First thoughts about Florida Cracker sheep and wool (from February 2019 newsletter)

The Florida Cracker breed isn’t included in The Field Guide to Fleece or The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook because when Carol Ekarius and I were working on those books these sheep were being included in the Gulf Coast Native population.

  • 2007 – we started the book project(s)—in this same year, the Florida Cracker Sheep Association was formed, but that was after we’d developed our working lists
  • 2009 – Florida Cracker was placed on The Livestock Conservancy’s “study” list
  • 2011 – The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook published
  • 2013 – Florida Cracker recognized as a separate breed, in the most vulnerable conservation category (along with its close relative, the Gulf Coast Native)

I have been researching the breed’s history, and have had access to three fleeces in order to start developing some ideas about the wool.

These are descendants of sheep that arrived in the southeastern United States with Spanish explorers more than 450 years ago. Up until the end of World War II, or about 70 years ago, they roamed free, being rounded up once or twice a year. (Just after WWII, open grazing ended in Florida.) Only the most heat-, parasite-, and predator-resistant sheep survived.

The base population appears to have been the Spanish commoners’ sheep, the churro or churra, augmented over the years by some finer-wooled strains, possibly including some Merino, Rambouillet, white-faced English breeds, and American Tunis.

Gathering background data

So first I dug into the history and genetics, as far as possible, and wrote up what I found. While engaged in those activities, I washed the three fleeces. Here’s what I learned:

  • raw weights between 3–3½ pounds (1.4–1.5 kg) with 47–57% yield

Because I couldn’t find any analytical data on Florida Cracker wool, I also pulled sample locks and sent them off to the lab at Texas A&M to be run through the scanner (OFDA 2000). I sent two locks each from fleeces #1 and #3, and three from fleece #2. In each case, the first lock in my series was the most typical of the fleece as a whole, and the second (and third) represented less characteristic sections. This is not the way wool is sampled for breeding purposes; it’s a spinner’s curiosity selection.

Here’s what the results indicated:

  • average fiber diameters between 24 and 34 microns
  • staple lengths 1¾”–2” (3.5–6 cm); there were a lot of second cuts, so I expect annual growth is actually closer to 2″–3″ (5–7.5 cm)

Then I did a bit more hands-on exploring.

Fleece #1—Well, that was unexpected!

 Lots of prep challenges, and the newly spun yarn felt like twine. Yet after I washed it, I was astonished by the elasticity!
Lots of prep challenges, and the newly spun yarn felt like twine. Yet after I washed it, I was astonished by the elasticity!

The staple lengths varied from about 1 inch (2.5cm) to 2½ inches (6.3cm), some of the tips were stuck together, and second cuts abounded. If I had carded the fleece, I would have ended up with even more lumps and bumps in the yarn than I did. I used mini-combs, which removed the second cuts but allowed me to combine the varying spinnable staple lengths. I found it essential to proceed very gradually from the tips to the bases of the locks while combing to keep the combs from getting jammed up (and to make my work easier). Then I spun directly from one of the combs.

The finished sample yarn looked and felt like twine. Its color is a warm white.

The surprise came when I washed it. It’s about as bouncy as anything I’ve experienced other than Santa Cruz wool. The unwashed, relaxed skein measures 32 inches (81cm). The washed relaxed skein measures 27 inches (67cm), but can easily extend by 120% and then spring back to its relaxed dimensions.

The two locks from this fleece averaged between 32 and 34 microns, thus the “coarsest” of the three. I’d call the wool crisp, rather than coarse. The finished yarn has a pleasant hand that feels significantly softer than the numbers suggest.

Fleece #2: Variability is part of the landrace package

This fleece contained what the breed society considers a few faults—especially hair fibers, both white and red. In a landrace breed, this type of irregularity is fairly common.
This fleece contained what the breed society considers a few faults—especially hair fibers, both white and red. In a landrace breed, this type of irregularity is fairly common.

A landrace is a population that has developed to fit a particular environmental and cultural niche. The gene pool of a landrace embodies significant diversity, which allows it to continue adapting. Landraces often thrive in marginal conditions; they are not the most productive animals, but they are survivors.

The Florida Cracker Breed Association’s criteria for wool specify that it “should be free from hair fiber.” While I found some hair in this fleece—both longer, white fibers and short, red fibers—they were far from widespread. The hairy portions likely came from the britch, or hip, area and could be skirted out. Interestingly, even though two of the locks I sent to the lab contain some hair, all three locks averaged between 26 and 28 microns.

Fleece #3: Softest, most appealing, but lacking in “character”

Fleece #3 lacked the character of the others, especially notable in fleece #1, but it was most consistent in texture and length. The yarn was very pleasant. It did not have the elasticity that showed up in the sample from fleece #1.
Fleece #3 lacked the character of the others, especially notable in fleece #1, but it was most consistent in texture and length. The yarn was very pleasant. It did not have the elasticity that showed up in the sample from fleece #1.

Character in wool is a bit hard to define, but generally wool with good character has visible and even crimp and well-formed locks, with both crimp and lock structure of types considered to be typical of the breed being examined. Take a look at the photo of this fleece and you will observe the opposite of character: the locks are not well defined and the crimp is a jumble. (Some fleeces have disorganized crimp and still have character.) The completely untechnical term I would use to describe this fleece is “visually foggy.”

That said, it is the softest-feeling of the three and has the most consistent staple lengths. The micron counts ranged from 24 to 27, and the locks were close to 2½ inches (6.3cm). I predicted that it would be comparatively easy to prepare and spin, and it was. Again, I used mini-combs and spun directly from one comb.

Interestingly, the resulting yarn, which was ivory-colored in contrast to the warm white of fleece #1’s yarn and in contrast to its own appearance before spinning, did not demonstrate any unusual amount of elasticity. It has a pleasant hand and would be comfortable next to the skin for many people.

What I learn from initial experiments

When there is no data available to me for a breed’s wool, even small bits of information can start to build a picture. It’s important not to extrapolate too far, although in researching for the two books I occasionally discovered that broad generalizations about some fibers had been widely disseminated based on relatively small numbers of examples—like fewer than ten. When I’m working from a small sample size, I note that.

I think Florida Cracker wool—which was, historically, a source of fiber for families in the southeastern U.S.—has a lot more potential than it’s been given credit for in the contemporary world. It seems to have a softer hand than its micron counts suggest. And I’ll be curious to learn whether the surprising elasticity of my sample from fleece #1 is a rarity or something that occurs with any regularity.

Shave ’Em to Save ’Em

The Livestock Conservancy—our advocates for rare-breed livestock—has recently initiated a project called Shave ’Em to Save ’Em, with the goal of connecting breeders of rare sheep with fiber folk, and fiber folk with the diverse and versatile fibers produced by those sheep. People can participate using raw fleece, roving or top, or yarn. Florida Cracker is one of the featured breeds. There’s basic information here and a Facebook group here.

Facebooktwitterrss

11 Responses

  1. Jessica

    Double JJ Ranch and Rockin C Ranch both have Florida Cracker wool and are happy to hear that people are able to appreciate this breed!!!

  2. Jean Ellis Heirloom Heritage Fibers

    Thank you for your careful study of the Florida Cracker breed, close cousins to the Gulf Coast, which I have. The extreme variety from animal to animal as well as variety within the fleece on some individuals is both a challenge and a delight. I feel as if I should interview a prospective fleece buyer before attempting to choose which fleeces they might consider to use. Some almost refuse to felt, others have much spring, some tinny crimp, some soft waves. Like you said, the consistency is they are survivors! Easy sheep for first time shepherds.

    • Deb

      Yes, indeed, an interview of prospective fleece buyers makes a lot of sense. I wonder about a short checklist they could fill out? Something easy on both sides.

  3. Amy Carlisle

    I purchased 8 ounces from Williams Farm, off the Livestock Conservancy’s list. Very nice lady to deal with.

  4. Jenifer Edwards

    I have had Florida Cracker Sheep for 10 years now and am so happy to find this article. These are wonderful sheep in so many ways and its great to see the word getting out.

    • Deb

      Thanks for the clarification, Diane. They weren’t easy to find in a general web search (actually, still don’t show up on a search by their names–so your link is very helpful), and as I mentioned The Livestock Conservancy’s site did not, when I reviewed it, list the names of farms and ranches (and still doesn’t).

  5. Debra Reynolds

    A few thoughts from a fiber person, FWIW.

    Harmony Hills Farm (Lisa Keep Harmon, in Live Oak, FL – keepharmon@windstream.net , an SE2SE producer participant) has Cracker sheep & fleece available. Her flock has a variety not unlike your samples, Deb.

    I found the Livestock Conservancy’s SE2SE locator a bit tricky to use. So did someone else, when they tried to look for Harmony Hills. I’m sure the locator site is a bit of a work in progress, this being a new project. FWIW, I found that if I used a local Florida zip code, say 32065, and told the search engine I wanted fleece, and SE2SE participants, and in a 100 mile radius from 32065, then Harmony Hills popped up along with other fleece providers. A similar strategy might work for providers in other areas.

    As a side note on the origins of Cracker, the Cracker breed association has an essay on their site hypothesizing that Cracker are descended from Spanish Churra leibrijana. The link to that historical essay, accessed about mid-April, 2019 –
    http://www.floridacrackersheep.com/forms/Florida%20Cracke
    …and its file list of references:
    http://www.floridacrackersheep.com/forms/Florida%20Cracke
    …the paper hypothesizes that Churra lebrijana local to Cadiz, where Columbus embarked, were more likely ancestors for the Crackers than Merino.

    I included that link in my Ravelry handspun project notes as a matter of interest. (My Rav notes, FWIW, are here: https://www.ravelry.com/people/dreynold1/handspun/us-florida-cracker )

    What I could find about Churra leibrijana, however, show (modern) sheep that appear to have longer fleece, Roman noses, and dramatic black facial and fainter black leg markings on a predominantly white body. I found a video of Oaxacan sheep, termed Churra, that had more color variation and fainter facial markings reminiscent of Churra leibrijana.

    I’m not so sure about Churra leibrijana vs. Cracker as of this writing today, however.

    Backing up a bit, I got involved with Cracker after the word of SE2SE came out early this year. I’m a recent transplant to Florida, most recently having lived in Maryland. I reached out to Cracker shepherds and soon after attended a shearing. I skirted the wide range of fleeces from the Harmony Hills flock. As in the samples you analyzed, Deb, generally there was a crimpy version, a less crimpy version, and a double-coated version. I was already committed to going to MDS&W, so I let the shepherd know that I could volunteer to do up some fleece samples, spun samples, and knitted/felted/woven samples. That gave me a look at the fiber worked up.

    I demonstrated prepping and spinning at a Heritage Breed Week event last weekend (5/19), and am preparing to do another this weekend (5/25) to cap off the week. I was looking for some information on Churra leibrijana to make the demo a little more interesting with tidbits on the Cracker mystery and followed up on something I noticed a few weeks back. In the process I happened on some information and updated the Rav notes today, 21 May 2019, with another Cracker ancestor possibility: Mallorcan sheep (Balearic Islands). Caveat: I’m not an animal scientist or geneticist, just a fiber person reacting to sheep configuration and wool.

    Why Mallorcan?
    Compare the look of the flock in the Rav project pictures with the illustrations of sheep superimposed on the island of Mallorca in the 13th slide in the slide presentation at: http://www.uco.es/zootecniaygestion/img/pictorex/31_12_00
    Note that in this 13th slide the Churra lebrijana are pictured as concentrated in northeastern Spain, not southwestern…but of course the sheep geography in Spain could have changed since the late 1400s. I noticed, however, that the sheep pictured as local to the Balearic Islands resembled the Harmony Hills Cracker sheep (to me) more than Churra leibrijana.

    There is a story about a group of Mallorcan indentured servants who were taken to an indigo plantation near modern day New Smyrna Beach back in the Spanish Colonial era. They were very cruelly treated, and walked to the Spanish governor’s in Saint Augustine to protest. They stayed there. I didn’t try to find an original historical document about the Mallorcans, and it wasn’t told as an idea related to the origins of the Cracker breed – it was just a family-ancestor story. This was just interesting until I got curious and looked for photos of Mallorcan wool today.

    Hmm. Compare the double-coated fleece in the blog post above, my Rav Harmony Hills Cracker double-coated fleece samples, and spun samples of this modern Mallorcan fiber artist’s yarn from Mallorcan sheep here:
    https://mutextileart.com/hilados
    https://www.etsy.com/shop/MuTextileArt?ref=simple-shop-he

    Take a look at this article, which examined the fiber characteristics of the White Mallorcan (Blanca Mallorquina) sheep (essentially soft-coated): http://www.rroij.com/open-access/the-white-majorcan-ovine

    …and see this article on Mallorcan breed genetics: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jbg.12129

    Here’s an article on Roja Mallorquina (Red Mallorcan, another Mallorcan breed) as a genetically distinct group when compared with some other Spanish breeds: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep27296.pdf

    One more time – this is just my very humble amateur 2 cents toward the Cracker mystery. A Methodist, so I don’t gamble 🙂 , but if I did, my money currently would be on Mallorcan sheep as at least some of Cracker ancestry.

    Thanks so much for all you do, Deb. Hoped this might help.

    • Deb

      Thanks for all the additional details! This is superb stuff. I, too, connected with some Florida Cracker fleeces and breeders at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival a few weeks ago–and found similar variety in crimp patterns and textures. The fiber I was interested in had to be mailed and has just arrived, so I haven’t had time yet to experiment (and, due to other commitments, experimentation will take a while).

      Your comments and research are much appreciated! One person (me) can do only so much. It’s lovely to feel like part of a team.

      And you’re also right that the SE2SE project and associated search options *are* a work in progress, as is the whole communication effort between fiber users and fiber producers. It’s exciting–and success depends on all of us remembering that we’re all learning as we go!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.