Heritage Sheep Breeds: Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em
Get Rare Breed Wool Between Your Fingers
Reading Time: 6 minutes
By Christine Heinrichs – Heritage sheep breeds are rare, but their wool is special. The Livestock Conservancy’s new Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em project is focusing fiber artists on using rare breed wool and yarns to draw attention to their unusual and fine qualities. By creating demand for the products, the unique genetics of these sheep breeds will be saved.
The project caught fiber artists’ attention and took off fast. The Facebook page has over 3,300 members signed up. Although the grant included funding for advertising, word of mouth spread the word so fast that she used the advertising money to buy prizes.
“We hoped to reach 3,000 members in three years, but we hit that goal in four months,” said Deborah Niemann-Boehle, TLC program research associate leading the project. “That blew us all away. We had 300 people within the first month.”
Heritage Breed Qualities
Heritage sheep breeds lose out to commercial breeds because they don’t perform as uniformly. Commercial sheep produce ordinary white wool that is blended as it is processed. Heritage breeds have unique strengths that uniform commercial operations don’t value: They are hardy and resist parasites, requiring less chemical deworming, and disease. They reproduce well and are good mothers. Their meat is delicious.
They can forage on pasture and crop residues, requiring less feed and making them valuable as part of small farms and low-input systems. Various breeds have regional adaptations that make them better able to survive climate conditions. And best of all, their wool has qualities valued by fiber artists, worth more in the market, allowing their keepers to earn more money.
“It’s really important for people to know that you can make money with wool,” she said. “You can’t make money selling it to the wool pool. Up until the 1970s, that’s what people did. The shearer would take the wool and pay the market rate.”
Competition from cheap wool coming into the market from other parts of the world reduced the price to pennies per pound. Shepherds were losing money, even at $5 per head for the shearer.
“Plummeted. 20% of the number we had 100 years ago. “All old farmers used to raise sheep, but they quit because they lost money,” she said. “It’s wonderful to look at lambs in the pasture in the spring. They love it, but they can’t keep doing it when they’re losing money.”
Focusing attention on the special qualities of the wool produced by heritage breeds gives sheep one of their jobs back. The Livestock Conservancy is dedicated to genetic conservation of heritage livestock. Heritage livestock breeds need to be more than living exhibits in museums. They need to be valued as productive livestock. Economic value is a vital part of saving heritage breeds.
“These sheep aren’t going to be around very long if they don’t have a job,” said Niemann-Boehle.
Ordinary wool sells for $0.60-$0.85 a pound. But raw wool sold through specialty internet sites such as Etsy sells for much more: $8-$40 per pound. Supporting the wool market helps stabilize income.
TLC conceived SE2SE to support its mission by helping sheep breeders improve their wool products and marketing. Reaching a better market means more farm income. For fiber artists, such as myself, learning about the variety available in heritage breed wool expands the creative possibilities. Seeking different kinds of wool from heritage sheep breeders leads to making local connections. Prosperous sheep keepers and busy fiber artists stimulate interest and demand for heritage breeds. They get their job back, and become part of a vibrant, integrated farm economy.
“It’s surprising how fast things can turn around,” she said “It’s exciting for the ones keeping sheep. One person said she sold more wool in the first few months than in the last five years.”
Offering the public the option of purchasing traditional breed products assures the future of traditional breeds as well as artistic satisfaction — and beautiful, warm woolen clothing.
Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em is directed at wool products and the people who use those products: spinners, weavers, knitters, crocheters, felters. It’s a three-year program, funded by a grant from the Manton Foundation. Niemann-Boehle said she hopes its success will help her find funding to make it permanent.
As either a wool provider or a fiber artist, participate by registering at The Livestock Conservancy’s site, livestockconservancy.org/index.php/involved/internal/SE2.
Providers register with the breed of sheep they are raising and the products they offer: fleeces, fiber, yarn. TLC gives them stickers that they give those who purchase their products. The stickers are the proof that the product they are using is from a SE2SE-registered producer.
Fiber artists, who put the wool to use, get a Passport from TLC when they register. Over 1,300 fiber artists have already signed up. As they purchase wool products from registered producers, they get stickers to put in their passports.
Each artist qualifies to receive prizes by completing five, 10 and 15 projects using different kinds of wool. Completion date is December 31, 2021. Each project must be made from 100% of the wool of a single breed. Each breed’s wool has unique characteristics. Prizes include discounts and items such as magazines, tote bags, patterns, books and fiber detergent.
Qualities of Wool
Heritage breeds retain the qualities for which they were bred: from coarse, double-coated carpet wool to fine, elastic wool suitable for elegant clothing.
The quality of wool yarn and fabric relates to the length of the wool fiber. Short, crimped fibers make soft, fine yarn and cloth. It felts well, but is less durable. Longer fibers result in stronger and long-wearing fabric. Long fibers may be lustrous and feel silky. Many heritage sheep breeds are double-coated, with a long outer coat and soft down underneath. The two kinds of wool can be separated to use the long fleece for carpets and outerwear, and the soft down for delicate garments.
The variety of qualities of wool invites creative uses: down wool for doll’s hair, embroidery thread and delicate lace knitting. Sturdier wool can be baby blankets, and heavier yet spun into thicker yarn for heavy blankets. Wool can be felted into hats and purses. The variety of uses is limited only by imagination. Specialty wools can bring shepherds up to $25 per pound.
Find Your Wool
TLC has created resources to help participants locate suppliers of wool from sheep on the Conservation Priority List. The list includes four breeds that are rated Critical, 11 Threatened, five on the Watch list, and only two breeds that are Recovering.
The project is increasing the market for wool from heritage breeds, adding to income for sheep keepers.
“It’s been inspiring,” said Niemann-Boehle. “I’ve been moved to tears by some emails from people who have been raising the sheep for years, simply because they love them. Even at a financial loss, because they had trouble selling their wool. Within a couple of months of Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em, they sold out of their wool.”
Some do not bother to market their wool, because of the difficulties of preparing it for market.
The Facebook page has become a go-to for fiber artists seeking advice. People post problems, and others post detailed advice.
“People are so helpful,” Niemann-Boehle said. “We have the nicest people on Facebook. We get so many responses to people who are having problems.”
Inviting more to learn needle arts can have unintended benefits. One report found few students entering veterinary school had experience sewing, making it difficult for them to learn how to stitch up animals. A therapist told me how she attempted to teach self-calming skills to young women struggling with anxiety, only to find that none of them knew how to thread a needle.
SE2SE is spinning a new future for sheep, shepherds, and all of us who create beauty and utility out of their wool.
Originally published in the March/April 2020 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal.