Connect with the Past: Exploring ‘primitive’ sheep breeds

As we delve deeper into the wonderful world of fiber, we’ll discover that there are many breeds of sheep who have quite literally weathered history unchanged by modern breeding programs. Many of these breeds can be traced back hundreds of years – some even a thousand! Iceland, Norway and the UK are just a few countries whose sheepy inhabitants have their own unique history.

The complex fleece of primitive breeds also tells their story. These breeds grow double coats consisting of a soft, insulating undercoat coupled with a hardy outer coat which protects them from the harsh elements which they have endured over centuries. These coats typically come in a variety of natural colors beyond white, most likely to act as camouflage for sheep who had to fend for themselves: many breeds were deposited on remote islands by the Vikings and Spanish explorers as a sort of “insurance plan” in the event of a shipwreck so that the crews wouldn’t starve.

Today we’ll profile three primitive breeds whom you may have encountered at a fiber festival: Icelandic, Jacob, and Shetland. You can find out more about primitive breeds in Deb Robson and Carol Ekarious’ Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook or Clara Parkes’ Knitter’s Book of Wool.

icelandicsheepIcelandic Sheep
This breed’s history can be traced back over 1,000 years, when the Vikings introduced this hardy breed of sheep to Iceland. Their dual coat is unique because it can be spun together in a traditional Lopi-style Icelandic yarn, or separated by hand for a special project. The soft undercoat (called the thel) boasts a micron count of 19-22, a fineness that is similar to Merino; the coarser outer coat (called the tog) has a micron count of 27-30 and often behaves similarly to mohair. This breed comes in a variety of natural colors and is excellent for outerwear and felting projects. 

For more information about this breed, please visit the Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America website.

jacobsheepJacob Sheep
These sheep were once a popular ‘novelty’ animal, roaming parks and estates in England for many years dating back to the 1700s. Their large horns and spotted black and white coats are quite striking, and unlike other primitive breeds, they do not have a dual fleece. However, each color patch is often unique (both in staple length and micron count) which gives this fleece a broad micron range of 27-35 microns.

For more information about this breed, please visit the Jacob Sheep Breeders Association website.

shetlandShetland Sheep
This breed dates back to the bronze age, most likely deposited on the rocky islands from which they get their name by the Vikings over 1,000 years ago. This breed is available in a variety of natural colors; despite having many colored variants bred out of the line at the height of the Shetland woolen industry, 11 natural colors and 30 markings remain today, though some are rarer than others in the quest for bright white wool. The fleece is a joy to spin with; each fiber can be drawn from the lock with ease.

For more information about this breed, please visit the North American Shetland Sheepbreeders Association website.

All the best,

Chris, Nancy, and the entire Woolery team

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14 responses to “Connect with the Past: Exploring ‘primitive’ sheep breeds

  1. Jan Schenefeld

    Very interesting; I have tried all three breeds and like them very much, though sometimes the icelandic frustrates me; how to separate thel from tog. Thanks

    • Hi Jan, It is super easy to separate the icelandics into the two fibers, just need to use the 5 pitch English combs, it does it automatically, and you have not spun heaven until you have spun combed fleece! happy wool working, Bob

  2. This is such a nice write up. I raise Shetlands and find that the light colors are much more likely in my breeding program. It is harder to breed for the dark browns and dark grays or the lovely multi pictured above. Add to that the fact that the spinners that buy my raw fleeces all want the light colors so that they can dye it. But I love to see the color variations grazing on my mountainside.

  3. The Shetland sounds like wool I’d like to work with.
    Any info on Churro sheep would be appreciated.

    • Shetland is a delight to spin! I have spun it washed and from the lock, and I really love it combed with the 5 pitch wool combs. it is heaven and so clean that way. You should try some for sure! Bob

    • Navajo-Churro Sheep have a fascinating history–check the N-C association website for details. They are tough sheep–easy to raise, parasite resistant, predator wary, and easily pasture lamb. They are a slow growing breed and can be butchered as late as 18 months of age and produce a mild flavored, lean meat. The wool is harsh to the touch but strong and makes great rugs. I have been raising them for quite sometime, as well as Shetlands.

  4. Thank you for recognizing the Icelandic sheep! We own a flock of 50-60 in sunny Florida and find them to be an absolute delight. Because we live in the sunny south, we are able to harvest three high-quality shearings per year. The fiber is quite versatile: three fiber possibilities can be created from a single fleece: just Thel (very soft and suitable for baby clothing), just Tog (the coarser outer fiber suitable for fiber art, weaving, or rugs), or the Thel/Tog combined (suitable for knitting, crocheting, and weaving). The fiber is also excellent for felting projects. The sheep themselves are independent and hardy, excellent mothers and quite prolific. We love our Icelandic sheep!

  5. The Gulf Coast Native sheep, developed as a landrace breed in the United States for about 500 years, has similar history as the Navajo-Churro. It has been in the US since the 1500s and has some Churro in its origins, and also pre-Merino influence. Its wool, unlike the coarse Navajo-Churro, has a defined crimp. It is very hardy and well adapted to hot humid climates such as Louisiana and Mississippi. I am an shepherdess raising these rare sheep in NE Georgia. Mine are naturally polled and lamb easily on pasture.

    • Cathy do you have any rams? I have 3 ewes from Perkins and Perkins/Wing line. Am thinking of breeding in the fall. I’m north of Asheville, NC. And I want to visit your farm!!! Your website looks awesome!

  6. Pingback: Connect with the Past Part 2 with Deb Robson | thewooleryguy

  7. Woods is in recovery in more ways than one. It starts by explaining the importance of asking permission and respecting.
    So, there you have it.

  8. Great to see primitive breeds being recognized! We raise Shetlands and love preserving the breed. Our girls are single coated with fine fleece. The staple’s probably 4-6 inches long. We’re hoping to have our first lambs this spring. Should be an adventure!

  9. Pingback: From Sheep to Shawl | thewooleryguy

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