Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Jacob Sheep

Last week I showed you a photo of these girls.

They are Jacob Sheep. An old breed of sheep that is thought to have originated in what is now Syria at least three thousand years ago. From what I can tell, the breed of sheep traveled west with the expansion of Islam during the Middle Ages, through North Africa, Sicily, and Spain. Once in Europe, like so many other agricultural goodies brought to Al Andalus at the time; like more efficient forms of crop rotation, awareness of industrial pollution and how to reduce it, and several hydraulic devices; these sheep spread to other parts of Europe and were especially popular in England (if there is one thing I can say about the English, they know a good thing when they see it).

They are little sheep. The sheep I visited were of a calm and shy temperament which I am told is common for Jacob Sheep. They can have up to six horns growing on their face and head. The rams I saw were of ferocious appearance with two great horns jetting out from their forehead. The ram stood in the pasture like a stoic, and I thought, out loud apparently, that this is a fellow I do not want to have angry at me. I was assured that they were actually quite shy and would be more likely to run away if I tried to get close to them. Still, there is something majestic about the Jacob rams; I was very impressed to see such small sheep with such mighty horns.

Commercially these sheep are of very little value. The meat, though lean and tasty, is of too small amount to bother with and the birth rate is only one lamb a year whereas many commercial breeds have two or three lambs at a time. This makes it very inefficient to grow these darlings for meat. I don't think the sheep mind that much, but it does make it so that very few people take the effort to keep Jacob Sheep these days.

(photo of cut side up and the first glimpse of the fleece that made me fall in love with it)

It's also not desirable for commercial wool processing. As you can see from the photos, the fleece is pied: it's black and white. A solid white or light grey coloured fleece is more popular with the larger mills as it is more easily dyed and a spotted fleece like this requires manual sorting into different colours. This leaves hand spinners and very small mills (if you can find one who is willing to go through the extra work) as the only real market for this fleece. So, I bought four; three fairly large fleeces and one very soft fleece which, I believe, came from a lamb and is going to be a sweater or two as a treat for myself.

(photo lock side up)

There is also, as is common with many older breeds of sheep, a great variation in the different parts of the fleece. The hind end of the fleece is far less elastic with less crimp and more guard hairs than the rest of the fleece. I've decided that this would spin up to make good warp as it the individual fibres are thickest and strongest here. The center back of the fleece is somewhat shorter than the rest of the fleece, but still soft and lovely. I'm thinking I might spin this section woolen to make an extra warm yarn for knitting mitts and a hat for next winter. The sides and the front legs are quite a bit longer fibre staple. Very soft but still strong with good crimp. Not as fine as merino, but much finer than say Romney. I think this would make the best knitting yarn and if I can get my hands on some combs I would like to spin this true worsted style.

Last of all, the area around the neck is (potentially) my favorite. The average staple length is as long as my hand from wrist to fingers, or it would be if the sheerer had spinning in mind. This part of the fleece has the potential of being my greatest joy only to be my greatest disappointment. The sheerer had only the thought that the fleece must be removed from the sheep in mind and not the idea that the fleece would be used to make a wonderful creation. There are lots of second cuts (where the sheerer did not cut close enough to the sheep the first time and had to cut the fleece again, thereby shortening the usable fibres considerably and leaving behind sort bits from the second cut which, if not removed, cause slubby yarn) throughout the fleece, especially around the neck. It seems such a small thing, but when it comes to transforming this soft fluff into yarn, it does make a considerable difference.

But no matter, I'm am still delighted with these fleeces. The shepherd kept these sheep healthy, which you can tell because there are no weak spots in the fleece from a period of nutritional deficit. Also, he kept the sheep quite clean which is a total bonus from my point of view. It makes the fleece that much easier to wash up and turn into yarn (no picking required!). This is now favorite wool to work with as I can make so many different types of projects from one breed. I think that next year, if the shepherd can get a hold of a better sheerer, or tell the current one that the fleece would be used and not, as so many farmers do, placed in a pile in a shed somewhere, I would love to cover the cost of shearing and take home all of the fleeces. Maybe I could even throw in something like free knitting or spinning lessons for a family member. Do farmers/shepherds/people who own land like that sort of thing?

Well, I have my work cut out for me. As my G'pa bought me the fleece as a cheer-me-up present, I've been bringing my carder and wheel to his home to work on the fleece. He says he doesn't mind as he likes the company and he is curios about how the tools work. He has a wonderful English style garden and a new deck which is sheltered and just the perfect temperature for performing this kind of activity on a summer afternoon. So that's what I'm up to these days, spinning away in a garden, dreaming of the day when I can finally have my own farm and a flock of Jacob sheep to call my very own.

One more thing, I've found a list of places where you can acquire your own Jacob wool.


Josiane said...

That was a great post, with lots of very interesting info; thank you for sharing!
Working on the fleece and spinning in your grandpa's garden must be truly delightful... Enjoy!
I hope that your dream for next year's fleeces from this flock, as well as your dream owning of your own flock one day, both come true. And I'm not worried about the combs: now that you've expressed the wish to have some, you will certainly come upon a set sometime soon!

Chris said...

Thanks for posting this! I've been researching Jacob Sheep to see if I want to raise them, and your in-depth post about the quality of their fleece is just another bonus to the many positive things I've been learning about them. As an avid knitter, I thank you for the yarn-lover's perspective!

CeCe said...

Thanks for the great post! I just got back 64 skeins of yarn from a mill which processed the wool from my flock of Jacob sheep. We processed it without separating any of the colors - it came out of beautiful with lots of variation in the colors - can't wait to dye it! Also, they lamb easily and usually do have twins, after the first year which is usually a single.