Last week, we were exploring one of our favourite fibres; Wool. We looked at its characteristics, how they differ fleece to fleece, and how that influences the outcome of our yarn. (If you missed it,you can find it here.) This week, we are going one step further by looking at breed-specific yarns.
But what are breed-specific yarns?
At the risk of stating the obvious, they are yarns spun from the fleece of a specific breed (or several known breeds) of sheep. In comparison, generic wool production is where a range of different fibres are blended to create the softest yarn possible, with courser fibres being discarded and wasted.
Over the past few years, breed-specific yarns have become more and more popular and as a result, more widely available - and it's not hard to see why. The lovely thing about breed-specific yarn is that it celebrates a breed's entire uniqueness. Those quirks and characteristics you find in the fleece translate directly into the yarn, and each skein is like a love letter to the animal that grew the fibre!
As we begin to explore the world of breed-specific yarns, we can also start to see which breeds are best suited with which type of knitting project. The only problem is, with over 200 breeds of sheep alone, keeping track of which breed produces what kind of wool can be pretty tricky.
This is where things get fun. Remember the characteristics we talked about in last weeks post? Staple Length, Crimp, Lustre and Fineness? To make it easier, breeds are grouped into different categories based on similarities in these characteristics. While it helps, this is by no means an exact science. Some breeds won't always fit perfectly into one category, and it's good to keep in mind that the same breed raised in two different environments can show significant differences in their fleece. BUT, it does help to be able to use these categories as a starting point, so let's have a look at what they are.
These have the smallest diameter measurement with an average of 25 or few microns and are often produce the softest yarns. The staple is generally short with a tiny, even crimp. Breeds such as Merino and Cormo fall into this category. Finewools work best for next to the skin projects as these fibres are known for their softness. Be wary of projects that will have a lot of wear, such as socks, as Finewools aren't always the most durable.
It's called medium for a reason because it lands right in the middle when it comes to length, crimp, fineness and lustre. With an average of around 24-31 microns, Mediumwools are more durable than Finewools but still relatively comfortable to wear next to the skin. You will find breeds such as Corriedale and Tunis in this category. Mediumwools suit pretty much any project due to their versatility.
Similar to mediumwool, they have 24-34 microns but have much more crimp leading to a very bouncy yarn. In fact, the robust crimp in these fibres means that they resist felting! (Though I would test this out with a swatch first before attempting to machine wash your new sweater.) The extra crimp means they do not have much lustre and usually sport a more matte appearance. The shorter staple length means Down yarns are often woollen spun, which also compliments the bouncy nature of the fibre. Choose Down fibres when you are looking for a light, lofty fabric, but avoid of you need drape. South Down and Dorset Down are great examples of down wool.
With their long staple length, this category is also known as lustrous Longwools. The yarn in this category is usually worsted spun and has a range of softness with an average micron count of 24-41. They have a long, wavy crimp, resulting in smooth and lustrous yarns. Longwools are perfect for projects which will have plenty of wear and particularly useful for outerwear. Examples of Longwool breeds are Cotswold and Romney.
The breeds that fall into this category grow complex fibres, with a variety of staple, fineness, crimp and lustre occurring in one fleece. Primitive type wool felts fantastically, is exceptionally strong and insulating. As with Longwool, it's perfect for outerwear. You will find Icelandic and Shetland breeds in this category.
Pretty cool, huh?! I can't think of a better way of honouring our woolly friends more than by respecting and celebrating every little bit of their fabulous fleece. By gaining a better understanding of the category a breed falls under, we can also choose the perfect yarn for our next project.