Not All Sheep Are Born Equal
10 Jun

Not All Sheep Are Born Equal

Posted By: Roger

Not all sheep are the same!

One of the questions we get asked at Baavet, especially at shows, is “what kind of wool goes into a Baavet?

The simple answer would be ‘the best wool’ of course, however; as usual things just aren’t that simple.

All sheep come from small wild breeds and some of our current breeds, such as Soay and Hebridean, are still closely related to the original types.  But like all domesticated animals the shape, size and the type of wool will vary from region to region.  Mediterranean sheep breeds are different to British breeds. But the differences in breeds can be far more localised than that.

Farmers have selectively bred sheep to create animals that suit specific environments, and these environments will affect the quality and length of fleece.

The down side to the harsher climates and higher hills is that the very thick wool tends to be shorter and very coarse with a lot of kemp, a brittle white or grey fibre common in hill sheep. While in the lower lands with better grass the sheep are larger and have much softer wool.

 I was at one of the British wool shows one year which attracts people who not only love wool but also like to work it by spinning, weaving or knitting. I was talking to a group of knitters and talking about types and grades of wool when a lady said she’d once knitted a jumper out of Welsh Mountain sheep’s wool, after she’d finished it she said it was so stiff it stood up on its own like a coat of chain mail!

Over the ages wool has been used for different purposes, today the coarse wools of the upland sheep go into to making very good hardwearing carpets, while in times gone by it was used to make great coats especially for soldiers.  During the American Civil War Welsh wool was made into the coats and uniforms of the confederate army.

At the other end of the wool spectrum from the hardy Herdwick or Welsh Mountain wool is the lustre wool from breeds such as the Merino, originally from Spain, and the Blue faced Leicester. Lustre wools have smooth fibres with a very long staple, so guess what, it’s ideal for clothing, particularly sweaters or more recently base layers for outdoor clothing, the long smooth, flat fibres are ideal for spinning into fine yarns, but that’s not what you need to make a great duvet.

These are the two extremes of wool type. There are many types and grades of wool in between.  So after all this where does the wool for a Baavet come from?

Well, we need medium length wool which is springy but not coarse, so that cuts out the coarse wool of the Welsh mountain and the long and flat wool of the Merino.

We go for the sheep with a mid staple springy fleece with very little kemp. Up here in Wales that would be the Lleyn, originally from the Lleyn Peninsula, but now a popular breed across the country, and the Texel and Suffolk crosses.

We buy our wool direct from the farmer and pay a premium, ensuring the local farmers get a good fair price.

But even when we take our wool directly from our farmers we don’t use every part of the fleece because not all wool is the same over the whole of the sheep’s body nor is it the same in every sheep in the flock. So the next stage is to take the wool from the farm to our wool merchant in Halifax and grade it according to staple length and quality. This job is highly skilled and takes years of training to do well, and like so many other manufacturing skills is quickly disappearing with most graders now in their later years.

Theoretically you could stuff any kind of wool in a duvet but if you want a great duvet you’ve got to know you’re onions, or in this case your sheep.

Sweet Baavet dreams

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