About the Cheviots: Can I get back to you on that?

posted in: Publishing, Sheep, Writing | 19

* { head —> wall } Repeat from * to end.

Just a bit of insight into how this book has gone. We thought we were almost done. We thought we were just writing captions.

Now I'm going to discuss one of the instances I mentioned in the last post, where the visual and textual components need to be reconciled in the design.

Warning: this is a long post. One of the reasons I'm writing it is to give myself a sense that I'm making progress. Even though I'm not entirely certain how much progress I am making.

Within the body of the book, here's the basic idea of an individual animal's listing and its fiber:

  • A bit of history of the sheep
  • Some general information on the fiber and its history and characteristics—whatever is too juicy to fit in the summary lists
  • A photo of the animal (if at all possible, and it almost always is)
  • List of facts about the fiber (shearing weight, staple lengths, fiber diameters, and the like, of most interest to spinners and the generally curious)
  • List of ideas for using the fiber (what it is really good or particularly lousy for, of interest to any fiber person—Rough Fell baby clothes would not be kind; a Merino throw rug would show signs of wear in days)
  • Photo with samples of raw and clean fibers, to show how they shift (or don't) when they are washed (in color, length, and apparent crimp)
  • Photo also includes tiny skein(s) of handspun yarn, as a suggestion of how the fiber might look when ready to be knitted, crocheted, woven, or whatever (there are infinite options for yarn constructions as well as for applications, so these are only hints)
  • Possibly a sidebar with curious thoughts or information, room and availability of interesting asides permitting (if anybody has an interesting story relating to Coopworths, we have some space on one of that breed's pages)

So. All is good.


In four instances, we grouped some of the "facts about the fiber" and/or "using the fiber" information.

  1. In one of those cases, we have a full-page chart that covers a lot of minor breeds that folks might be curious about (which translates, for me, to the following: "if I had this book, I'd want to be able to look up those critters and find at least a little information on them").
  2. In two more clusters, there are different "facts about" for each breed, but we grouped the "using the fiber" summaries. These closely related sheep have slightly different fiber profiles—one breed grows slightly longer or shorter wool, or produces lighter or heavier fleeces, or may have natural colors other than white. But when it's time to put them to work, they have the same strengths and weaknesses. So we gave them all one "using the fiber" list.
  3. In the final, fourth, cluster, the "facts about" and "using the fiber" are the same for all the breeds. We grouped them, and listed the subtle variations, where applicable, as part of the overall description.

Item 3 is the focus of what I'm talking (and thinking) about at the moment.

Here's the challenge:

In design and editorial decision-making at the publisher, it was determined that each breed's presentation would stand alone, and every breed would have individual "facts about" and "using the fiber" lists.

The idea (and it is valid) is that the reader will want to use the work as a reference and should be able to find all the pertinent information for a given breed in a predictable place and sequence. The reader should not have to turn to a chart a few pages away to find a summary for any group.

We (the authors) didn't know this decision had been made until we began to review the "first pages," which is what we're in the process of doing now.

I love the idea, and I hate repetition. I appreciate differentiating between similar things, picking out the subtleties in ways that are meaningful. It bothered me to see identical data on several breeds, all in a row.

The item 1 breeds get to keep their chart. Whew. I did have to trim some of the text to fit, but didn't lose much in the way of solid info.

We have something of a solution for the breeds in item 2, which already had different "facts" sections. That solution will be managed by the editorial staff at the publisher, with some input I've already provided.

Leaving us with item 3.

So what remains is a cluster of breeds where both facts and usage notes are the same.

It should be possible to provide differentiated information between these breeds, even though their history is snarled and complicated enough that simply defining which breed is where, and how it developed, could probably earn someone a Ph.D.

We don't need a Ph.D. We do need some categories and definitions, enough to write useful information for textile folk about the types of wool. In separate lists, not a group.

Yes, we tried to get out of this task. I'm not at all sure how significant these pieces of information will be to readers. The variations between the breeds are minor from a fiber perspective. We had already provided adequate information to help people who want to know useful things about the wool, whether they are spinners, knitters, crocheters, weavers, or puzzled bystanders. We had incorporated into our group description the minor differences between the breeds (for example, only one of them, as far as we've been able to determine, grows wool in colors other than white . . . although that may be two, because there may be another breed involved after all . . . ).

Yet the book's design requires that we differentiate between them. We've appealed to the high publishing courts, and the problem is back on our desks. With a deadline, of course.

What I'm doing instead of preparing for the classes I'll be teaching next week. . . .

Let me introduce you to the Cheviots and the challenge of fixing this problem, just one in a long series of gnarly issues that we have faced while building this book. Even though we need new shovels and pickaxes and mattocks at this point, because the ones we have been depending on for more than three years are dented and chipped from hitting rocks and continuing to excavate, we will, yet again, increase the value of this book by unearthing more information and packing it into the pages.

Co-author Carol Ekarius is the livestock person in this collaboration, but in order to deal with the fiber information I often need to get my head wrapped around the ins and outs of breed identity and history.


Sheep called Cheviots have been around, in one form or another, for at least three centuries, likely a great deal longer, and originated in the Cheviot Hills, on the border between Scotland and England, which is, of course, how they got their name. A few things are relatively easy to say with certainty.

They developed. . . . Well, it depends on who you ask. Some sources say they were a recognized breed as early as 1372. Others say they became identifiably distinct during the 18th century. Sheep historian Michael Ryder says that by 1746 there was a unique Cheviot breed "that was being improved by crossing with Lincoln and Leicester rams. At the end of the century, the Cheviot still had a dun face, and the rams were horned. It was, however, named the Whiteface or long sheep to distinguish it from the Blackface or short sheep." (Sheep and Man, London: Gerald Duckworth and Company, 2007, p. 514.)

Regardless, sheep known as Cheviots have been around for a long time. Lots can happen with sheep in a few hundred years; their generations are pretty short, compared to humans'. Cheviots have stayed put, moved around (within the British Isles and across oceans), and had other bloodlines crossed into the main stock. Sorting through and determining how many distinct Cheviot breeds now exist is a challenge, and some of the information out there is correct and some isn't. Deciding which sources to believe is a difficulty, especially when asking these thorny questions on the fly.

In order to break down the "facts" section by breed, however, this sorting needs to be done.

I've been drawing diagrams to find my way through the maze.

[And seeking a bit of dark chocolate to sustain me for the journey. . . .]


Continuing. . . .

The sheep called South Country Cheviots come from the north of England (or southern Scotland; the Cheviot Hills, and the sheep, don't pay attention to lines imposed on the landscape by humans). These sheep have also been called Border Cheviots (the name I've been most familiar with), although recently the breed societies in both the UK and the US have simplified to Cheviot.

(The front page of the UK breed society clearly says "South Country Cheviot" and if you download the US breed society's PDF of its 2004 breed standards, the header says "Border Cheviot." What that last naming shift in both cases means, though, is that if we find a resource or have a sample of wool that simply says "Cheviot," we won't know if it's this breed or if the source, or supplier, just didn't take time to note which type it was.)

The ones called North Country Cheviots are from even farther north (definitely in Scotland), and can be traced to a particular person (Sir John Sinclair) and a specific date (1791; he moved some sheep north, bred in other bloodlines, and got a new breed for his efforts). Early in their history they were called Caithness Cheviots. (People later moved flocks back south toward where the original, South Country breed came from but that's beside the point right now.)

Cheviots "from Scotland" were taken to southern Wales in the 1800s. Several sources say these were South Country, also known as Border, Cheviots. There they were crossed with local sheep to produce Brecknock Hill Cheviots.

Cheviots were introduced into the United States in 1838, according to Michael Ryder (Sheep and Man, p. 600). During the nineteenth century, anyway. Presumably these were South Country Cheviots (Border Cheviots), an unsupported connecting leap made by me right now because (1) the American Cheviot Sheep Society still has "Border Cheviot" on the PDF of its newly established (2004) breed standards and (2) time's running out to come to some conclusions here. (Not a good way to do research or develop firm ideas. For brainstorming ideas, it's fine.)

However, there are definitely also North Country Cheviots in North America. [ADDED: I've found a date of 1944 for introduction of North Country Cheviots to this continent. If verifiable, that means the 1838 importation likely was South Country Cheviots. Although sometimes more than one importation of a breed took place, because sometimes the first batch didn't survive or vanished or was otherwise lost track of.]

(In 1845, shortly after some of them emigrated to North America, South Country (Border) Cheviots went to New Zealand, where they were later crossed with Romneys to produce Perendales; Ryder, Sheep and Man, p. 638. No, that's not my only source, but it's incredibly useful for getting a well-reasoned big-picture view of sheep over time and across the globe.)


[Feeling the need for more diagramsfor example, one linking to the Perendalebut no time to make them because each leads deeper into the topic.]

Yet. . . . There is at least one other type of Cheviots in the United States. We also have what are now called Miniature Cheviots.

The crazy part is about to raise its head.

[Stepping into the next room for two Excedrin before I continue. . . .]

Apparently, some particularly small-statured strains of Border Cheviots developed in Canada. (That is, South Country Cheviots, now known in both the U.S. and U.K. as Cheviots.)

These were imported into the U.S. and the people who brought them in formed a breed society called the American Miniature Brecknock Hill Cheviot Sheep Breeders Association. Even though these sheep were in no may or may not be in any way related to the Welsh Brecknock Hill Cheviots. They are American Miniature Cheviots.

The breed society has been re-named as the American Miniature Cheviot Sheep Breeders Association (AMCBSA). Hurray.

But some many sources of confusion remain.

There is now also a American Classic Cheviot Sheep Association and registry, an attempt to clear some of the fog surrounding these permutations, and this group includes colored sheep (colors are also available in the WELSH, or, as I've come to think of them, "real," Brecknock Hill Cheviots).


Moving to the wool. . . .

Carol will make the final decisions pertaining to the breeds, but I think I have a good enough picture of the situation now to begin gathering data to support speculations about variations between the wools. I have 25 sources of information about Cheviot wools. The breed societies are not especially interested in quantifying the characteristics of their sheep's wool:

  • North Country Cheviot Sheep Society: "White, of good staple, free from curl, hair or kemp. Not hard, but has a spongy feeling when grasped."
  • Brecknock Hill Cheviot Sheep Society: "Brecknock Hill Cheviot Wool speaks for itself as three members of the society have been British Wool Producer Of The Year.' "

But I do have some numbers to play with, gathered from other locations, including having sent a couple of samples to the lab for analysis.

My next steps involve assigning each set of numbers to one of the defined breeds (except the ones that just say "Cheviot," with no further information allowing them to be attributed to a specific type of sheep), then looking at the data and forming, followed by articulating, a general description of the breed's wool.

There will be errors in this book.

But it won't be because we didn't try to get all the facts right.

It would be really nice if any of the 3.5 days' worth of workshops I'll be teaching in the next few weeks involved Cheviots. None of them does.

And now back to my (revised) spreadsheets, in search of patterns among the data points. . . .


Added 11/14/2010. I think this is as far as I have time to go right now, and I think it's sufficient for our immediate purposes:


I think there are four Cheviot breeds that we would do well to take into account (bright-highlighted and numbered in chronological order of development), and I've put together the meager data I have, along with a disclaimer, and made some educated guesses about how the wools differ. I've also made preliminary notes on a possible fifth breed that may become more of a player in the future. I don't have enough information on it to even begin guessing at stats.

This sign means "not equal to" or "not the same as":

Sheep and their wool are definitely moving targets.


19 Responses

  1. Yikes, you’d better keep the pill bottle close to hand!


  2. Yikes! And I think some of the stuff I’m writing is turning me into a babbling fool.

    (And you’ll definitely want more chocolate too. Plus wine. Lots of wine.)

  3. Turns out the American Miniature Cheviots may have more names: Southern Hill Cheviot and Small Cheviot.

    Wine, you say?

  4. Wine indeed, and whatever you do, don’t follow your instructions at the beginning of the post! *{head->wall} Repeat from * to end

    You’ll sort it out clearly, even though you don’t have time. It’s one of your talents…

  5. Anna McCarthy

    I have loved Cheviot from the start. First fleece I ever spun and not very fashionable now but a Cheviot hogget is a delight. I will be fascinated by anything you say about them….Good luck.

  6. . . . there are three strains (not breeds, but subtypes) of North Country Cheviots: Hill Cheviots (not to be confused with South Country Cheviots, sometimes called Hill Cheviots), Caithness type (not to be confused with Caithness Cheviot, the early name for the entire breed), and the Border type (not to be confused with Border Cheviots, also another name for South Country Cheviots). . . .

    It’s a good thing I like Cheviot wool myself!

  7. Jane Cooper

    Wow! You and your ‘team’ are probably the world experts on anything and everything Cheviot now – strongly suspecting the publishers wouldn’t realise what a little gem your above research would be if put into the book, I shall print it out to include in my own copy ☺

    BTW – this probably isn’t the time to let you know that at the North Pennines Wool Event last month (yes, the Brits now have an annual wool week!) I was informed, by someone who knows about sheep in the north of England, that there is a variation of the Scottish Blackface, called the Hexham Blackface. Although, on 2nd thoughts, you probably already know!

    Hope you enjoy your teaching.

  8. I am looking forward to this book so much, especially now I have watched with interest and sympathy how much work it’s taken.

  9. I can’t wait to get a copy of this book, believe me, all your hard work will be much appreciated!

  10. Huh. This is why my breed sample collection is a giant cardboard box full of vaguely labelled baggies.

    I can’t wait for this book!!

  11. Wine AND chocolate. I’ve been gently introduced to the… interesting… pastime of researching the history of sheep breeds courtesy of the Shetland (and yes, there still are double-coated Shetlands in Shetland even if the fleece/wool isn’t widely available) land the North Ronaldsay. Or Orkney.

    We put sheep under such strong selective pressure, without our noticing or by breeding for something we think is ‘cute,’ that it’s no wonder new breeds develop so quickly.

    Love Ryder’s book, and I joined the nearest University Library to get access to their periodicals section too.

  12. This flurry of comments is warming my heart.

    One of the cool things about really getting into Ryder’s work was discovering a place where he revised an earlier statement he’d made about a breed’s wool because it turned out that the fiber he’d been given was misidentified. Another was finding his reference to the “crocheted” shawls of Shetland (Sheep and Man, p. 517, third full paragraph, line 3).

    Every time I open that particular book, I am in *awe* at the work. (Add on Ryder and Stephenson’s Wool Growth and it’s even harder to believe what the man knows.) Yet these crumbs give me the courage to keep going, because if Michael Ryder got handed the wrong bit of wool, well, maybe it’s okay if the work *we’re* doing is (just) as close to correct as we can humanly make it. . . .

    Yes, Scottish Blackfaces. And YES, Shetlands! Very interesting, and took about a week. MOST of what we found is *not* directly in the book, because there wasn’t room, but the work had to be done to get the parts that *are* there right (or as right as we can get them).

    You folks are encouraging me, however, to write down more of the process, perhaps in the blog. . . . And not immediately. I need to get the book done!

  13. P.S. I love North Ronaldsays, and have found out cool stuff about them, as well.

  14. It is quite an undertaking, this ‘encyclopedia’… reminds me of genealogy.. gathering truths, half-truths, and pure fiction and determining what is the most accurate information (ie. born in 1751, married in 1755)… huh?

    This is an important work for the fiber community. Though, as a spinner, I want to know what I will find out there here and now. Maybe that would take off some pressure from making this the most historically accurate genealogy of every known sheep breed that has ever walked the planet?

    Look forward to seeing you in Michigan. I’ll bring some cheviot 😉

  15. Sue, so my Cheviot escapade will have done me some good in Michigan! Looking forward to meeting you.

    Yes, the goal is “what’s out there now?” The trick is getting enough of a handle on the history to give guidelines. . . .

    Genealogy. Yes. I found a bit of tricky stuff about that while I was in the U.K. this summer. I thought I was going to be in a village that some ancestors had come from. Same name, different place. . . .

  16. Hi, Deb. Showing my computer students blogging.

  17. Good idea, Lynn! Welcome. I was a guest author in some high school classes a few years ago and was incredibly surprised that the students didn't know about blogging. Wow. It's so much fun.

  18. Oh, boy, do I want this book. Stay determined and keep going. I’ll cheer you on!

  19. There's absolutely no way we're turning back. We took off on the toboggan and there's no stopping until we get to the bottom of the hill! I'm really glad you want the book. Cheering is most welcome.

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