“Bio-Fibersity”: Consider Bio-Diversity When Selecting Fibers

Hepatica has been the first spring plant to emerge in our woods this spring.

Hepatica has been the first spring plant to emerge in our woods this spring.

Based on the Hepatica coming up in our woods, spring has finally arrived in this part of the country. I say this with some hesitation since our temperature is supposed to drop back into the 40s for highs next week. Nevertheless, there is a feeling of spring in the air and a desire among many fiber folks to get out to farms for shearing events or to pick up a newly shorn fleece. And this brings up a subject that has been gnawing on my brain for the past couple of months…

In February (Feb. 27 in fact), Clara Parkes, from the online knitting news site Knitter’s Review >http://knittersreview.com/newsletter/newsletter.asp<, discussed the importance of maintaining diversity in the sheep industry so knitters may continue to have options in their fiber choices. She said “too many of us are still hooked on the super-soft Merinos of the world. So hooked… that most yarn companies are afraid to offer anything else. … If we want any variety in our stashes, we must buck the trend.”

These comments have stuck in my mind as I’ve become more aware of how much consumer fiber preference drives the marketplace. In fact, I’ve just seen personal evidence of this. One of my wholesale vendors has recently dropped an old standby and solid spinning fiber (Corriedale) due to dwindling consumer interest in the fiber. This sheep fiber is perfect for beginning spinners. It’s inexpensive and my go-to fiber for dye testing, steadfast garment spinning, and a great fiber for beginning spinners to control since it isn’t really slippery. Although it isn’t the softest of fibers, it isn’t horrible against the skin. But the wholesaler has decided to go with the flow of the times and focus on the more expensive and in-demand Merino fibers and other fibers within that soft quality.

I can’t deny that soft fibers are great. They are wonderful next to the skin and often perfect for felters. But such fibers are not the best choice for long-wearing garments. Soft fibers usually need another structural fiber to make garments (especially socks) last longer than just a few wears. They also cost more than other less-fine fibers, thereby narrowing the choices for those of us on a budget.

To widen the focus a bit more, bio-diversity is essential for a balanced world. If we insist on only one fiber in our palette, we are missing out on a world of other fibers with their own unique and important qualities, limiting our opportunity to experience the full palette.

So fiber people, I challenge you to be truly sustainable in your fiber choices. Every so often, consider a fiber with some grit. Look at the entire range of possibilities when selecting a fiber so we may continue to have a world of diversity in our choices. If we don’t widen our horizons now, our fiber choices may change from a supermarket variety that offers us many options, to much more limited options that may be likened to the food selection found in a gas station grocery aisle.

With this challenge in mind, the following is a general chart of sheep breeds and their fineness counts. It didn’t make the final cut of my Yarn Works book so I’m offering it here as a service to you. Please explore the breeds and support the shepherds who continue to maintain diversity in their flock choices.


A Few Common Spinning Sheep Breeds by Micron Count, Bradford Count, General Staple Length, and Staple Crimp

(This chart shows a sampling of the primary breeds of sheep raised in the U.S. as pure or mixed breed fleece for hand spinners. No fleece is exactly alike. It may vary in all categories depending on health, environment, and breeding. This chart is a general guide to breeds and their fleece characteristics. The lower the micron number, the finer the fiber. Note that these count numbers show an average range and some fibers may actually measure outside the noted range.) 

Sheep Breed

Micron Count

Bradford Count

Staple Length

Crimps per inch (2.5 cm)  average

Blue Faced Leicester

24-28

60s-56s

Medium-Long

3-6 in (8-15 cm)

6.5

Border Leicester

37-40

48s-36s

Long

6-8 in (15-20 cm)

2.5

Coopworth

35-39

48s-44s

Long

5-7 in (13-18 cm)

3.5

Cormo

21-23

64s-58s

Medium-Long

4-5 in (10-13 cm)

16

Corriedale

26-33

58s-50s

Medium-Long

3-8 in (8-20 cm)

5

Icelandic thel-innercoat /tog-outercoat

19-22 / 28-31

70s-64s / 54s-50s

Short-Long

2–3 in (5–8 cm)/5-15 in (13-38 cm)

6.5 / NA

Lincoln

36-38

40s-36s

Long

7-10 in (18-25 cm)

1.5

Merino

18-24

70s-60s

Medium

2.5-4 in (7-10 cm)

11

Rambouillet

18-24

80s-60s

Short-Medium

2-4 in (5-10 cm)

16

Romney

33-37

50s-46s

Long

5-7 in (13-18 cm)

4

Shetland

23-30

60s-50s

Short-Long

2-5 in (5-13 cm)

12


Endangered Breeds

There are also a number of shepherds who have begun to raise awareness of breeds that are in danger of total extinction. Gleaned from the LivestockConservancy.org site is the following list of a few breeds in current danger and links to more information about these breeds.

Critical Status:

Florida Cracker

Gulf Coast or Gulf Coast Native

Hog Island

Leicester Longwool

Romeldale/CVM

Santa Cruz


Threatened:

Black Welsh Mountain

Clun Forest

Cotswold

Dorset Horn

Jacob – American

Karakul – American

Navajo-Churro

St. Croix


Being Watched:

Lincoln

Oxford

Shropshire

Tunis


Recovering:  

Barbados Blackbelly

Shetland

Southdown

Wiltshire Horn


Let’s all try to keep our sheep breeds diverse and thriving by buying spun yarn or raw fleece from a wider variety of sheep breeds for our spinning, felting, or knitting pleasure!

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About wendyj-sagahill

I am a textile artist, designer, and author.
This entry was posted in "Yarn Works" book and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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