I moved here in 1981. I wanted a farm and I wanted sheep—I had loved those woolly animals from early childhood. I had a nightlight fashioned from Plaster of Paris in the shape of a baby lamb given to me my first Christmas, at three months of age, in 1949. I watched and loved Sherry Lewis and Lambchops on TV as a little kid. I loved the dogs that herded sheep and were farm dogs like Lassie from the TV show. I wore red ‘poodle and Valentine’ skirts made for me from wool felt, which fascinated me because they didn’t need hemming. I knitted hats and booties using Coates & Clark worsted wool yarns to sell at Christmas time to my friends’ and their mothers as presents when I was in the 6th grade. I learned to sew from my mom and grandmother when I was 12, and made all my own clothes. I loved designing and fashioning skirts and jumpers, jackets and coats from wool fabrics because the fabrics were workable, soft, and warm. I learned the rudimentary process of ‘felting’ - used in making the fabric my Mom used to sew my ‘poodle and Valentine’ skirts - with raw chunks of freshly shorn wool, made wet, squished, and rolled, shaped and shrunk, in my first Textile Chemistry class as a college sophomore and thought it amazing then. I still do! I watched sheep, challenged by northeasters and hurricanes that struck the outlying North Carolina barrier islands where they had made a home for themselves shipwrecked by the Spaniards in the 1600’s, while backpacking on Ocracoke Island during my college years. Sheep and wool were always a part of my life, even though I did not live on a farm nor did I live in ‘sheep country’.
They ARE the most amazing of all our domesticated wild animals. And the wool they produce IS the most incredible NATURAL fiber. Wool is a hollow-core fiber that grows in clumps; it is similar to human hair in that wool can be sheared or cut, the same, pretty much as human hair is cut with scissors. Hair is however, not hollow, but filament like, and not as warm, as insulating, as wool, not as able to evaporate moisture from within and provide cooling as well as warmth in arid climates. Wool is durable, resilient, somewhat elastic, and can absorb 33% of its weight in water providing warmth when wet, evaporative cooling in the desert. It is sheared as ‘raw fleece’ and used or washed, dyed, spun into yarn, woven, knitted, crocheted, or felted…and made into clothing, blankets and rugs, insulation and shelter. To say that wool is VERSATILE is an understatement!! Versatile. Sustainable. Renewable. Far easier on the Earth’s biosphere than almost all modern day fibers and fabrics. And, unfathomably durable…felt pieces have been recovered from the shipwrecks of Viking ships, unearthed from Central Asian artifacts more than 5,000 years of age.
Sheep have been on the Earth for more than 10,000 years, domesticated more than 6,000 years…I am certain Humans may not have survived in some parts of the world had they not developed an up close and personal partnership with sheep. I imagine that Transhumance nomads, stalwart shepherds by day and by night, watched as their sheep rubbed against trees and shelters and themselves, matting their wool into crests of tangled fibers, ‘felting’ their dreads of wool across their backs and shoulders. Realizing they could put those talents to good use, perhaps, in those earlier years of domestication and seasonal pasturing, the process was adopted by and adapted for human, transhumance use. Felt pieces have been unearthed in Turkey dating back to 6500 BC. Yarns, however, spun from wool appeared on the scene much later in our history, around 2500 BC, it is believed. And from that time forward, the mechanization of spinning yarn, weaving, and the industrial fabrication of textiles exploded throughout the centuries. Wool has been and is a part of OUR HUMAN story. Shear it, wear it, lie under it, walk over it, sleep in it; Take up residence with the Sheep that grow it, manage and breed them, and they provide you everything you need: food, shelter, and clothing. Repeat the process. Sell or Trade the Wool. Sell or Trade the Sheep. Make a profit, buy or trade amenities. And Repeat! Much has changed from the days of the earlier transhumance partnership to our modern methods of production and sheep and wool management, but the basic requirements and output in lambs and wool are the same.
What do you need to grow wool? Sheep! And what do you need to grow or raise Sheep? Little more than grass, forbs, and minerals! And unless you are a part of one of the few remaining nomadic cultures around the globe, and move where the sheep have food year round, winter hay and supplemental feeding are necessary - as in the extreme cold climates in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. But, with small hooves and a 4-stomach, ruminating machine to utilize marginal feedstock, sheep are ‘easy’ on the environment and the pocketbook, relative to other species of livestock. Their manure fertilizes the grasses and native plants, and they leave little in the way of a physical or carbon ‘footprint’.
As I see it, the problem is that over the thousands of years of domestication and the loss of nomadic cultures ‘moving with the seasons and grasses’, i.e., moving with the sheep to follow the grasses, we have over extended OUR use of the land, overgrazed both private and public pastoral lands, and have exploited the species of domesticated sheep; we have interfered with the ‘natural’ flow and balance. We no longer live AMONG them, we manage, we control - on OUR terms what we have chosen to think they ‘need’— intense farming practices of recent generations of domestication has taken a toll on hardiness, ease of lambing, breeds and breeding, feeds and feeding. We breed the sheep that we WANT, we raise them where we WANT to live , we feed them what WE have determined they need, we house them according to how WE think we can get them to produce the greatest profit, i.e., the greatest number of lambs and the most wool, on the smallest acreage in the shortest amount of time. We have chosen to overlook BALANCE and GENETIC LANDRACE ADAPTATION…BALANCE in raising sheep, BALANCE in nature, BALANCE in our approach to HUSBANDRY. Sheep did well without us. They lambed; the weak died, the strongest lambs and mothers survived, the hardiest rams won out and continued to procreate and continue the cycle. They lived with nature, lived in hard times and good times, easy winters and not so easy winters, they adapted to the environment in which they found themselves. The first transhumance cultures lived with their animals as one, and were aware of that BALANCE in nature and the need to accept and utilize GENETIC LANDRACE ADAPTATION for all species, plant and animal. Few of these transhumance peoples are left. Today’s sheep and shepherds present a completely different picture. But that’s for tomorrow’s discussion. I’ve already transgressed from my original thought of why I ever chose to raise sheep and grow wool as a way of life, not just as a way of selling and trading amenities.