Q&A: Tibetan lambskin

posted in: Sheep, Wool | 2

From time to time, I've decided to do a few Q&A posts. Sometimes people write with questions that I answer, or take a stab at answering, or for which I can at least offer resources that will help the inquirer track down more information. I don't have time to do a lot of specific research other than what I'm already doing, but I do spend a lot of time reading appropriate source material and sometimes—as in the case of this recent inquiry—I happen across useful details, which may, combined with a bit of interpretation I can supply from having seen and touched and spun and made fabric with a lot of different fibers, come close to providing an answer.

Here's the first Q&A. I've edited the questions and amplified my responses to make them read more smoothly than our original e-mail volley did. However, the interchange retains some of the progression of information that came from our discovery process. The only photos are, unfortunately, accessed through links because I don't have time to track down the owners and request permission to include images.

For those of you interested in the topic of making doll wigs, the questions came from Jessica Hamilton, who is writing a tutorial called Doll Makers Guide to Wigging Fibers. It will consist of ten complete lessons on how to wig dolls of all types, including restoration and doll-alteration projects—sounds fascinating and useful! Jessica says the first lesson will be released free to all of her Doll Project newsletter subscribers, and she sends out free doll-related projects on the first Friday of every month. Her newsletter sign-up box is here.

Now let's deal with that question, which initially stumped Jessica, my co-author Carol Ekarius, and me, but ended up revealing interesting wool-related information.


Q: I am a doll maker interested in doll wigging and hair fibers. I picked up your Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook. . . . What a wealth of information. I am finding all the information on loose fibers I could possibly need, but I am a bit stumped when it comes to popular lambskins. Many wig makers use "Tibetan lambskins" to create wigs. I realize this is the whole skin and is out of the normal realm of spinning, but I am hoping you can help. I having a difficult time finding out what exactly a Tibetan lambskin comes from.

In your book you explain that the name doesn't always really fit the fiber. Is the Tibetan really a type of sheep? Or is it just a name for the skin? What breed or breeds is it derived from? I realize the animal is killed for food and the skins are then harvested—do you know if there are ethical and/or humane concerns about skin procurement?

I read the first sections of your book and have read pieces and parts of the animal sections—I apologize if this information is already in the book, it's a big book! If this is the case, please let me know which section(s) I might look in!

Thanks so much!

A—phase 1: Pelts

Use of fibers for dollmaking and skins for pelts aren't topics I know a great deal about, but I may be able to shed some light for you.

Certain of the English longwools are often mentioned as resources for making doll hair (Lincolns, Cotswolds, Leicester Longwools), as is, of course, mohair, but mentions I've found for use of those fibers refer to their shorn form. These are especially supple, lustrous, long materials.

Co-author Carol Ekarius chimed into this conversation with some notes about what are traditionally called pelt sheep, which are raised, as more commonly understood fur animals are, for the skin-plus-fiber combination. Slaughtering is how those materials are acquired. The advantage to using sheepskins for doll wigs is that the hair doesn't need to be rooted in a base—it is already rooted. Some sheep bred for their pelts include Karakuls and Norwegian Pelssaus.

I'm a vegetarian. I prefer to have my fibers come without the skin—and for the animal who grew those fibers to continue growing more for the next year. I don't even like talking about how Persian lamb (from Karakul sheep) is obtained; the animal is slaughtered before or shortly after birth, because the fiber only has Persian lamb's characteristic texture and curl during a very brief period in the growth cycle. As the animal matures, the fiber quickly opens and loosens and becomes longer and wavier, instead of curly. I do read about Persian lamb because it reveals a great deal about wool growth, and the lamb pelt is amazing, beautiful stuff—which I can certainly do without as a material for crafting of any sort, although I think using it when it comes from an animal that didn't survive for other reasons (for example, died of natural causes, not just the obtaining of the pelt) is a means of honoring the brief life that produced it.

A—phase 2: Tibetan—geographic catch-all or an identifiable breed?

Next comes the question of what a Tibetan lambskin might be. Often such a broad geographical term refers not to a specific breed but to any sheep of any breeed from a given area, and that was both Carol's and my first instinct in guessing what you're dealing with.

Yet when I went to Mason's World Dictionary of Livestock Breeds, Types and Varieties by Valerie Porter and I. L. Mason, the latest edition (5th, 2002), I learned that there does appear to be a distinct Tibetan breed, generally raised for meat. Meat animals are most often killed young; the lambskins would be a byproduct and not the reason for the slaughter.

Here's what Mason's offers us in the way of breed information, with a geographic link I've added:

"Tibetan: (Qinghai-Tibet plateau, China, also N Nepal, also N Sikkim and Kameng, Arunachal Pradesh, India)/m.cw.(pa)/usu. black or brown head and legs; hd; st/vars: Sanjiang, Shangu, Tengchong, Yaluzangbu; strains: Ganjia, Ganqin/orig. of Qinghai Black Tibetan/Ch. Xizang, Aang, Zangxi/syn. (Nepal) Bhanglung, Bhote, Bhotia, Bhyanglung"

Well. Because the information is so condensed, deciphering a listing in Mason's can be like working a puzzle. There are a few items in there that I'm not entirely clear on, but I can put most of that data into plain English. This is my attempt to get as much information out of the listing as I quickly can:

There is a Tibetan breed, which is found in the locations noted. It's grown primarily for meat and produces a carpet-type wool. (The abbreviation (pa) means "pack" according to the book's key, but I don't have time to figure out what that means in this context. It doesn't currently make sense to me.) These sheep usually have black or brown heads and legs (that's clear enough). Both males and females have horns (if the males did and females did not, that would be indicated with symbols). They have short tails. Varieties or subbreeds derived from this breed include the Sanjiang, Shangu, Tengchong, and Yaluzangbu. Strains, or subpopulations, include the Ganjia, Ganqin. The Tibetan is the origin of the Qinghai Black Tibetan. The Chinese names for the Tibetan breed (Pinyin romanization) are Xizang, Aang, and Zangxi. Synonyms (names for the same breed(s) in one or more countries other than their place of origin or primary identification) are, for Nepal, Bhanglung, Bhote, Bhotia, and Bhyanglung.

(Note that Mason's introduction offers up a flexible definition of "breed" and doesn't define "variety" or "strain." There are practical reasons for this, although as a result we end up with useful but fuzzy information.)

A—phase 3: A follow-up response with some details about Tibetan sheep that fiber folk will understand

I've been doing research on other sheepy topics and just happened across some relevant information in an article. The source is Kalle Maijala, "Genetic Aspects of Domestication, Common Breeds and Their Origin," in The Genetics of Sheep, edited by Laurie Piper and Anatoly Ruvinsky (Oxfordshire, UK; New York, NY: CAB International, 1997, page 44). (Maijala is, by the way, one of the primary researchers into sheep genetics.)

"Tibetan is an autochthonous breed developed in the Qinghai-Tibet mountain plateau (now in China), at more than 3000 m of altitude. It is almost the only breed of Tibet and is also kept in northern Nepal and three regions of India. It is a carpet-wool sheep with a small tail. It is adapted to unfavourable environments and can deposit fat in the viscera around the stomach and kidneys and in the mesentery. The fleece weight of rams/ewes is 1.4/0.7 kg, staple length 9.5 cm and fibre diameter 20.6μ [microns]. There are 80% of true fibres, 5% of heterotype fibres, 15% hair and no kemp. The dressing % in males/females is 48.3/54.0. The average height of rams/ewes is 66/42 cm and weight 45/34 kg, and lambing rate 103% (Cheng, 1984)."

Okay! This is getting really interesting!

First, the Tibetan sheep is a breed on its own.

Autochthonous means, according to a dictionary, "formed or originating in the place where found." The use of the word is debatable in terms of long-term sheep history (and the debate probably can't be resolved) because almost all sheep originally came from somewhere else, but this does mean that these sheep are closely identified with their location and not obviously descended from other breeds in ways that we know about yet.

Because it is "almost the only breed of Tibet," then it has a defined identity in that region and we're not talking about whatever varied types of sheep happen to be in Tibet (even though there is variety within this breed, as we can tell from Mason's mention of varieties and strains).

Second, the description of the wool got my attention. 

Carpet-wool: generally long, coarse, and often a mix of wool and hair. (The small tail is an interesting aside, because many of the sheep in the part of the world we're talking about have fat and/or long tails. Genetically this raises interesting, but not currently relevant, questions. Okay, avoiding a trip down that side trail. . . .)

They have small fleeces: ewes (of which there are many more than rams, no matter the husbandry goal of the flock) grow about 0.7kg (1.5 pounds) of wool a year. That's a tiny amount. The wool is a little under 4 inches long (9.5cm) and. . . .

Here's where I went on alert: "fibre diameter 20.6μ" (microns). That's in the range for Merinos. It's exceptionally fine. Classification of cashmere starts at 18 microns and goes finer. Average (not Merino) wool knitting yarns tend to be in the 25- to 32-micron range. Something very interesting is going on here.

That mix of fibers types (and their percentages) is also suggestive, but I'd need to see actual wool from the breed to talk a lot more about it.

Qs continue: This is fantastic information! In light of this, would you say the skins being purchased are still likely a regional mix of the carpet-wool breeds?

Do you know what age a sheep of this sort would be butchered for skin/meat? Is it the meat that dictates the slaughtering age or the fiber growth? I know if I can find these answers it should help further educate a doll maker's purchasing decisions when it comes to skins vs loose fibers. . . . [T]he already rooted fibers are easy to brush and style, but many creators snip the locks off the skin and use them for direct application, which defeats the purpose of having the skin. There is much more variety to be found in loose locks and fibers, as you well know.

A—phase 4: In sum, so far

I think at this point that the skins are likely coming from lambs of the Tibetan breed, and I say that only because the article in The Genetics of Sheep says that it is "almost the only breed of Tibet"—and because the description of the wool was unusual enough to get my attention. Thus the term "Tibetan" likely can be applied in both senses—type of sheep and geographic region of origin, and the wool likely does not come from a regional mix of carpet-wool breeds. My further investigations (phase 5, below) support me in this theory.

My original guess is that the slaughter occurs because of meat and the skin is a byproduct. Humane aspects of the slaughter would be determined by the husbandry preferences and cultural practices of the humans who keep the sheep. The age of slaughter would be determined by the meat aspect, rather than the fiber growth, and I would estimate four to eight months.

A—phase 5: What is this stuff like???

I looked up "Tibetan lambskin" in a search engine to see if I can give you a better answer to why Tibetan lambskin has become a mainstay of dollmakers' wigs.
The images I located showed me clearly why it's so appealing, and give some context to those of us not in the doll world. (I do note that some of the sites think that Tibetan lambskin is another name for mohair; it is not. Mohair, grown by angora goats, is quite different.)
Here's an image of a Waldorf-style doll, likely made of all-natural materials (as Waldorf toys tend to be). I hope it won't have moved by the time you look; this is a sale site for an individual item. Yet the text says the item is no longer available and the page remains, so perhaps it will stay put.
Here's a group of images of completely different styles of dolls, and includes detailed information on how the wigs are constructed.

Maijala's description of the average fiber diameter of the Tibetan breed as around 21 microns means this is unusually fine wool, especially for a breed with the length and texture seen in the fleeces—that's in the same range of micron counts as Merino, but for a very different type of fiber. That's why it makes good dolls' hair. (Merino would not, unless spun into yarn, which would give a totally different effect.)

It has an excellent texture and fineness; it has an intriguing appearance and feel (compared to the English longwools and mohair, it's not as shiny and has a "fluffier" look); it "falls" naturally; and it is likely pretty easy to work with.

Here's one supplier, with information on the status of the skin as a byproduct of meat.

Among collectors, I am guessing that some vegetarians (including most vegans) would not be comfortable with the use of the skins. And I'll bet that because of the texture and the ease of working with the material, they'd be sorely tempted. Making use of the skin is a way of deriving some good from the death of an animal that died for other reasons.

In short: Tibetan lambskin comes from a specific breed of sheep. It has unique and valuable qualities that make it especially well suited for making doll wigs. Where the ethical lines about its use get drawn is, of course, up to the individual.


2 Responses

  1. Yet another amazing discovery! How on earth do doll makers and wig makers know about this kind of sheep, and the best informed handspinner I know (you), doesn’t? Good to keep an open mind and ear to other artists and crafts.

    May I throw in a question for the next Q and A, if you think it’s of any general interest? Judith McKenzie says, in her DVD on Spinning Exotic Fibers, that alpaca doesn’t have crimp. Hmmmm. I have a couple of alpaca fleeces, both from first shearings, that show what I would call crimp. A friend who has alpacas says there’s a difference between crimp and “crinkle”, but she sent me a photo of one of her fleeces that shows what I would call crimp.

    Maybe I can’t use the sheep’s-fleece terminology for other species. Have you seen alpaca fleece with crimp, and is that really crimp?

    Also, FYI, the Large Animal Research Station at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks has added an on-line shopping cart for their qiviut products. See the homepage at http://www.uaf.edu/lars All proceeds return to the program to support the muskoxen, caribou, and reindeer. (I’m not affiliated with them, it happens that I love qiviut and I like to think I support the animals.)

    Thank you for everything, Deb.

  2. Here’s a note I received this morning from a friend via e-mail, which I’ve edited to exclude most personal details (which do offer further credentials–!) and to include just the essence:
    “Son . . . came home for Christmas yesterday. . . . [He] has a degree in Tibetan which naturally involved cultural studies. He . . . studied for a year at the Tibetan college in exile in Darjeeling and [has also] travelled [in the area]. . . . [H]is comment was that it would be culturally almost unheard of for a Tibetan to kill any animal for its pelt. . . . Animals are virtually only ever killed for necessary food. In fact, even then they tend to feel so bad about it that they . . . will ask [others] . . . to do it for them.”

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