Sheep with naturally coloured wool are found occasionally in most breeds. In New Zealand, high-quality coloured sheep are often kept for their wool, which has both commercial and handcraft uses. Among the most favoured breeds are Merino, Romney, Corriedale, Polwarth and English Leicester, though interest in other breeds such as Gotland and Arapawa is increasing.
Why are some sheep coloured?
Sheep inherit from their parents the genes that make them naturally coloured. There are many possible patterns: all white, several mixed patterns including piebald, and solid colour. The colour can be black, dark or light grey, or dark or light brown. Most coloured sheep become lighter as they age.
There are two main gene series that control the colour of New Zealand sheep: one governs colour pattern and the other governs the actual colour that the sheep will be, in any parts that are not white. Every sheep inherits two genes of each series, one from each parent. Find out more about naturally coloured sheep genetics.
Naturally coloured wool and its uses
Each breed has characteristics that make its wool suitable for particular uses. Good management also plays a big part, ensuring that wool is sound and free of contaminants such as vegetable matter. The way wool is handled at shearing time is also very important.
The best-known end use for natural coloured wool is handcrafts. Spinners, weavers, felters and other woolcrafters value the wool from coloured sheep for its natural look and its freedom from dye chemicals. Some breeders export fleece and carded wool for handcrafts to other countries. This is a niche market for top quality fleeces.
Coloured wool is also processed by commercial manufacturers into yarn, and may be made into woven or knitted garments, blankets and rugs, and other items. These command high prices in the export and tourist markets. Natural coloured knitting yarn is popular in New Zealand and overseas, and is made by a number of companies. Natural coloured wool can also be blended with other specialty fibres, such as alpaca or mohair and most recently possum, in the making of luxury products. Furthermore, both commercial enterprises and handcrafters find that by overdyeing natural coloured wool they can obtain a lovely range of interesting soft colours.
There is a small but growing demand for natural coloured sheepskins. As with handcraft wool, there are specific requirements if quality skins are to be produced.
Different breeds produce wool that suits different end uses.
There can be wide variations between fleeces even within a breed. However, knowing something about the breeds will give the craftsperson an idea of what to expect. Each fleece must still be selected on its merits.
In choosing a breed or breed type, some of the fleece characteristics to consider are:
- Fibre diameter (fineness): This is measured in microns (millionths of a metre). The average for a fine fleece can be as low as 14-15 micron, up to 40-45 micron for a strong (coarse) fleece. In general, the finer the fibres the softer the end product will be. Strong wool is more suited to outer garments and floor coverings.
- Staple length: 100-140mm is usually considered the easiest length for hand spinning.
- Crimp: Generally the finer the wool, the more crimps per centimetre. Pronounced, closely-packed crimps usually indicate that the resulting yarn will have some elasticity and a garment made from it should hold its shape well. The Down breeds, such as the Poll Dorset, show a confused fibre crimp and yarns made from these bulky fleeces are bouncy and light.
- Lustre (sheen): Strong (coarse) wools tend to be more lustrous than fine wools. Fleeces from Down breeds are chalky in appearance with little lustre.
Many naturally coloured sheep in New Zealand are a cross between two or more breeds, and their characteristics can range across the parent breeds. A hogget (first-year) fleece is often much finer and softer than a fleece from an adult sheep. Fleeces become coarser with a less clearly defined crimp as sheep age.