Beth Smith

Down Breeds, They’re not just for dinner anymore!

It has become very common for certain sheep breeds which fall into the Down category to be referred to as meat sheep. Now I will agree that, for those of us who are omnivores, well prepared lamb is very good…especially with a nice cucumber sauce on a pita. That’s where I’ll end my agreement. These sheep deserve a little more respect for the delightful work they do while walking around and munching grass. That work is growing their lovely wool. At the very least these should be considered dual purpose sheep. And we, as spinners, can help to start making the change.

Speaking from experience, it is pretty easy to find a good fleece in the longwools or the fine wools category but mention Dorset, Welsh Mountain, Oxford or Shropshire and there will generally be blank stares. The farmers of sheep in these categories are not raising their sheep for wool production so, many fleeces will have lots of VM and other undesirable contents. If you can get beyond that you will find a very lovely wool. It is a pleasure to spin.

The true down breeds are called “Down” because they originated in southeastern England and not because they have a downy undercoat. Most times the British Hill Breeds are also included in the down category because of fleece similarities. Let’s talk a little about these characteristics.

The wool from this class is generally lacking luster and the locks are not well defined. The crimp is not as obvious as with of wool in other categories. Though there is plenty of crimp in each fiber it is spiral in nature. Though the look of the crimp in the lock may not appear as a beautiful thing like the waviness of Cormo or the lovely curl of Wensleydale, this wool has a springiness and resilience unmatched in other types.

Another spectacular thing about this category is the resistance to felting. Though it can be needle felted it is generally a natural superwash requiring no more than reasonable care in washing.. This combined with the spring and resilience makes it a perfect option for socks and other items which may need frequent washings.

As far as fineness of the fibers there is a pretty broad range here. Most fall into the middle range of softness and so will be great for outerwear and blankets, but there are several which will produce very fine soft fleeces. As with all sheep this is just an average and can vary from sheep to sheep so sampling is highly important to make sure you will get the end product you were first envisioning.

Preparation of these fibers for spinning will depend on the fiber length. Most times the best method will be hand carding or drum carding because of short staple length. If you find a fleece with a staple length greater than 3 inches then combing would be a great option.

That brings me to my next point. Spinning these breeds in a worsted style will give all of the benefits of worsted spun wool but the yarn will not look much different than if the wool had been carded and spun long draw. Do not despair! This is due to the spiral type crimp and resilience of the resulting yarn. The wear factor will still be greatly increased in the worsted spun yarn.

Something else to think about when using a worsted spinning technique with wool from these breeds is a bit of shrinkage will surely happen when the freshly spun skein is washed and dried. As the fibers are spun they are stretched and smoothed as twist is added. When the skein is washed the and fibers try to spring back to their pre yarn state there will be shrinkage so sampling all the way through to the washing is very important to make sure you will have enough yardage for your project.

Now the pet topics of worsted spinning, longwools, SAMPLING and the joy of spinning any wool type have been covered. Keep your eyes peeled for those down type fleeces and try them. You won’t be sorry. And don’t ever let anyone call them meat sheep again.

Originally published in Spindlicity

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