Spotlight on four rare breeds of sheep

The November/December 2011 issue of PieceWork magazine has arrived! The issue's focus is wool, and editor Jeane Hutchins and I talked early in the planning process about what I might contribute to it. The result is "On the Edge: How a Handful of People Have Preserved Some Rare, Valuable Sheep and Their Wools," which starts on page 34.

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Jeane asked for rare sheep. Then we had to figure out what aspect to focus on. She also was thinking about a related project or projects in addition to an article, and because of PieceWork's readership any hands-on components had to be based on readily available yarn. In other words, we couldn't ask people to start by spinning their own. Materials available by internet were okay—a specification that made the whole endeavor possible, because most people's local stores are unlikely to stock breed-specific, much less rare-breed-specific, yarns.

One thing that has fascinated me in my study of sheep is the pivotal role often played by one or two individuals in a whole breed's survival.

So we came up with the idea of an article about a few breeds of rare sheep

  • that are still with us today in large part because of the actions of identifiable individual human beings, and
  • whose fiber is available as spun yarn that readers can get their hands on.

Sorting through the possibilities took me a while, and some research on the web to augment what I already knew about yarn suppliers. We ended up with four breeds that fit the criteria we aimed for. In addition,

  • two of the breeds originated in the British Isles and two originated in North America (I like that balance), and
  • Jeane found four people, each of whom agreed to design an original project using one of the breeds' fiber.

What fun!

And now it's here.

The breeds are Manx Loaghtan and Leicester Longwool (British Isles) and Navajo-Churro and American Tunis (North America). The projects are:

These are all designs my fingers are itching to knit! What a wonderful way to showcase the fibers. I feel like we've gathered at a party to celebrate the survival of four superb and valuable breeds by using their wools. I'd love to see what other people make with these fibers, whether from these patterns or others.

Meanwhile, let's get some more pictures into this blog. There are super photos in the article, but the ones of the swatches are nicely decorative (i.e., a little small), and since they're my samples I can supplement by providing them at a bigger size here. I might as well add photos of sheep and of locks of wool, for the spinnerly and otherwise curious among us.

All photos not otherwise credited are mine.

Manx Loaghtan

Here's my swatch, worked in Cable and Band pattern from Barbara Walker's Charted Knitting Designs (Pittsville, WI: Schoolhouse Press, 1998, p. 133). The yarn is Manx Loaghtan from Blacker Yarns, Cornwall, England. (On the Blacker Yarns site, the Manx Loaghtan yarn is listed under "Welsh" breeds because there's only one breed from the Isle of Man, which is its own sovereignty—and the yarn would likely be overlooked if it had its own category.)

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Manx Loaghtan locks are all brown, although they come in a variety of shades of mid-brown—as you can see in the yarns below the locks. The lefthand yarn was spun from a darker fleece. Manx Loaghtan fleeces often have light-colored tips, from sun-bleaching, although the tips in my experience so far have not been fragile (as sun-bleached tips sometimes are).

On all of the lock photographs, the inked-in line is 4 inches/10cm long.

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And here's a robust Manx Loaghtan ram with a gorgeous set of four horns:

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Photo © British Wool Marketing Board. Used by permission.

Check out the Navajo-Churro horns below, too.

Leicester Longwool

This next swatch is Diamond and Rib, also from Barbara Walker's Charted Knitting Designs (p. 22), worked in Leicester Longwool singles yarn from Double J Ranch, Oregon City, Oregon. (There are two Double J Ranches in Oregon. The link goes to the right one.)

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The high luster, open crimp, and generous length of the locks are typical of the breed. The lock on top is unwashed, and the one on the bottom is clean. Longwools invite a variety of spinning techniques. Lower left is singles, spun for texture, and lower right is a loosely spun and plied two-ply.

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And here's a Leicester Longwool sheep, fairly recently shorn: the breed's fleeces get exquisitely long in a fairly short time. They're often shorn twice a year to keep the fiber to a manageable 5- to 6-inch length (12.5 to 15cm).

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Photo © British Wool Marketing Board. Used by permission.

Navajo-Churro

Another swatch in singles yarn, this time Navajo-Churro obtained from Gypsy Wools, Boulder, Colorado. Yet another pattern from Barbara Walker's Charted Knitting Designs (I love all of Barbara Walker's treasuries, but this one just might be my favorite): Waterfall (p. 151).

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Here are some of the breed's gorgeous natural colors, these grown by Connie Taylor's sheep in southern Colorado:

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Navajo-Churro wool combines softness and durability in a unique way. The rare breeds are delightfully distinctive. That's to their benefit, in the realm of genetic variety and delight for us, but it's a negative attribute in an industrial world that prefers its fibers anonymous.

Here's a Navajo-Churro ram: he's got a superior set of four horns, too. Not many breeds of sheep are polycerate, or capable of producing horns in multiples. The fact that we're seeing two such rams on this page is because we're in rare-breed territory. These guys are remarkable even in that realm.

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Photo © Tanya Carte and Greg Shore/McKenzie Creek Ranch in California. Used by permission.

American Tunis

Changing books to Hitomi Shida's 250 Japanese Knitting Patterns (Tokyo: Nihon Vogue, 2005), this is pattern #132, worked in American Tunis yarn from Solitude Wool, Round Hill, Virginia.

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Tunis locks have a lovely open quality to them (except the tips, which often need a little gentle opening). They spin up into a versatile yarn that works well for color definition and (as you can see above) good body in texture patterns. It's darn sweet.

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The lambs are born cinnamon-red, and they lighten up as they mature to a creamy-white color, although they retain the warm tones on their faces and legs.

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Photo © SVF Foundation. Used by permission.

In conclusion

Here are locks of the four breeds, all together:

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Left to right: Navajo Churro, American Tunis, Leicester Longwool, and Manx Loaghtan.

Aren't they pretty? All the things we can make with these splendid, renewable fibers—!

Check out the new PieceWork. There are a lot of other great articles about wool in it, including Charlotte Booth's exploration of ancient Coptic socks, Lithuanian beaded wrist warmers by Donna Druchunas, a section by Evelyn Clark featuring Icelandic wool, and more. I just need more knitting (and spinning) time.

For more rare breeds (and not-so-rare), there is, of course, The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook.

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3 Responses

  1. Fantastic!
    It’s great to learn about breeds that I haven’t encountered (yet) here in the mid-Atlantic: Navajo Churro and Manx Loaghtan. That’s the best photo I’ve seen (or at least remember!) of a Navajo Churro, very handsome ram.

    And thank you so much for suggesting our Tunis yarn for the hat project!!!
    Gretchen Frederick
    Solitude Wool

  2. This is magnificent. It makes me quite emotional to read about getting the word out to even more people. You are doing such wonderful work to get the word out!

    I saw Piecework at the shop the other day but couldn’t pick it up just then. Will be going back to snag one, probably Tuesday. YES!!!!

  3. Gretchen, you’re doing such wonderful work with the breeds from your area. Navajo Churro hasn’t made it to your part of the world, I don’t think, and all the Manx Loaghtans are on the eastern side of the Atlantic.

    You’re welcome for the Tunis suggestion! That was fun. And I love Tunis sheep. I put another photo of one in today’s post.

    Susan, I’d love to spend more time around Tunis sheep. They are, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, as lovely in spirit as they are to look at.

    Thanks for the good words, Lynn. I have so much fun teaching. It’s an amazing amount of work, and worth every bit of it. It’s really like a party where I get to share lots of favorite things with fantastic people.

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