Cheviots divided and conquered (maybe)–and a new sheep book

It's been quiet around the blog, although not in real life. Last time I checked in, we had discovered a major problem with the Cheviot treatment in the book (fortunately still in production, so changes are possible . . . although not for long). Several weeks have passed, full of deadlines and travel and lots of great experiences and fine people.

As of yesterday, we have resolved the Cheviot question as best we can without resources that don't, as far as we know, exist (such as DNA data). We submitted a rewrite of three full pages (47, 50, and 51) to the publisher. We also finished devising the final 75 captions, all of which had to be extraordinarily succinct.

Here's a new book I've been following through its production process for about a year and a half, which has finally been released (it's got something to say, and show, about most of the Cheviots):

BWMB outside_5133

It's the new British Sheep and Wool from the British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB). Although the breed on the cover is not identified with a caption anywhere, those are Exmoor Horn sheep.

(The Exmoor Horn is a critically vulnerable breed due to geographical concentration, which means 75% of the population lives within a radius of less than 12.5km, or 7.6 miles. Exmoor Horns grow nice wool that's easy to spin and is good for making sweaters, blankets, hats, mittens, pillows, and other textiles that will be pleasant and durable in everyday use.)

Here's the book's coverage of one of the breeds for which we had to revise our treatment, the Brecknock Hill Cheviot:

BWMB inside_5132

They're Cheviots from Wales (the Cheviots originated on the Scottish/English border). No, the new BWMB book didn't help us find answers to our questions about the Cheviots, but I sure love the photos—which are equally clear, abundant, and varied for all the types of sheep within the publication's pages. Three of the four Cheviots we needed to untangle are shown in this book (the fourth originated in North America).

The new book's 180 pages cover exclusively sheep that are found in the British Isles, of course. The marketing board came up with a list of 75 types (breeds and classic crossbreeds). Some of these sheep have been introduced from elsewhere, but the majority evolved within the British Isles. A enormous variety of types developed in the islands in response to dramatically distinct environments.

At the front of the book are a few essays on topics like the history of British wool and the role of the wool board, along with an index of wool types. Most helpful to me—because I hadn't visited that part of the world until quite recently—is a simple map on page 9 that names the basic regions of England, Wales, and Scotland. A ten-year-old raised there would likely be familiar with the terms, but someone from elsewhere probably only has a vague idea from, say, reading novels. The map also shows the St Kilda, Orkney, and Shetland archipelagos in their proper locations (instead of in squares relocated to fit on a printed page). St Kilda and Orkney aren't labeled as such; they bear the names of the sheep that originated on particular islands—although other sheep names aren't on the map (for example, Orkney is labeled "North Ronaldsay" but southwestern England doesn't have a label for "Cotswold"). Thus the map i.d. notes are inconsistent, but still useful.

Then there's the table of contents, fascinating in its own right. There are so many possible ways to organize sheep! Carol Ekarius and I spent months kicking back and forth different ideas for clustering and sequencing the animals in our upcoming book. At this point, having lived with our system for quite a while, I'm extremely comfortable with it, which means I think we made the right choices. Yet it's intriguing to see how another publication is set up. We all see things through our own filtering lenses.

The British Wool Marketing Board is responsible for maintaining the economic viability of British wool in the national and global marketplace. Here's their self-description: "The British Wool Marketing Board operates a central marketing system for UK fleece wool with the aim of achieving the best possible net returns for farmers." The groups of sheep and the information provided for the individual breeds reflect that focus. In today's marketplace, the best possible net returns for farmers come from meat production. Wool is what is called a "second crop." Even when the wool board's reason for being is to increase the value of WOOL, its work takes place within the context of the dominance of meat and the need to connect large quantities of wool with industry.

That's a really different emphasis from mine, which is exclusively oriented toward wool (as a handspinning vegetarian, I have only an abstract and peripheral interest in the meat part of the equation), with an additional bias in favor of hand-processing, rather than (or, more accurately, in addition to) fiber that's industry-friendly.

Sections in the new BWMB book include:

  • Fine wools (Note that this is "fine" by the standards of mass production for British wools.)
  • Medium wools
  • Cross wools (These are mashams and mules, crossbreds that are traditional in the British sheep-management system.)
  • Lustre wools (These are mostly the British longwools . . . interestingly, Border Leicester and Romney are located in the "medium" category, although Bluefaced Leicester is here with the luster wools.)
  • Hill wools
  • Mountain wools
  • Naturally coloured wools (Although there are rare breeds in the other categories, most of the breeds in this group are rare or vulnerable.)

I'm always interested in seeing how groups are assembled and which breeds end up where. I can see the reasoning behind the placement of Border Leicester and Romney with the medium wools, although in our book we've put them with the English longwools. Is the organizer looking at history, wool quality, or a balance between the two? If history, which sources and aspects are given greatest weight? And if wool quality, which components of it are considered most important?

I was curious to note that in the breeds and wool types chart (page 10), the "fine" category is listed as containing wools with micron counts between 29 and 35. First reason for my curiosity: this is not a range of micron counts that is considered "fine" on the global scale (most Merino wools run from about 18 to about 24 microns). Second reason: some of the breeds in the BWMB "fine" list can grow fleeces with smaller fiber diameters than 29. Assigned numbers set aside for the moment, the same chart shows locks that are characteristic of each of the categories, and these images are extremely informative: they illustrate the different characters of the types of wool, each resulting from a combination of lock shape, crimp configuration, and other qualities.

Within the bulk of the book, each breed gets a two-page spread that contains WONDERFUL photographs plus a brief text description and some comparative numbers. The micron-count range for each breed is given as a one- to four-micron span, with most breeds described as having two- to three-micron variability. For example. Devon Closewool's fleece is given a micron range of 34–35 microns, and Lincoln Longwool is tagged with 35–38 microns. The estimates for fiber diameter in our upcoming book are a good deal broader than that; consistency at those narrowly defined levels just doesn't happen in many breeds.

Yet the presence of these small spans begins to make sense when I remember that the wool-classing system in use in Britain goes by fiber quality and is not breed-specific. When breed names are used to designate the classes, as they sometimes (but not always) are, the breeds are considered emblematic of the type of wool in that class, not necessarily the only contributors to it.

I'm very interested in how people who spend so much time thinking about and managing wool decide to present the breeds.

Their perspective is, as I've noted, very different from mine. I think about single fleeces (or sections of fleeces) and they think about bales of wool. I think about my spinning wheel, and they think about the world commodity market. These orientations frame our ways of understanding the common materials we work with. Some fibers that have high value for me (say, naturally colored wool) have very limited value for them.

People at the British Wool Marketing Board were enormously helpful in getting us generous wool samples from of a bunch of breeds we were having trouble obtaining. Each time I spin a bit of that fiber, I'm grateful. Several of those breeds are low-value in their system, and also are customarily low-value within the hand-processing community. Having encountered them now at my wheel, however, I treasure the experience, have copious ideas about how to use yarns spun from them, and wonder where I'll get more when I've run through my samples. . . .

This new publication is a wonderful book. The group that assembled it has worked hard to make it excellent, and they have succeeded. I'm especially fond of the photographs. Because the book's focus is not the same as mine, the fact that we didn't have access to it while we were researching was not a loss. So I'm glad to be able to enjoy it now, when I don't have to rush past its information on my way to another destination that would yield more of the types of data that I was collecting.

Thanks so much to the friends who made sure I got a copy as soon as it was released. I carried it with me to Michigan when I taught there, tantalized Beth Smith with it, and she is likely to be stocking it at The Spinning Loft, which will likely be an easier place for North Americans to obtain it than from the British Wool Marketing Board, although direct orders from the wool board are possible.

The sheep on the back cover is a Dorset Horn (Rare Breeds Survival Trust watchlist, minority category).


Soon: A glimpse of the workshops I taught at The Spinning Loft in Michigan, and a few notes about the DVD recording session at Interweave Press.


Meanwhile, I have taken a few breaths following the onslaught of work and am reading The Scent of the Missing, by Susannah Charleson. It's about finding, training, and working with a search-and-rescue dog. Excellent.


On a related note, our new rescue Border collie Ceilidh and I have completed beginning obedience. Yay!


9 thoughts on “Cheviots divided and conquered (maybe)–and a new sheep book”

  1. I. Want. That. Book. 🙂

    And have a friend here doing a post-doc, who is from Birmingham and heading home next weekend for the holidays. Might slip him some cash and a short shopping list when we get together for a holiday bev next week.

  2. I think I may even have an old copy of a British Wool book–do they publish different editions every few years? In any case, this sounds like a great addition to my library. Glad to hear about it–thanks for the heads up. It’s also good to hear from you. I was wondering how things were going over in your neck of the woods!

  3. Joanne, the old BWMB book was oversized and I think the previous edition came out in about 1983. So "every few years" might be "every couple of decades."

    You would really enjoy this book. I think the professor, too, would enjoy the photographs.

    Edited to add: The BWMB was founded 60 years ago. The new sheep guide is the third edition of British Sheep and Wool.

  4. Oh geez…now I have to bug Beth about that book and getting some more of that Tunis!

    What an interesting post, thanks for taking the time to organizing your thoughts to share the info.

    BTW…since I asked in your workshop, I noticed that the January issue of Threads magazine has the results of the U.S. “Make It Yourself With Wool” contest. It’s interesting to see what fibers/fabrics they used. There’s a lovely long evening dress made from wool crepe.

  5. Thanks for the tip on the Threads issue, Valerie. I'll check it out. Yes, bug Beth about that book and the Tunis. . . . Have you heard about Sasha's SpinDoctor contest on spinning breed-specific wool? I'm going to mention it in the next post, but the announcement is in podcast episode 14 at time marker 36:07. Tunis (being a rare breed) gets extra points. . . .

  6. Yep. Very reasonable, indeed.

    Interestingly, for what it is, Storey's price on Carol's and my book will also be very reasonable indeed, which I think is a good thing. I'd really like to see it get out there into lots of people's hands, after all this work!

  7. Hi Deb,
    Just wanted to let you know that I’ve been posting on my after class work with the fibers. There are posts on the Shetland and the Churro.

    Let me know if there’s anything out of turn in the posts.

    It’s been fun to take a day here and there to spend with just one of the breeds.

  8. How cool, Valerie! I'll go look. I'm proofing the book now, and it seems endless. This will be a nice break.

    I have a post about two-thirds written about the class, and just haven't had time to complete it. I'll celebrate the end of proofing (end of this week) by getting it done. And should be able to link to your posts as well! That will be fun. Thanks. . . .

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