We are often asked where people can learn more about the textile industry, spinning and the history of both. Our Meet the animals page is a good place to start as it includes some brief comments on the breeds of sheep whose fleece we use most. You will also find below a list of animals that we don’t use or haven’t used often. We have also included a number of links which may help.
European Textile Network (link is external) website which includes a mass of links. From the home page, click on the blue section to the right where it says ‘Geographic Routes’. This brings up a map allowing you to go to the country of your choice.
The Spartacus (link is external) website has some excellent material and can help with research into child labour or, more broadly, the Industrial Revolution.
Meet some foreign sheep
Ouessant: A French breed that takes its name from the island sitting 12 miles off the westerly point of Brittany, Ushant in English. The island, which marks the beginning of the English Channel, covers six square miles and is best known for its lighthouses. There are about 850 sheep on the island, all of them hardy as Ushant has a harsh climate with plenty of strong winds and storms. As the ram’s shoulder height reaches just 48-50 centimetres (19 inches), and the ewes 45-46 centimetres (17 – 18 inches), the breed is smaller even than the British Soay and is said to be the world’s smallest. Ideal for small spaces, paddocks or orchards, but beware as their personalities are larger than those of many bigger sheep! There are flocks in the UK. For more information go to the Ouessant Sheep (link is external) website.
Racka: A native Hungarian breed widely known for the long, spiral shaped horns sported by both rams and ewes. Although the fleece, cream to light brown, has been used for clothing, it is long and coarse and the sheep are more commonly used for meat and milking.
Valais Blacknose: This breed can be traced back to the Valais region of southwest Switzerland, not so far from Geneva. The sheep have black patches on their nose, eyes, ears, knees, hocks and feet; the rest of the fleece is stringy, white and fluffy. As a result they look more like cuddly toys than real animals. Although the breed can be traced back to at least the 15th century, this mountain sheep was not recognised as a separate breed until 1962. Happy grazing the steepest and stoniest slopes, this docile breed is raised for both meat and hard-wearing wool suitable for floor coverings. Both rams and ewes have horns.
Meet some other fleece-producing animals
Camel: Camel hair is most often used for a type of cloth, although the words ‘camel hair’ frequently refer to a synthetic, golden tan substitute. Not all the fibre is golden tan; it can vary from red to light brown. While a camel’s outer protective, or guard, hair is coarse and inflexible, it can be woven and made softer by blending, particularly with wool. The camel’s pure undercoat is very soft and collected usually by combing or shearing when the animal moults. Baby camel is often used. The main producing countries are Turkey, China, Siberia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia and Australia. The Natural Fibre Company has spun fibre from Cornish camels, which we blended with wool.
Yak: A species of ox from the mountainous regions of Tibet. The wild yak, found near the snow line, is usually black, while domesticated animals are often white. Yaks are covered with a thick coat of long, silky hair, the coarsest of which is spun into rope or used for covering tents. Softer fur, from the animal’s hump and withers, is woven into a strong cloth. The softest grade, with a diameter of 10-15 microns, has been compared to cashmere and comes from the neck. It is said to be warmer than wool and like wool is hypoallergenic, remaining warm when wet. As yaks only produce about a kilo of fibre a year, it is extremely rare. It is usually spun with a drop spindle; it is now becoming more widely known and is commercially processed, blended with other fibres.
And finally: A few words about Moose and the Arctic Muskox, which isn’t an ox at all.
The Moose is best known as a big game target in Alaska, but these animals can also be found in British Columbia, Labrador, Nova Scotia and in the northern forests of Eurasia, from Scandinavia and Poland to Russia. Moose have long legs, which help them in deep snow where their long guard hairs and undercoat of fine wool enable them to survive the coldest of climates. The coat ranges from black to reddish brown, lighter on the under parts and lower legs. They have winter coats, which are both duller and lighter and shed in the spring.
The Arctic Muskox, which is more closely related to sheep and goats than oxen, thrives in Canada, Alaska, and Greenland. These large hairy mammals (the Inuit name for the species is Umingmak or the bearded one) date back to the last Ice Age and are noted for their meat and hide. Their delicate underwool, known by the Inuit word Qiviut (pronounced Kih-vee-uht), is both special and rare and comes from the face, belly, ears, hooves and from under the horns. Softer than cashmere, Qiviut is very light and said to be eight times warmer than wool. Although very rare, it is available in its pure form and is also blended with angora, cashmere, baby alpaca, silk and merino.