deb robson

5 reasons to start a breed study now

how to, what we doSasha TorresComment

A Jacob lamb from Cindy Ghent's flock here in Ontario.

It makes you a better spinner.

We all get into ruts in our spinning, making the same yarns over and over again. Spinning teachers call these ruts "default yarns." Mine is two-ply, about a dk weight, spun short forward draw with twist between my hands. It's an easy, fast spin that I don't have to think about very much. 

But if my experience is any guide, spinning the same yarns doesn't make us better spinners. Every aspect of my yarns improve when I force myself out of my rut and try new things, whether they're new techniques or new fibers. 

There is an astounding range of breeds of sheep, and they grow an equally astounding range of wools. And each of them is best spun a little differently. That's how breed study makes you a better spinner: by giving your brain and your hands new materials to work with and new problems to solve.

As a spinner, it dramatically increases the range of yarns you can make.

Want elasticity? Choose a down breed, like Suffolk or Dorset Down. Want drape and sheen? Choose a longwool like BFL or Teeswater. Want something that won't make your neck itch? Choose a fine wool, like Cormo or Rambouillet. Want to spin a marled yarn in soft natural colors? Choose Jacob or CVM.

As a fiber artist, it lets you use precisely the right tool for the job. Every time.

If you walk into a yarn store, you're likely to find two kinds of wool yarns: the ones labeled "Merino" and the ones that give no indication at all as to the breeds that grew the wool (and usually no indication of where the yarn was made, or how, but that's a topic for another day). But as a spinner with knowledge of wool types and the breeds that grow them, you can match the yarn you make to the project you envision, with a precision non-spinners can only dream of. You can control both the hand of the yarn and how durable it is through your choices of fiber and technique. As spinning teacher Maggie Casey always says, with a twinkle in her eye, "Spinners can be the ultimate control freaks!"

It connects you to the real source of your materials. And it's not your LYS.

Spinning for a breed study links you to the shepherds who raise the sheep and the flocks that grow the wool. For those of us who want to live—and craft—in ways that acknowledge and celebrate our interdependence with the natural world, working with wool and other natural fibers can be a deeply satisfying part of making.

It ensures that those materials continue to exist

Breed study will require you to use kinds of wool that are likely not widely available commercially. So if you think that small, sustainable agriculture is important, or if you want to support North American mills and processors, breed study can be a great way to put your money where your mouth is

In addition, breed study will likely lead you to rare and endangered breeds, precious resources with wonderful characteristics that, for one reason or another, have been passed over by large-scale agribusiness. These rare breeds are the living repositories of genetic resources that may be crucial to us in the future. (To read more about threats to genetic diversity in livestock animals, see my posts here, here, and here.

As Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius note in The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, "in order to continue to have these irreplaceable resources available for our pleasure and delight, we need to support the living infrastructure of animals and people that makes their existence possible." 


What's stopping you?

Breed study usually means buying raw fleece. And that can be a daunting prospect. Where do you find the fleece? How do you know that it's high quality? How do you wash it without felting it?

Then there's the preparation. Do you have hand cards? Combs? A flick carder? Are your tools appropriate for the kinds of fleece you have? Do you know how to use them?

And do you have time for all this?

Breed study in the past has been expensive and time-consuming. Because I feel so passionate about its importance, though, I've come up with another way: the Sheepspot Fiber Club

It's breed study without the prep, for committed spinners who just don't have the time to work from fleeces. Members get wool from a new breed every other month, complete with information about the breed's history, characteristics, and wool. I also spin every fiber myself in lots of different ways, and include detailed sampling notes (about wheel setup, drafting technique, and which yarns I liked best) with each shipment to help you get started with the fiber.  

Memberships go on sale June 22. You can find complete details about the club, including prices and options (and there are lots of 'em) here. Be sure to sign up to get an email reminder so you don't miss out

Genetic diversity in farm animals, and why it matters

mission, musingsSasha TorresComment

Part of Sheepspot's mission is to support farmers who raise rare sheep breeds. My passion for these breeds, and for the wool they produce, began in a handspinning class with Deb Robson, co-author with Carol Ekarius, of The Fleece and Fiber Source Book, on spinning rare wools. I say it was a spinning class, but for me it was a lot more than that. It was my first introduction to what spinners call "breed study," the more or less systematic inquiry into both the characteristics of wools produced by specific breeds and how best to spin them. I had only been spinning for eighteen months or so when I took Deb's class, and my spinning education thus far had been quite limited. The class was eye-opening in showing me the sheer diversity of wool in the world, and how much I loved All Of It. Over the three days, we spun fine wools like Merino and Cormo, long wools like Border Leicester and Coopworth, Down breeds like Suffolk and Dorset, double-coated breeds like Shetland and Icelandic, and primitive breeds like Soay.

More than learning that I really, really love All The Wool, though, I learned how much of it is in real danger of disappearing. I learned about how seriously many of the breeds I enjoyed spinning the most in class, like Jacob and Black Welsh Mountain, are under threat. As I pursued my breed study in subsequent months, on my own and with some of the spinners who listened to my podcast, SpinDoctor, I gathered and spun more rare breeds, both from North American and from Britain.  I made gorgeous yarns from the wools of Gulf Coast Native (currently listed as critical by the Livestock Conservancy), North Ronaldsay and Castlemilk Morritt (of which there are fewer than a thousand animals, according to Britain's Rare Breeds Survival Trust). I came to appreciate the soft bounciness of Romeldale, and the silky strength of Leicester Longwool.

In the process, I learned that there is a wool for practically every purpose that I, as a knitter, can think of. There are soft wools for cozy cowls and baby blankets and strong wools for carpets that can last for generations. And just about everything in between: sturdy wools for sweaters and bouncy wools for socks. That range is what we stand to lose if we lose these breeds.

You may be wondering if there's more at stake than some spinner's and knitter's pleasure in her hobbies. Merino's fine, right? There's plenty of that, isn't there?

Here's where the story gets a bit scarier, at least to me as a lover of wool. I'm no biologist (there's an understatement, and if I've gotten any of this wrong, please let me know), but I've been doing a little research.  As I understand it, 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.

In the graphic below, I list some of the other reasons why genetic diversity matters, not just for sheep, but for all farm animals. Next time, I'll discuss some of the threats to genetic diversity in livestock.

Look, ma! I made an infographic!