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Sheep Happens

Aug 03, 2014 03:39PM ● Published by Jules Cox

Thistle, a registered Shetland ewe lamb at Lazy Pi Farm in Mansfield, Texas

Gallery: [4 Images] Click any image to expand.

Like most Texans, I didn't know much about wool. As far as I was concerned, wool came off sheep and went to live in nice winter coats, itchy things and the North. I suspected certain rugs might contain wool. I crocheted off and on, mostly scarves and blankets, but I bought my acrylic yarn at big box stores and never gave a thought to the fiber content.

I have zombies to blame for the colossal change that followed. It occurred to me that in a zombie apocalypse, there would be no more yarn at the stores. I'd have to make my own. How was that done, anyway? "To the internet!" I cried. I was soon enthralled, then obsessed, with this extremely niche hobby: handspinning yarn. I bought a spindle. I met an Angora goat farmer. I tried every fiber I could get my hands on. I bought an actual spinning wheel. And like peeling back the layers of an onion, I found more and more specialized information, including this: there are many breeds of sheep. And many different kinds of wool. And all of them are useful in Texas.

What’s so great about wool? Well! SO GLAD YOU ASKED. It’s warm - we all know that. But it can also help keep you warm even when it’s wet, something you don’t get with acrylic or cotton. It doesn’t even start to feel wet until it has absorbed about a third of its weight in moisture, which is great news for sweaty feet. If the lanolin is left in the wool, it is somewhat waterproof, too. That yarn is typically called fishermen’s wool. Ideal folks who work outdoors! While it will char if exposed to open flame, it will not melt or continue burning after being removed from the fire, which means it is a safe fiber for those who work around heat. Anyone who has ever been burned by melted acrylic will attest to that.

So what to make with wool? Sure, we don't wear a lot of wool sweaters, not in a land of cacti and coyotes. But I knit plenty of wool hats, mittens, gloves, scarves, socks, slippers, scarves, shawls, sippy cup sleeves, bags, rugs, hot pads and various other things. I wear wool socks year round. Knowing the properties of different kinds of wool is very useful and interesting for fiber artists. Here is a beginners’ guide to the different groups of sheep and the yarn that comes from them.


Very Soft Wools, mostly from Merino but also from Rambouillet, Cormo, CVM and Polwarth

This is great wool for people who don’t like “itchy” wool. It can have more of a tendency to pill if worn roughly. It does not wear as hard, so the bottoms of socks can develop holes eventually. Picking a yarn with around 15% nylon helps it hold up better to wear and tear. Animal activists may want to look for merino specifically from herds that do not practice mulesing. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mulesing


Medium Wools, from Bluefaced Leicester, Corriedale, Tunis, Columbia and Targhee

These are harder wearing wools that, while perhaps too itchy for baby items, scarves or the particularly sensitive, are fantastic for socks, household items, and outerwear that will see a lot of abuse, like gloves.


Primitive and Heritage Wools, from Jacob, Shetland, Finnsheep, Gulf Coast Natives, and Icelandic Sheep

These breeds have a lot of individual variation. They come in a lot of colors, so naturally brown, gray and black wools frequently come from them. They are usually smaller sheep, hardy, and do not need nearly as much medication as commercial breeds. If you’re looking for low environmental impact or sheep who live a natural sort of life out on the land, looking after themselves, these are your breeds. Most wools from these breeds will be bouncy, a little silky, fairly soft and nice to touch (but not as soft as Merino, of course.) Like the medium wools, they may not be ideal for the most sensitive, or for scarves, but they are durable, colorful, and pleasant to touch, with a bounciness that gives the finished fabric some stretch.


Coarse Wools, from breeds like Karakul and Navajo Churro

These wools are not the luxurious wools you want to sink your hands into, but they can stand up to rough treatment. The Navajos raised their Churros for wool for their famous woven rugs.


Other Useful Terms to Know

Micron Count: measures how thick each tiny fiber is. The lower the number, the finer and softer the fiber. For instance, merino tends to be around 20 microns. Anything higher than 30 microns is getting into “itchy wool” territory.

Felting: shrinks a wool item into a thick, solid piece where the individual yarns cannot be distinguished. It turns a knitted fabric into, quite literally, felt. Commonly done by agitating the fabric in hot water. Ever shrunk a wool sweater in the wash? You felted it.

Superwash: the wool has been treated with an anti-felting agent. It can be washed into a machine washer, possibly even machine dried. It cannot be felted.


So where to get these wonderful wools? Local yarn stores sometimes carry yarns from particular breeds of sheep, especially merino but sometimes other breeds.  In Mansfield, our closest yarn store is JenningStreet Yarns in Fort Worth: http://jsyarns.com/. The Knitting Fairy, another local store, is in Grand Prairie off of 360. http://www.knittingfairy.comhttp://www.Etsy.com and http://www.LocalHarvest.org are great places to find offerings from individual farms, both for raw wool and for finished yarns. Etsy is the more reliable source for finished items like scarves, blankets and such. There are local fiber festivals that happen on a regular basis such as the DFW Fiber Fest. And of course, my own little farm has Jacob sheep yarn and, every so often, Shetland sheep yarn, too! http://www.lazypifarm.com.

Still need inspiration? Still aren’t convinced that wool is the material for the South? Http://www.ravelry.com has a massive library of patterns, both free and otherwise. Need a more specific starting point? Check out these kinds of projects.

Socks: Everyone can use wool socks. So cozy. Good for your sweaty feet. Wicks away moisture. Reduces friction. And they come in fabulous colors. http://www.smartwool.com has wool socks for sale if you’d rather not knit them yourself, or you can find hand knit wool socks on Etsy. One of my favorite sources for heritage wool socks is http://www.WindsweptFarms.com, a lovely Shetland sheep farm.

Hats and Mittens: While your neck may be too sensitive for all but the softest of wools, like Merino, your hands and head are much less picky. Bald men especially appreciate a wool cap in the winter! Kids get their hands wet while playing in the snow, but wool will keep them warm even while wet. For people who work in wet conditions during the winter, wool accessories are a must. Just be sure to look for "superwash" on the label if you want to be able to throw them in the wash.

Household Items: Hot pads to go under pots and pans are ideal for wool! You can also felt them, so they are extra sturdy. Wool rugs stand up to an insane amount of abuse. Finer yarns can make really beautiful lace accents. Felted wool baskets and ropes make great tools. For those projects, make sure your yarn DOESN'T say "superwash"!

Just about anything you can think of can be made out of wool! It absolutely has a place in your textile art, whatever and wherever you may be! Even here in Texas.


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