Sheep Breed Study Closeups


Currently showing posts tagged Namaste Farms

  • Sheep Breed Studies - January 2014 Breed Box from Namaste Farms

    Sharlea Merino, Rambouillet, and Debouillet Sheep

    Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge animal lover and supporter of humane treatment of animals. I've had some concerns recently about the way in which wool is sourced from some farms and dubious farming practices in countries like Australia where sheep farms cover more land than some states here in the US. Recently I've seen a lot of anti-wool growing propaganda on the Internet and I've tried to be impartial and reach my own conclusions based on both sides of the issue. I like to know where my wool comes from and prefer to buy from small farms where I know the animals are well tended-to and treated more or less like pets. This isn't always possible however. Although I don't eat meat, I understand that even on some of these small family run farms sheep are "dual purpose" which means they are killed for their meat too. It's unfortunate, but there isn't much I can do about that. What I CAN do however is NOT support big farms and the animal slaughter industry. I wanted to purchase some Sharlea Merino but at the same time make sure that the wool was sourced humanely. So when Natalie of Namaste Farms offered some sample fleece I thougth I'd give it a try. Knowing where this wool came from and how the sheep are raised in a very controlled environment was reasurring.

    I was doing some research on housed sheep and Sharlea Merinos and came across this information:

    According to The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook,  

    Sharlea is a registered name for a type of Saxon Merino that has been carefully bred and raised with specific husbandry practices that result in a very fine, exceptionally clean fiber without any weather damage to the tips. Sharlea fiber diameters run from 12 to 15.5 microns (indisputably ultrafine) and they are also the highest yielding of the Merinos, with more than 75 percent clean weight derived from the raw fleece. 

    (The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook Page 146)

    Housed Sheep

    The housed sheep industry began in the early 1970s when Mr Wallace Reynolds, a grazier at ‘Sharlea’, Horsham, Victoria and Tom Harmsworth, the Director of the Melbourne College of Textiles noticed that animals kept in sheds for drought-feeding produced an extremely high quality fibre, free from many wool faults found in grazing sheep (Cottle, 1991).

    The industry gradually increased in popularity until 1990 where there were approximately 55 sheds each with an average of 300 sheep, producing a total of 250 bales per year (Cottle, 1991).

    There are approximately 40 ultra fine wool housing systems in Australia, which are concentrated in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland involving an estimated 25,000 sheep.

    The majority of Sharlea growers house sheep in multiple pens of 3 to 20 sheep (usually 10 to l5). The sheep housed for Sharlea wool production are usually superfine Merino wethers from Saxon bloodlines.

    Sheep health and production: the T. G. Hungerford refresher course for veterinarians, proceedings 110, 15-19 August, 1988

    I wanted to learn more so I tuned in to Namaste Farms BlogTalk Radio cast where Martin Daly, a sheep expert discussed the housed sheep practice and the history and fiber properties of the Merino breed. He went on to say that sheep with this fine of a fleece must have steady and well controlled nutrition and low stress in order to grow fine micron wool without any breaks (weak spots). If an animal is stressed at all or reproducing, it can weaken the fiber. That is why they only use whethers (castrated males). These males would normally be sent to slaughter but they are valued for their prize fleece instead. Sheep who graze in a pasture can encounter all sorts of stresses such as predators, draught. and parasites. These sheep are kept in ultra clean pens and it really shows in the cleanliness and pristine condition of the raw fleece.

    So, I took a look at this fiber and it is uhhh-mazing. Wowza! 

    Here are some photos of the fiber.

    A) Sharlea Merino Raw Fleece - 13.5 microns

    © 222 Handspun

    The 16.6 sample has a slightly longer staple length but it's very hard to tell the difference in softness. Both have very low grease. When I tested the strength, they made a nice sound and were solid. 

    B) Debouillet Raw Fleece

    "The Debouillet is a breed of domestic sheep originating from Tatum, New Mexico. It was developed in the 1920s through crossing Rambouillet and Delaine Merino sheep. Specifically adapted to the arid ranges of the Southwestern U.S., the breed is medium–size sheep with long, fine wool. Ewes are polled and rams may or may not have horns." - Wikipedia

    © 222 Handspun

    This sample had weathered tips and an almost dry feel. A deep dust penetration line will result in a lower yield because the fleece is not very dense. There is a big difference between this fleece from a sheep that was raised in the desert and the housed fleece.

    C) Sharlea Merino - 15.4 microns

    Natalie said the grower called the 15.4 sample "milky". It just doesn't have the same brightness to it. It's just a little less white and more on the creamy color side. It felt like it had a bit more grease in it. It's still a lovely fleece.

    D) Rambouillet 

    © 222 Handspun

    According to Martin, this sample has a short staple, lower yield, with quite a bit of dust penetration, and not as uniform crimp or character as the others. When you have more of a dual purpose sheep that are more selected for certain traits, you lose a lot in the quality of the wool where you gain in the growth. I also noticed that my sample had some tender sections that broke easily. 

    The Rambouillet is a breed of sheep also known as the Rambouillet Merino or the French Merino. The development of the Rambouillet breed started in 1786, when Louis XVI purchased over 300 Spanish Merinos (318 ewes, 41 rams, 7 wethers) from his cousin, King Charles III of Spain. The flock was subsequently developed on an experimental royal farm, the Bergerie royale (now Bergerie nationale) owned by Louis XVI, and built on his Domain of Rambouillet, 50 km southwest of Paris. The flock was raised exclusively at the Bergerie, with no sheep being sold for many years.[1]

    Outcrossing with English long-wool breeds and selection produced a well-defined breed,[2] differing in several important points from the original Spanish Merino. The size was greater, with full-grown ewes weighing up to 200 pounds and rams up to 300 pounds, live weight. The wool clips were larger and the wool length had increased to greater than three inches.

    In 1889, the Rambouillet Association was formed in the United States with the aim of preserving the breed.[3] An estimated 50% of the sheep on the US western ranges are of Rambouillet blood.[4] Rambouillet stud has also had an enormous influence on the development of the Australian Merino industry though Emperor and the Peppin Merino stud.

    The fleece was valuable in the manufacture of cloth, at times being woven in a mixed fabric of cotton warp and wool weft, known as delaine.[5][6] The breed is well known for its wool, but also for its meat, both lamb and mutton. It has been described as a dual-purpose breed, with superior wool and near-mutton breed characteristics. - Wikipedia

  • Sheep Breed Studies - August 2013 Breed Box from Namaste Farms

    My continuing exploration of sheep's wool from various breeds around the world following along with the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook.

    I've been trying to continue my sheep breed studies with more unusual fleece that is rare or hard to find. I purchased the August breed box from Namaste Farms and finally got to wash the fleece and take a closer look at it. Listening to the Blog Talk Radio segment was a big help and interesting to hear (and confirm) my assessment of the fiber. I have to admit that my favorite (without knowing which was which first) was the sample of Lincoln lamb that was a bonus she threw in. It feels amazing! What a gorgeous fleece:

    Namaste Farm August Breed Box E fleece sample - Lincoln lamb 

    Here are the other fiber samples from the breed box:

    A) Vlaams Kuddeschaap

    Namaste Farm August Breed Box // A - Vlaams Kuddeschaap

    As Martin noted this had some yolk staining. Not bad - I'd say an average fleece.

    B) Ile de France

    Namaste Farm August Breed Box // B - Ile de France

    I liked this one better. Nice medium fleece.

    C) North Country Cheviot

    Namaste Farm August Breed Box // C - North Country Cheviot

    A good solid fleece. Lovely gray color and nice handle.

    D) Valais Blacknose

    Namaste Farm August Breed Box // D - Valais Blacknose 

    I was really excited about this because, well, this:

    Valais Blacknose sheep (via 

    OMG, how adorable, huh? I had done some research ahead of time and knew it was a fleece not know for it's softness being a coarse, carpet wool type breed. I had to have some anyway. I think Natalie said it took two years to get a sample of this fleece. Unfortunately for me it was a bit of a let down. It was coarse and pretty dirty. I think this would in fact make great mattress stuffing. I guess all the sheep's energy goes into being cute rather than soft and fine. Bummer. I'm glad I tried it though! Now I can check that off my fleece bucket list.




  • Sheep Breed Studies - September 2013 Breed Box from Namaste Farms

    Primitive Breeds (UK)

    My continuing exploration of sheep's wool from various breeds around the world following along with the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook. I've been purchasing Breed Boxes from Namaste Farms and enjoy listening to Natalie's informative discussions of the featured breeds with Martin Dally on Namaste Farm's BlogTalkRadio cast. Each breedbox is shipped blind, so you have to wait to find out what breeds the samples are from.

    You can read my other sheep breed closeups here.

    I apologize for the crappy iPhone pics of the fiber. This month's breeds are:

    A) Icelandic (USA grown)

    Icelandic sheep (Wikipedia)

    Washed Icelandic Fleece

    Washed Icelandic Fleece (© Elysa Darling | 222 Handspun)

    This changed my mind a little bit about Icelandic wool. I've spun Icelandic top before and it was a super pain to work with. I've heard it's great for felting though. These samples were OK when you separate out the long outer coat called tog from the fine inner coat called thel. While listening to the BlogTalkRadio cast, Martin instructed listeners to pull the tippy end to separate the hair from the more downy wool underneath. The tog is about 2x the length of the softer thel staple. There is definitely a big difference in texture and a nice soft undercoat.

    Description of the breed from Namaste Farms:

    The Icelandic sheep is one of the world’s oldest and purest breeds of sheep. Throughout its 1100 years of history, the Icelandic breed has been truly triple-purpose, treasured for its meat, fiber and milk.

    The Icelandic breed is in the North European short-tailed group of sheep, which exhibits a fluke-shaped, naturally short tail. To ensure the continuing purity of the breed, tail docking an Icelandic will disqualify it from being registered in North America. Icelandics are a mid-sized breed with ewes averaging 130-160 pounds, and rams averaging 180-220 pounds. Conformation is generally short legged and stocky. The face and legs are free of wool. The fleece is dual-coated and comes in white as well as a range of browns, grays and blacks. There are both horned and polled strains. Left unshorn for the winter, the breed is very cold hardy.

    The most eye-catching aspect of the breed is the variation of colors and patterns. Genetically, Icelandics have one of two base colors, either black or moorit (brown). They exhibit 5 pattern combinations: white, gray, badgerface, mouflon and solid. Individual sheep may also display various shades of these colors/patterns, ranging from white, cream, light gray, tan, caramel, milk chocolate, silver, dark chocolate, dark gray, to jet black. A spotting gene adds even more combinations with many recognized and named patterns of white markings.

    The Icelandic sheep produces a premium fleece. The fleece is dual coated, with a fine, soft undercoat called thel and a longer, coarser outer coat called tog. The tog fiber with a spinning count of 56-60 and a micron count of 27-30, grows to a length of 6-8″ in six months. It is lustrous, strong, water- and wear-resistant, and sheds off the rain and weather. Thel is the soft downy undercoat, with a spinning count of 64-70 and a micron count of 19-22, growing to a length of 2-4″. The thel provides the loft for the outer coat and insulation for the sheep. Tog grows from the primary hair follicles and the thel from the secondary follicles. Tog is a true wool, and is not a kemp or guard hair. The combination of the two fibers on the sheep gives superb protection from the cold and wet.
    Icelandic fleeces are open and low in lanolin. The weight loss when washed is significantly less than many other breeds.

    The average adult yearly fleece total weighs 4-7 lbs. Producers often shear their Icelandics twice a year. This is due, in part, to the fact that Icelandics have a natural wool break in late winter for the rams generally, and in spring for the pregnant or lactating ewes. Shearing at or around the time of the natural break is recommended to remove the “old” coat before the “new” coat grows in. The sheep are sheared again in the fall to harvest the fleeces before the animals go on hay for the winter. These fall-shorn fleeces are very soft and clean and can bring a premium price per pound.

    The two coats can be separated by hand for special projects, or they may be processed together. The traditional lopi is a lightly spun blend of tog and thel. Thel is very soft and downy, with an irregular crimp and can be used for baby garments, and for the fine shawls in the style of the Wedding Shawl. The tog is similar to mohair; wavy or corkscrewed rather than crimped and is wonderful in worsted spinning.

    The versatility of the wool, the ease of spinning and the wide variation of tones and colors are a true delight to handspinners, and put Icelandic wool into the exotic or premium category. It is also known as one of the best fleeces for felting, which is fast gaining popularity in the craft community. Photos and info from

    Average Fiber Diameter in Microns: 27-31 (outercoat); 19-22 (undercoat)

    Grease Fleece Weight 4-7 lbs

    Staple: 4-18 in (outercoat); 2-4 in (undercoat)

    Yield = 50-90%

    (Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook)


    B) Shetland

    Shetland Sheep
    Shetland Sheep (Wikipedia)

    Washed Shetland Fleece  Washed Shetland Fleece (Elysa Darling | 222 Handspun)

    I was surprised by these samples. There are a couple different types - Double Coated and Single Coated. It was the Doubled coated that threw me off because at first glance I thought it was Icelandic. It looks so similar, but on closer examination it is actually much softer and more of what I'm used to seeing.

    Description of the breed from Namaste Farms:

    The Shetland’s roots go back over a thousand years, probably to sheep brought to the Shetland Islands by Viking settlers. They belong to the Northern European short-tailed group of sheep, which also includes Finn sheep, Icelandic sheep, and Romanovs. The Shetland is a primitive, unimproved breed noted for its natural hardiness, lambing ease, longevity, and ability to survive under harsh conditions. It is one of the smallest breeds of sheep.

    Shetlands are known primarily for their production of colorful wool upon which the Shetland woolen industry is based. Shetland comes in one of the widest ranges of colors of any breed. There are 11 main colors as well as 30 markings, many still bearing their Shetland dialect names. Shetlands naturally shed their wool during late spring/early summer.

    However, one of the marvelous aspects of the Shetland is its variability within the breed. A small spinner’s flock can produce ultra-fine Shetland yarn for handknits as well as coarser, but equally gorgeous yarns suitable for sturdy socks and warm outer garments and remarkable tapestry yarns.
    Shetland wool comes in one of the widest ranges of colors of any breed. Everything from the purest white to the deepest coal black. There are 11 main colors and 30 markings, many still bearing their Shetland dialect names. Unfortunately, many of these colors and markings have become rare as white wool is dominant and for the last two hundred years has been preferred by commercial mills.

    Shetland sheep have for generations been noted for their very soft and well crimped fleece. The wool is the finest of all native breeds and shows an amazing variety of colours and markings. There are 11 main whole colours and 30 recognised markings. By selecting from coloured fleeces a range of naturally coloured yarn can be produced. This eliminates the need for dyeing and therefore retains the soft feel of the natural fibre and is favoured by those who prefer a totally natural approach.

    Shetland wool fibres are of a simple construction with a central cortex covered by a thin scaly cuticle, and have an average diameter of about 23 microns. However there is a range from 10 to 20 microns for neck and shoulder wool to 25 to 35 microns for britch wool. The average staple length is 3.5 inches. The amount of crimp varies, and is important in providing the ‘bounce’ required for knitwear. There is a positive correlation between fineness and crimp, with wool of the finest quality being crimped at between 8 and 12 to the inch. Wool from Shetland sheep is used to produce gossamer lace, the famous ‘Fair isle’ knitwear, and fine tweeds.

    Pure bred Shetland sheep tend to shed their fleece in spring. The growth of new fleece can cause a rise or weak point and where this is present the fleece can sometimes be plucked or ‘rooed’ by hand. The timing of this can be different in each sheep, however, it is worth taking the care to get it right as rooed fleece can be amongst the softest because the fibres have no harsh cut ends as occurs with a sheared fleece.

    Average Fiber Diameter in Microns: range of 20-30
    Grease Fleece Weight 2-5 lbs
    Staple varies depending on type of Shetland: 2-4.5 in. in general; North American Shetlands have range of 4-6 in.; longer fleeces 6-7 in.
    Yield = 65-80%
    (Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook)


    C) Manx Loaghtan

    (pronounced "lock-tan")

    Manx Loaghtan sheep Ramsey, Isle of Man (Wikipedia)

    Washed Manx Loaghtan Fleece

    Washed Manx Loaghtan Fleece (Elysa Darling | 222 Handspun)

    This fleece has a very short staple length and almost appears to be a bunch of second cuts. I initially thought it was the Shetland fleece because the color and reminded me of a Shetland fleece I just purchased. It's very crimpy and the sample was fairly clean. It's a milk chocolate color with blonde sun damaged tips. It feels similar to a Jacob fleece. Surprisingly I like it a lot. I'm not sure why since it isn't the softest texture and  probably not long enough to spin but there is something appealing about it anyway. I think I'm just partial to really crimpy locks. Anyway, I can't stop playing with it.

    Description of the breed from Namaste Farms:

    The Manx Loaghtan is a small primitive sheep, one of the rare breeds of sheep on the watch list of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. The breed originates from the prehistoric short-tailed breeds of sheep found in isolated parts of North West Europe where they survived because they were not replaced by more developed breeds. Other breeds in this same group are Soay, Hebridean, Shetland, Boreray and North Ronaldsay.

    Loaghtans and their relatives grazed the hills of the Isle of Man until the 18th century but by the 1950s numbers had declined to a handful. As a result of the work of enthusiasts on the Isle of Man and in England, numbers have steadily increased over the last 50 years. Continued success will ensure the Loaghtan has a future providing excellent quality meat and wool as a pure bred.

    Originally, most of the sheep were white, however there were also many grey, some black and relatively few the “loaghtan” colour we see today. Loaghtan is the Manx word for the brown “moorit” colour of the fleece which is derived from two Manx words “lugh” meaning mouse and “dhoan” meaning brown, or from “lhosht dhoan” meaning burnt brown. Clothing made from this loaghtan coloured wool was highly prized and, as the numbers of the sheep declined, breeders selected sheep of the loaghtan colour. As the loaghtan colour is recessive to all other colours, it breeds true and so it was relatively simple to fix that colour as a characteristic of the breed. This is why the rich brown loaghtan colour is the only colour, with variations in shade depth, which survives today.

    Average Fiber Diameter in Microns: 27 (wooly type) – 33 (hairy type)
    Grease Fleece Weight 3-5.5 lbs
    Staple: 2.5-5 in.
    Yield = not listed

    (Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook)


    D) Hebridean

    A three-horned Hebridean sheep (Wikipedia)

    A flock of Hebridean sheep (Wikipedia)

    Washed Hebridean Fleece

    Washed Hebridean Fleece (Elysa Darling | 222 Handspun) 

    OK, nothing remarkable here, but not bad overall. It has a nice black color and long staple length. It feels a bit like the Icelandic or a Karakul. I think it would make a good rug wool.

    Description of the breed from Namaste Farms:

    The Hebridean sheep is one of the primitive breeds comprising the Northern Short-Tailed group of sheep from northwestern Europe. These sheep are relatively small and fine boned, with black or dark brown wool. The face and legs are largely free of wool and are covered with glossy black hair. Both sexes commonly have two or more horns; but ewes may be polled or scurred and some may carry large woolly topknots. Ewes typically weigh 35-40kg and rams proportionately larger. The legs are slender and the feet are small, with hard, black horn. The body is relatively long. These sheep are slow maturing and are not inclined to carry excess condition; mature adults, even on good keep, rarely have a body condition score greater than 3.

    Adult fleeces range from black to dark brown; fleece tips may become brown through sunbleaching. Lambs are born truly black; fleeces on many yearlings become quite brown before the first shearing. Some sheep go grey with age, particularly on the flanks and the coarse wool of the hindquarters. Lambs may be born with a white spot on the poll or elsewhere, but this generally disappears within a few weeks. Some animals have a double-coated fleece of fine underwool overlaid by coarser fibres. Some rams may carry a mane or a ruff of coarse wool. Fleeces may range from dense and coarse to fine and soft, with the average ewe fleece weighing about 1.5 kg and ram fleeces about 3-4 kg. The staple length is 3-37 cm, with any crimp varying from slight to moderate. Fibre micron count has been measured at between 33 and 38, which equates to a Bradford count of 45-50.

    This is what Hebridean Sheep originally looked like. Over the years, relentless selection for 2 horned sheep, whilst producing some stunning animals for the show ring, has resulted in sheep like these becoming incredibly rare. Note particularly the original fleece type and colour distribution. At Wester Gladstone, we are desperately trying to keep the original type of sheep alive.Photo courtesy of Dr David Kinsman.

    Hebrideans are descended from the old Scottish Shortwool or Dunface breed, a breed which came in all colours. The current Hebrideans are black as only black sheep were originally selected to form the new breed. Up until 30 or so years ago, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust still recognised white Hebrideans which turned up occasionally, but since then it has not been possible to register them. Even a white spot on an otherwise pure black Hebridean makes it ineligible for registration.

    Average Fiber Diameter in Microns: 29-38

    Grease Fleece Weight 3.5-5.5 lbs

    Staple: 2-8 in.; generally 2-6 in.

    Yield = not listed

    (Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook)