. For more information contact the Polwarth Sheepbreeders’ Association of Australia (link is external).
The Portland is unusual in that the ewes are able to breed at any time of the year. This is a small, rare and protected heathland breed from Dorset with links to the Wessex tan-faced group of sheep. The characteristic colour of their soft, creamy fleece is tinged slightly tan/brown from the legs and face. For more information contact the Portland Sheep Breeders Group (link is external).
Surviving in the Romney Marshes has given these sheep superb feet and as a result they have been used in cross breeding all over the world. The fleece is fine and lustrous with a pronounced crimp and, when processed, it produces excellent woollen and worsted yarn, the best of it beautifully soft. There are some dark Romneys, but these are rare. Generally this makes a good, all-purpose yarn with a wide range of capabilities and highly suitable for dyeing. For more information contact the Romney Sheep Breeders Association (link is external). Dating from 1895, it is one of the oldest in the UK.
These sheep, from Herefordshire and the South Welsh borders, are small and almost resemble large teddy bears! Their soft fleece is either white or dark, or more specifically a creamy white and mottled grey/brown. The fleece is fine, crimpy and warm. In the 16th century the wool, called Lemster Wool from the local town (now spelled Leominster), was used to make fine stockings for Queen Elizabeth l. This is an ideal breed for smallholders and the ewes are particularly good mothers. For more information contact the Ryeland Flock Book Society (link is external).
This breed can produce the finest fibre of all the British breeds and is one whose history can be traced back to the eighth century. Shetland fleece comes in eight main colours, but there are also various types of markings, all with special Gaelic/Norse names. Blacker Yarns has both pure Shetland yarns in up to seven colours, plus some dyed ones and also uses Shetland to add colour to the Samite and Blacker Swan blends. Follow this link (link is external). The fleece is fine, soft and crimpy, but sometimes short. The same animal can produce fleece of very mixed quality which is a challenge when we sort and grade, but the best is suitable for luxurious lace-weight yarns for shawls and scarves. For more information contact the Shetland Sheep Society (link is external).
Shropshire sheep, medium-large white with medium fleeces, are best known for their good behaviour around trees. As they do not browse like many other sheep, they are frequently used to graze orchards. They have a black face and legs with a dense white fleece which grows up over the forehead. Protruding black ears give an alert appearance. The wool dyes well and produces excellent yarns for hats, mittens, socks and sweaters.The finer fleeces are soft enough to be worn next to the skin. For more information contact the Shropshire Sheep Breeders Association (link is external).
These sheep come from the same St Kilda archipelago as the Boreray (see above), but as the breed has been brought into wider use there are several flocks across the country and it is not as rare. Soay sheep shed their fleeces and the breed is quite wild, so good fleece may be difficult to collect. The fibre is short, fine and mainly brown with some coarser fibres. It is used mainly for finer or lace weight yarns. For more information contact the Soay Sheep Society (link is external).
Although this breed produces the finest fleece of all the downland sheep, it has been developed mainly for meat. The wool is short, so generally needs to be woollen spun, but it dyes well and makes a good, bulky yarn suitable for outerwear. It also felts well. As the sheep are particularly prone to fly strike, unless they are kept in their original windy, downland environments, extra care is needed. For more information contact the Southdown Sheep Society (link is external).
Probably the most numerous breed of sheep in England and, like the Cotswold, the foundation of the wool trade that historically provided the country with so much wealth. A larger, hardy sheep with drooping ears, the head and legs are dark brown/black. The fleece is strongly crimpy and resilient. Best blended or used as the warp for throws and blankets. For more information contact the Suffolk Sheep Society (link is external).
Teeswater rams, with their large frames and soft fleeces, are often crossbred with Swaledale ewes to create Masham sheep, the so-called ‘mule of the north’. They originated in Teesdale and are occasionally, but incorrectly, called Teesdale. Once numerous, they are now quite rare, but their beautiful fine, long white fleeces are very attractive and they deserve to be supported to escape their official Rare Breed Survival Trust vulnerable status. These elegant sheep have black ears, noses and brown/white legs and their kemp-free fleeces may weigh up to eight kilograms (18 lb) of separate wavy locks up to 30 cm (12 inches) long, so they contribute to Blacker Yarns’ Tamar blend. For more information contact the Teeswater Sheep Breeders Association (link is external).
A Dutch import from the island of Texel, the largest of the Frisian Islands in North Holland’s Wadden Sea. Living in Britain since the 1970s, the Texel is a big, meaty sheep, with a heavy head, long body and short legs. More functional than elegant, they are often used for cross breeding to produce lamb. They are normally white, but the dark-coloured ones are also bred for wool and are called Blue Texels. The wool is fine, soft and crimpy. For more information contact the Texel Sheep Society (link is external) and The Blue Texel Sheep Society (link is external).
These beautiful, tall and elegant sheep have long shiny coats with fine, wavy wool. They may be dark, when the wool is grey/brown, but most are cream. The breed is descended from a cross-bred ram called Blue-cap, continuing the genetics of a Teeswater ewe and an English Leicester ram. So they have dark ears and noses, but white, slightly heavy legs. Wensleydale fleece makes wonderful pure yarns, though because they are so rare, Blacker Yarns adds the wool available to them to the Tamar lustre blend yarn. For more information contact the Wensleydale Longwool Sheep Breeders’ Association (link is external).
A large, attractive hill sheep from the Pennines with great curly horns and a fine fleece with kemp which makes it particularly suitable for thicker yarns, outerwear and accessories. As the kemp does not take dye easily, the results from our dye plant are particularly interesting. Despite the name, the sheep were not developed to graze woodland. Like most sheep they will happily browse, and damage, bark and saplings. The least problematic on this front are Shropshire and Southdown sheep which are marketed as being more ‘free style’ than other breeds. For more information contact the Whitefaced Woodland Sheep Society (link is external).
This Dutch breed is growing in popularity with farmers as breeding ewes. Zwartbles are calm sheep with lovely manners and an almost black fleece which, when bleached in the sun, goes rusty red at the tips. The colour of the resulting yarn is bitter chocolate. The wool may be blended with mohair to improve the handle and durability and it comes out like dark, shiny coal. Rather nice! For more information contact the Zwartbles Sheep Association (link is external).