As I discussed in this post, “breed study”—the practice of systematically spinning the wools of different sheep breeds in order to learn about their characteristics and best uses—is part of the education of most serious spinners these days. But the concept of breed study is still foreign to many knitters. Why is learning about sheep breeds and their wool important for knitters? In this series of short posts, I’ll try to make the case.
Let’s start with wool
Wool is an amazing natural substance. It’s readily renewable. It can absorb about a third of its weight in water without feeling wet or clammy (hence the new craze in wool workout wear). If exposed to flame, it’s self extinguishing. It’s highly insulating. It’s memory and elasticity make it both comfortable to knit and forgiving of those inevitable variations in tension that plague most of us. (If you’re not knitting with wool already, close your browser and go, right now, to you local yarn store to get a skein. Cast on today.)
Most wool yarns are not made from the wool of a specific breed of sheep, because of the way the world wool market is structured. Here in Canada, for example, farmers sell their wool to the Canadian Wool Co-operative (in many cases for less than a dollar a pound). The Wool Co-op takes the wool and “grades” it according to fineness and color. Once it's been separated by grade, they ship most of it to China, where it's scoured, processed and spun in huge lots. The Wool Co-op deals in many tons of wool each year; the sheer scale at which they operate, and the system of wool classing used worldwide, mean that they have no interest in the specific animals, or even the specific flocks that grow the wool. Flocks come and go. The world wool market is concerned only with wool as a commodity.
The vast majority of yarns knitters are likely to encounter are produced within this system, and are thus likely to contain an unidentifiable mix of breeds. The exception to this (at least until recently) has been Merino wool. Merino sheep produce most of the very finest and softest wool, so Merino has a special place in the wool market. It commands top dollar (relatively speaking, as wool prices everywhere are very low) and it is thus often marketed differently from other wools. Consumers know that “Merino” means “soft,” so “Merino” functions almost as a brand name.
The wool market and factory farming
The economic imperatives of large-scale agriculture means that some sheep breeds are considered “productive” and thus worthy of keeping around. Will wool prices so low, most sheep are raised for meat, with wool considered a "secondary" crop—when it's considered at all. So the sheep breeds considered “productive” are those that lamb in twins and triplets, are large and mature quickly (and thus produce big lambs for the meat market), and produce white wool. Whatever their positive characteristics, sheep that don’t fit this profile have tended to get left behind. Their numbers are dwindling, and many breeds are threatened with extinction. As this process continues, the sheep population as a whole becomes less and less diverse, genetically speaking. And this brings me to my first reason why breed study is important to knitters who love to knit with wool, even the mystery wool that makes up most commercial yarns:
Genetic diversity is important.
Genetic diversity is what allows a species (like, say, ovis aries, otherwise know as sheep) to adapt to changes in its environment. When something happens in the world of a given species that threatens its survival, its capacity to adapt depends on the presence of variable traits within its population, traits that can help it live under the new conditions. Genetic diversity is the raw material that produces those variations. In other words, we need the genetic diversity provided by as many breeds as possible to ensure that sheep as a species continue to thrive in the face of climate change, disease, and other threats.
Knitters really do have some power to combat the pressures on genetic diversity in sheep that are imposed by the economics of factory farming. We are a large market, and breed specific yarns can provide a crucial source of income to shepherds who raise unusual—and in many cases endangered—breeds of sheep. That's why I started Sheepspot.
If you'd like to learn more about sheep breeds, work with some exquisite, small-batch, breed-specific yarns, and help support the farms I work with, have a look at Sheepspot's yarn club. It's a great way to get started, especially if you add on the Breed School option.
I'll be back tomorrow with reason #2.