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Sheep for fibre - What are the best breeds for knitting, felting, and stuffing wool?

 
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I do wet felting, needle felting, knitting, and waldorf doll making and I'm interested in keeping sheep for my own source of wool - are there any breeds that produce wool suited to all these purposes?

I've heard Suffolk are good for making wool for stuffing dolls and pillows. Corriedale are good for spinning wool. I've heard lovely things about Icelandic and Shetland sheep, but there aren't any of them on this side of the world. What other breeds are good for fibre?
 
pollinator
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I'm spinning, dyeing and knitting Shropshire wool right now. It's short, which makes it a little tricky, but soft and nice. Doesn't felt but looks good for a blanket or even a sweater. The greenish knitted thing on the left is dyed with moss and apple cider, the reddish in the middle is with red onion and lemon acid, and a little bit of original white is on the spindle.
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[Thumbnail for 88281254_10158040657613887_3602267346934169600_o.jpg]
Shropshire wool
 
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It's going to be tough to find a breed suited to diverse uses--different breeds were selected for different fleece characteristics to fit specialized uses, and people wanted consistency within most commercial breeds.

You may want to look at some of the heritage/landrace breeds that have keep more fleece diversity. My Shetlands have that (ranging from finer than Merino to almost Blue Faced Leicester in characteristics), and it's one of the reasons I chose them. Alternatively, you may want to think about a "spinner's flock" where you keep sheep from different breeds for specific purposes (so a Merino for a fine fleece, Blue Faces Leicester for a long lustrous coarser fleece, etc).

 
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I am a huge fan of Polwarth, to be honest.  To be honest, Romney (especially any from older lines, as the newer lines aren't as good) is pretty close to all-purpose.  Finn, as well.  
 
Catherine Carney
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I'd forgotten about Romney and Finn. And the need to look for older lines....

If you're buying sheep, ask the breeder about how they manage them. If they're raising their sheep, regardless of breed, in conditions with a lot of grain, human intervention at lambing, etc and your system is dramatically different that could be an issue since the sheep have been selected to work in their system and may not work in yours.

I've purposely selected for "survivability" in my flock: grass and hay with little grain, parasite resistance (sheep that need to be wormed often don't stay in the flock), easy lambing/good mothering, etc. I bought a few ewes several years back that physically had the characteristics I wanted (fleeces and conformation), but I ended up culling them and their offspring from the flock because they didn't have the survivability factor--the flock they came from fed a lot more grain, wormed all the time (so they weren't selecting for parasite resistance), and bottle fed lambs regularly (not the case here--it's really rare for one of my ewes to refuse a lamb even if it's a twin).
 
Carina Hilbert
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Oh, survivability. That is a key point!

Honestly, the ones I would buy are a crossbreed that a former teacher colleague has come up with. Sturdy, often twin, low incidence of hoof rot, gorgeous fleece with variable micron counts (and so many uses each fleece). That sounds like what you're looking for.
 
Catherine Carney
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Carina, what you're describing sounds like my Shetlands :)

I'd add longevity to the list as well. Too many commercial breeds, at least around here, are no longer productive after 4-5 years. My senior Shetland ewe turns 11 this year, still has all of her teeth, is the fattest thing in the flock, and is due to lamb any day. While this will be her last lamb, I know that she will still give me lovely fleeces for the next 3-4 years. Ditto for my senior (turning 10!) ram, who will be retiring in the next year or so if his sons prove out.

Personally I'd rather raise a breed with this ability to have long, productive lives than something that has to be replaced more often. It means I'm picky about what I keep, but it also means I don't have to hold back as many potential replacement animals each year--or breed as often if the market for my culls dries up.
 
Carina Hilbert
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Shetlands can vary, but I have been blessed to work with gorgeous Shetland fleeces in the past. Gorgeous stuff! 😍
 
Catherine Carney
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Carina, one of the nicest Shetland flocks that I know if is in Michigan. Windswept is the flock/farm name if I remember. Gorgeous sheep with great fleeces.

I'm partial the the longer and silky/luster type fleeces, though I keep a few of the down type and double coats in my flock for variety. And all colors--the brown/moorit and mid-grey fleeces seem to be what people like around here.
 
Carina Hilbert
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I know Windswept! Gorgeous fleeces, lovely people!
 
Catherine Carney
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I haven't had the privilege of meeting the family that owns Windswept, but know them through their articles about Shetlands, and their reputation among other people who keep the breed. And from their sheep--one of the breeders here bought their foundation animals from Windswept and the quality blew me away. Saving my pennies to purchase sheep from them in a few years for my own flock.

 
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Since I'm a total need when it comes to genetics and selective breeding programs, I think this sounds like a great project to develop a bloodline of stock with the traits that fit your needs. :D
Find animals which are really strong in one or more areas you desire, and linebreed to solidify the desired traits and eliminate the stuff you don't want. While it will be slow progress the first few generations as you cull out the undesirable traits, you'll eventually start seeing consistent results in the line as the herd's genetics become more homozygous, which will make it easier to see what things you feel you need to improve. Then its just a matter of bringing something new in that is strong in the area you are improving and repeating the linebreeding process to cull out introduced undesirable genes, while introducing/spreading the desired ones throughout the line.
Then its just "rinse and repeat" every few generations until you start consistently producing lambs which have all of the traits that are ideal for your situation. :)
 
Catherine Carney
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Kc that's exactly what I've done with my line of Shetlands. I'm now at the point where most of the flock has the hardiness/survivability that I want to go with the conformation and fleece characteristics. Still working on horns on the rams, but that seems to be a sex-linked trait and sometimes it's tough to tell what the ewes are carrying it they're polled. I'm very selective about what I bring into the flock any more, because you're right that you can bring in traits you don't want to go with the good stuff that new animal brings in.

One caveat about close breeding" homozygosity means you'r concentrating both positive traits and deleterious traits, so you have to be willing to cull pretty stringently, which isn't the easiest thing to do. And the more traits you select for at once the slower going it will be to reach your goals.

I do think we've lost a lot of the "sustainability" characteristics from a lot of our breeds, because those are things that aren't really needed in high input/production agriculture. But for low input/sustainable systems we need those traits. I refuse to raise sheep, for instance, that need large amounts of grain to maintain body condition, and now have a flock that will fatten nicely on good pasture or hay. But that's my personal soapbox, and what works for my system....
 
pollinator
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I love hearing about all these awesome lineages.

As a true Permie I look to stack functions. Are any of these great for milk too, quantity/quality and lactating for a long time without freshening?

Thank you for your knowledgeable responses.
 
Catherine Carney
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Stacking functions is a great way to put it. Shetlands were originally a multipurpose breed, primarily for fiber but they're fine boned (build like a dairy animal) and produce a lean carcass that's some of the best tasting lamb I've ever had (and that's from the ram that was 3 when we put him in the freezer because he was an idiot). I have a line of ewes that are very heavy milkers, though I've let them raise fat twins rather than stealing their milk for myself....

I really think when we talk about "best" breeds, we need to make sure that we define our production system and goals: fleeces from hardy sheep raised on grass with minimal intervention is my foremost goal here--meat or milk are byproducts. So Shetlands make sense for me, but they might not for the person on the next farm over, because their production goals and system might be quite different....
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