Category Archives: fiber

A Summary of Sheep Breeds Popular in the United States

Droving sheep at sunset with storm – Powder River Basin – Wyoming.
Photo credit: Flickr CC via Jeremy Buckingham MLC.

Talk about an idyllic farm picture. Scatter some sheep across a green “veriditas” pasture under a few trees. Or watch a collie herd a flock of sheep across a mountain rangeland. This mammal is a good fit in a pastoral rural landscape, a hardy and rugged flock animal which provides healthy meat and fiber for humans. The number of sheep being raised in America has diminished greatly since the 1950’s, but they are coming back on today’s small, organic farms and among local food movement meat appreciators.


Sheep were being domesticated 9 to 11 thousand years ago in Mesopotamia. In Europe, sheep husbandry was taking place 600 B.C. in the south of France. They descended from the Asian mouflon which are still found in the mountains of Asia Minor and southern Iran.

The number of domestic sheep in the world is over one billion. Sheep were introduced into the United States in 1607. In the early 19th century, sheep production in the U.S. moved westward where rangeland competition between cattle and sheep have been ongoing ever since.

The sheep is a ruminant animal, that having a four-chambered stomach and chewing a cud. Sheep are mostly grazers as opposed to goats which tend to forage on a wider variety of plants. Sheep prefer to eat forbs, or flowering plants, as well as grass and clover. They are useful at controlling weeds such a leafy spurge, knapweed, and kudzu. Sheep love to eat grain, but if it is added to their diets, it must be introduced slowly.

There are more than 200 distinct sheep breeds worldwide. Breeds vary according to their quality of meat, milk, and wool production as well as their hardiness and adaptability. Wool fiber characteristics are described as fine, medium, and long, or carpet wool. A rich, moist, pasture acre might support ten grazing sheep whereas an arid pasture condition might require ten acres per sheep. The intelligent Border Collie is a popular dog for working sheep. Sheep are often marked by their owners with ear tags, or raddles, which are temporary colored pigments. Sheep growers must work to prevent predators such as coyotes and dogs from reducing their herds.

Wool-producing sheep breeds need sheared at least once a year, preferrably in the spring. One sheep might produce seven pounds of grease wool. Because of the expense of shearing, hair sheep varieties which shed their coat naturally, are gaining in popularity.

Foraging herbivores such as sheep under managed or “prescribed” grazing conditions, are beneficial to grasslands and help to improve biodiversity. But, care has to be taken not to allow sheep to over-graze, which damages range land.

Sheep production has been on the decline in the United States. It peaked at 56 million head in 1945, and went down to 7 million head in 2003. Larger sheep operations are in the Western U.S. and smaller ones are in the Northeast, where the meat is more popular. Texas, California, and Wyoming are the top sheep-producing states. Meatpacking concentration has eroded prices for sheep producers in the U.S., contributing to the decline in herds. The development of synthetic fabrics in the 1960’s hurt the wool industry. However, small local lamb producers are being embraced in the eat-local and farmers market movements that are popular today.

Now, the U.S. imports much of its lamb from Australia and New Zealand, where sheep are grass-fed and generally smaller weight animals. Australia accounts for almost 30 percent of the world’s lamb and mutton exports and New Zealand accounts for over 40 percent. These two countries also have the highest lamb and mutton consumption in the world at 50 pounds per year for New Zealand and 37 pounds per year for Australia, as compared to 1 pound per year in the U.S.

To follow are photos and brief descriptions of some of the most popular sheep breeds being raised in the U.S., plus a few heritage varieties.



Merino wool sheep – Virginia.
Photo credit: Flickr CC via brownpau.

Merino sheep breeds are fine wool sheep found in Australia, South Africa, South America and the U.S. This variety accounts for about 50 percent of the world’s sheep population. Fine wool sheep do well in arid and semi-arid regions, have a strong flocking instinct, are productive, adaptable, excellent foragers, and are long-lived. The merino wool sheep has fine and soft, high quality wool and is slightly smaller than sheep bred just for meat. Merino, a Spanish word, is historically well-known in Spain where it was introduced as early as the 12th century. Merino wool is common in high-end, performance athletic clothing.

There are many breeds of merino wool sheep including American Rambouillet, German Merinofleischschaf, South African Meat Merino, Delaine Merino, Argentine Merino, Booroola Merino, and others.



Rambouillet Sheep.
Photo credit: American Rambouillet Sheep Breeders Association.

Rambouillet are the most popular commercial sheep. They are the foundation breed of most western range flocks in the United States. Sometimes called the French Merino, they descend from the Spanish Merino crossed with native French “Rambouillet” farm sheep, dating back to 1800. German breeders further developed and popularized the breed, which is larger than the Spanish merino. The U.S. Rambouillet breed association was formed in 1889. This is a large and long lived breed with a strong flocking instinct. It is an excellent dual-purpose breed for both meat and wool.

To learn more, go to the American Rambouillet Sheep Breeders Association.



Suffolk sheep – Ovis aries – Midlands, England.
Photo credit: Flickr CC via fwooper.

The Suffolk sheep breed is a meat or “mutton-type” sheep, with medium wool, and a striking appearance with its black legs and head. It accounts for more than fifty percent of purebred sheep registrations. It originated from a cross between Southdown rams and Norfolk Horn ewes 200 years ago on the rugged southeastern coast of England. This is a large, fast growing breed which yields heavy, good-quality meat. They were introduced into the U.S. in 1888.

To learn more, go to the United Suffolk Sheep Association.



Hampshire sheep.
Photo credit: Wikipedia.

The Hampshire sheep breed produces fine quality medium wool and excellent mutton. They have black legs and faces, grow quickly, and have good meat carcasses. Hampshires are large and active foragers with a mild dispostion. The breed originated in the early 1800’s by crossing Southdowns with horned white-faced sheep native to the Hampshire Downs in the UK. It became popular in the U.S. in the 18th century.

To learn more, go to the American Hampshire Sheep Association.



Katahdin Sheep, third largest meat breed.
Photo credit: Hidden Meadow Farms – Bridgewater, Maine

The Katahdin sheep is a hair sheep which has good carcass quality and was developed in the U.S. in the 1950’s. They are named after Mt. Katahdin in Maine where they were crossed by an amateur geneticist. This breed is easy-care, low-maintenance, tolerant of extreme weather, and naturally resistant to parasites. It sheds its winter coat, so it does not have to be sheared, which saves costs and makes them suitable to the warmer growing regions. They are medium-sized and ideal for pasture lambing and forage systems.

To learn more, go to Katahdin Hair Sheep International.



Dorper Sheep.
Photo credit: Wikipedia.

The Dorper sheep is a hardy, popular breed in South Africa. Originating in arid condtions, it is highly adaptable to many environments. Its popularity in the U.S. started in 1995. Their coat is a mix of wool and hair and drops off without being sheared. It has a prized sheepskin because it is so thick, protecting it from harsh weather. This skin is marketed under the name “Cape Glovers” and provides about 20 percent of the Dorper’s carcass value. They are a good mutton producing sheep.

To learn more, go to the American Dorper Sheep Breeders’ Society.



Dorset Sheep.
Photo credit: Old McCaskill’s Farm – Rembert, South Carolina.

The Dorset sheep is a medium wool, meat sheep known for prolific lambing. Polled dorsets are popular in the U.S. They are prolific breeders and milkers with a good body carcass for meat production. In the U.S., Dorset history began in Salem, Oregon in 1860, while polled Dorsets originated at North Carolina State College in Raleigh. They are the most popular white faced breed in the U.S., and second only to the Suffolk breed in total numbers.

To learn more, go to the Continental Dorset Club.



Southdown Sheep.
Photo credit: Wyncrest Farms – Houstonia, Missouri.

The Southdown sheep are a dual-purpose medium wool and meat sheep well suited for farm flock production. They originated from southeastern England, are one of the oldest sheep breeds, and have contributed genetics to the Suffolk, Hampshire and Oxford breeds. They were known to be in Connecticut back in 1648. They are great survivors and thrivers in difficult conditions and adapt well to intensive management. The breed is medium-small with a gray face and legs and is polled. Southdown sheep are useful for grazing weeds in vineyards because they are too short to reach the grapes.



Karakul Sheep.
Photo credit: Flickr CC via Just chaos.

The Karakul sheep breed is a fat tailed sheep that is possibly the oldest of the domesticated sheep, dating back to 1400 B.C. in Persia. Fat tailed sheep are about 25 percent of the world sheep population and have a distinctive taste. Karakul sheep are found in very arid regions of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Extremely hardy, they are raised for meat, milk, pelts, and wool. They were introduced into the U.S. in the early 20th century for pelt production. Currently, Karakul’s are finding a niche in the fiber arts cottage industry, so there are small farm flocks throughout the U.S. The fleece lacks a high grease content, is easily spun, and produces a superior carpet yarn. It is the wool from which the art of felting began.

To learn more, go to the American Karakul Sheep Registry.



Lincoln Sheep.
Photo credit: National Lincoln Sheep Breeders Association

The Lincoln, or Lincoln Longwool sheep was imported from England into the U.S. in the late 18th century. It is known as the world’s largest sheep breed, with mature rams weighing from 250 to 350 pounds. They are long wooled sheep and their lustrous fleece is in demand for spinning and weaving crafts. They produce the heaviest and coarsest fleece of all the long-wooled sheep varieties.

To learn more, go to the National Lincoln Sheep Breeders Association.



Icelandic Sheep.
Photo credit: Flickr CC via Neil D’Cruze.

The medium-sized Icelandic sheep are raised for fiber, meat, and milk. This feral and thrifty breed has coarse, low grade wool, used for carpets. The breed is double-coated with a coarse long outer coat for protection from life in extreme environments. They are a very prolific, short-tailed breed originating from Northern Europe, and brought to Iceland by the Vikings in 9th century. Accustomed to harsh environments, they are efficient herbivores, and not very docile. To preserve its heritage it is illegal to import any sheep into Iceland, where the breed is used primarily for meat. The first Icelandic sheep were introduced into North America in 1985, in Canada.

To learn more, go to the Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America.



Navajo Churro Ram.
Photo credit: Flickr CC via Just chaos.

The Navajo Churro sheep is the oldest U.S. breed with the most animals located in New Mexico. They were imported to North America in the 16th century to feed Spanish armies. This breed is hardy and adaptable, intelligent, has delicate meat, and double coat wool for yarn used in Navajo weaving. Churro thrived in the Southwest and were kept by the Navajo along the Rio Grande Valley in the 17th century. They became an important part of Navajo culture, providing them with meat, milk, hide, horns and wool. The U.S. government nearly exterminated them in the 1860’s and again in the 1930’s, when flocks were massacred by the USDA to about 800 head. Today, they are making a comeback. The breed was revived by starting a breeding program in 1978 from gathering survivors found in small pockets. The species is now “rare” but not “endangered”.

To learn more, go to the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association.



Leicester Longwool Sheep at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.
Photo credit: Flickr CC via Rory Finneren.

The Leicester Longwool sheep were developed in the 1700’s by Britain’s Robert Bakewell. It is a curly wooled sheep, medium to large, with a high quality carcass, but valued especially by handspinners and weavers. These were raised in the early American colonies, but had almost disappeared by the 1930’s in the U.S. A Colonial Williamsburg project is working on bringing back this heritage sheep breed, classified as “rare”. This has been an important breed for humans. Leicester Longwool’s were instrumental in the colonization of New Zealand and Australia, and were used in the 19th and 20th centuries to create new breeds of sheep. Today they number about 2,000 world-wide.

To learn more, go to the Leicester Longwool Sheep Breeders Association.



1. Sheep breeds – Oklahoma State website.
2. Sheep 101 Information (Maryland).
3. American Sheep Industry Association.
4. Wikipedia.

Navajo Churro Sheep and Wool

flickr by Just chaos

The rare Navajo Churro sheep are of Iberian descent, brought to North American during the 16th century by the Spanish. By the 17th century, these sheep were popular in the Rio Grande Valley and had been acquired by the Native Americans.

Churro sheep are extremely hardy, low-maintenance, and adaptable to climate extremes. Their wool consists of a protective topcoat and a soft undercoat. Because of a rare trait, rams may develop four horns. The sheep are resistant to disease and have lean meat, but are used primarily for their wool.

Next, see this 1904 Edward Curtis photo:

File:Navajo flocks.jpg
Edward S. Curtis “Navajo Flocks” c1904 Plate #33

By 1750, overgrazing of these sheep in the Chuska Mountains of New Mexico destroyed the vegetation, resulting in less frequent fires in the area. In the mid-19th century, the Navajo tended three million head of Churro, which had adapted to the dry scrubby conditions of the Colorado Plateau. The Navajo’s lives, by then, were dependent upon these sheep.

Prior to the Civil War, and during the dust bowl, the federal government mandated stock reductions in Navajo lands that nearly put an end to this breed. They numbered less than 500 in the 1970’s, when efforts began to restore the breed. Today, they number over six thousand head.

flickr by Just chaos

Churros come in a variety of colors, including reds, browns, black, white, and mixes, and color may change with age.

The above photo is of a Navajo-style loom. The Navajo people use Churro fleece in rugs and other weavings. The long, dense fibers of Churro wool have a very low lanolin content, making it ideal for spinning without washing and easy to dye with natural vegetable pigments.

The wide range of natural colors makes it easy to have a variety of colors without the need for dyeing, although natural vegetable dyes are sometimes used to produce deeper colors and wider selection.

The pinks and reds from vegetable dyes are pictured above. Red dirt mixed with rainwater and prickly pear cactus fruit may be used for red dyes.

This photo shows Churro yarns in the yellow ranges from vegetable dyes. Examples of yellow dye sources are sagebrush, rabbitbush, and onion skins.

Above is a large old treadle style loom, also used for Churro yarn weaving.

These next three photos were taken at the Santa Fe farmers market last Saturday:

A farmer who raises Churro sheep and sells his yarn is shown spinning yarn in his market booth.

Because Churro wool has a very light grease content, it is possible to spin this wool in-the-grease. Its long fibers and relatively little crimp make it a popular material for hand-spinning and weaving.

This booth is run by Antonio and Molly Manzanares from Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico. They own Shepherd’s Lamb, a family ranching operation 100 miles north of Santa Fe at an elevation of 8,000 feet. They have a nice website rich with photos and a history of their ranch, if you are inclined to learn more about raising sheep in this unique geographical region. You can order lamb and yarn from them, too.

The exotic Churro sheep, their story, and the people who have raised them is perhaps one of the more romantic tales of the settling of the Wild Southwest. I’m glad to say that the story continues to this day, as does the hardiness and adaptation of both this species and its people.

Brazil is Pulling Ahead in Cotton Production

Cotton yields in Brazil have risen the fastest of major world producers in recent years. Brazil and India had similar yields in 1992, both below the United States and the world average.

With the adoption of modern, large-scale farming and improved access to inputs—and due to the extremely favorable climate in Brazil’s new production regions—Brazil’s cotton yields have surged to more than double the world average. Today, Brazil’s average yields are second only to those in Australia and Israel, where production is almost entirely irrigated. Brazil’s 2009/10 cotton yield is estimated at 1,498 kilograms per hectare, only 14 percent below yields in Australia and Israel (USDA, FAS, 2010). (source)

Cotton Demand, Prices, and Supply

photo source: usda
  • Cotton is one of the most important textile fibers in the world, accounting for around 35 percent of total world fiber use.
  • While some 80 countries from around the globe produce cotton, the United States, China, and India together provide two-thirds of the world’s cotton.
  • The United States, which ranks third in production behind China and India, is the leading exporter, accounting for over one-third of global trade in raw cotton.
  • The U.S. cotton industry accounts for more than $25 billion in products and services annually, generating about 200,000 jobs in the industry sectors from farm to textile mill.
  • While demand for U.S. cotton has increased considerably over the last several years, the United States has become an export-dominated market as the domestic textile industry has declined significantly.

From the April 11, 2011 WASDE report:

This month’s U.S. cotton forecasts for 2010/11 show lower production, higher domestic mill use, and lower ending stocks. The production estimate is reduced 215,000 bales from last month based on USDA’s final Cotton Ginnings report released March 25, 2011. Domestic mill use is raised 100,000 bales, reflecting recent activity. The export estimate is unchanged. Ending stocks are reduced 300,000 bales to a record low 1.6 million, the equivalent of 8 percent of total use. The forecast range for the marketing-year average price received by producers of 81 to 84 cents per pound is raised 1 cent on each end of the range.

The world cotton forecasts for 2010/11 include lower production and higher consumption, resulting in a 2-percent reduction in ending stocks. World production is reduced about 400,000 bales, based on decreases for the United States, the African Franc Zone, Turkey, and Pakistan, partially offset by an increase for Brazil. World consumption is raised, reflecting increases for Pakistan, the United States, and others, partially offset by a decrease for Brazil. Revisions to world trade include lower exports by Brazil and the African Franc Zone and lower imports by China and Pakistan. Forecast ending stocks of 41.6 million bales are 36 percent of world consumption, which is the smallest stocks-to-consumption ratio since 1993/94.

U.S. cotton producers are likely to face increased competition in future years as technologies first adopted in the U.S. – genetically engineered (GE) cotton and other agricultural technologies – spread to other countries. India, for example, has adopted GE cotton and managed to expand its cotton area and acieve significant growth in yields. Production rose 70 % in 5 years, and India, once one of the world’s largest importers of cotton, is now one of the largest U.S. competitors.

For the past month, the cotton bale price has hovered near 200 cents per pound. A bale weighs 480 pounds, or 218 kilograms. One 480-pound bale is enough for 215 pairs of jeans. At $2 per pound, this would make the average cost of cotton for each pair of jeans approximately $4.46.

5-year Cotton Price – source:finviz

The U.S. is expected to regain the status as the world’s largest cotton exporter and supplier to China this year, but has hit a low stocks-to-use ratio of 8%. Cotton is included in our government’s direct payment policy and its production this year may be even more lucrative than the high priced grain markets. U.S. exports have been surging in 2011 to China, Turkey, and Bangladesh.

Cotton demand has something in common with meat demand. That is, as the large populations in the developing nations become more prosperous, especially in China and India, the demand for textiles increases.

While ready-to-wear clothes are available, many Indian women pick cloth they
like and have garments custom made by a local darzi, or tailor.
source: flickr

China, the world’s major cotton importer, has announced that they are once again building a cotton reserve. This will encourage cotton production within China by supporting prices.

The expectation is that cotton prices will fall next season, but limitations on seed and equipment limit farmers’ ability to ramp up sowing in some places to cash in on the strong market. This is why production is only expected to increase by around 11%, even though prices have doubled over the past year. Cotton rose to $2.197 on March 7, the highest in 140 years of trading in New York. Cotton surged 92% in 2010, the biggest annual gain since 1973. The price advanced 157% in the past 12 months on the S&P GSCI Commodity Index, surpassing silver and coffee gains, which also more than doubled.

Synthetics have grown in use to help even out high cotton prices. Since it takes six months from cotton in the fields to turn-around clothing, today’s clothing was made with cotton at half the price of the current market. Polyester is roughly twice as cheap compared with cotton as it was five years ago. Hanes company is starting to use Flax as an added fiber to reduce its cotton expense.

Cotton’s stocks-to-use ratio globally may rise to 40-44% next season, though that is well below its 10-year average of 50%. That would be up nicely from this past season’s ratio of 37%.

The International Cotton Advisory Committee, a Washington-based 43-member country group, predicts that cotton’s share of the global textile market will shrink to about 30 percent by 2020 from about 37 percent as mills switch to synthetics. However, Jagdish Parihar, managing director of the cotton division at Olam, a Singapore-based trader of farm commodities, predicts that a sustained annual demand growth of 3-4% is a possibility.
K. McDonald

What is Egyptian Cotton and Why is it Made in China?

Shortly after the crisis in Egypt began, I changed the sheets on the bed and noticed this tag which prompted this post.

What is Egyptian Cotton?

Egyptian cotton is “extra long staple” mostly made from a cotton plant called Gossypium barbadense or from Gossypium hirsutum, both native to America. It was believed to be derived from sea island cotton or by hybridization with Peruvian cotton. Its fiber length is around 1 3/8 inches. These plants were introduced to Egypt in the nineteenth century by Egypt’s ruler, Mohammed Ali Pasha, who developed them as a cash crop to support his army. The plant is tropical and grows as a small, bushy tree requiring high humidity and rainfall. It contains the chemical gossypol, reducing its susceptibility to insect and fungal damage.

Cotton from Egyptian fibers is more breathable and becomes softer over time with use. It produces less lint and will not pill. This high-quality fiber is long and narrower than other cottons, allowing thread counts of up to 1,000 per square inch. This provides a lighter weight and extremely strong, long-lasting durability. Sheets made with Egyptian cotton can last forty or fifty years.

Look out for this Kite Mark as this is the ony guarantee that you will have that your products are 100% made from the best egyptian cotton yarns and made entirely in Egypt.

Cotton was first cultivated in the Old World 7,000 years ago, in the region of the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent, which is today eastern Pakistan and northwestern India. Cotton has been spun, woven, and dyed since prehistoric times. It clothed the people of ancient India, Egypt, and China. Hundreds of years before the Christian era, cotton textiles were woven in India with matchless skill, and their use spread to the Mediterranean countries.

During the U.S. Civil War, with heavy European investments, Egyptian-grown cotton became a major alternate source for British textile mills. Egyptian cotton is more durable and softer than American Pima cotton, which is why it is more expensive. Pima cotton is American cotton that is grown in the southwestern states of the U.S.

source: wikipedia
(Cotton fibers viewed under a scanning electron microscope)

In Egypt, the introduction in 1820 of long-staple cotton, transformed its agriculture into a cash-crop monoculture by 1900. The social effects of this were enormous: land ownership became concentrated and many foreigners arrived, shifting production towards international markets.

During the American Civil War, British and French traders invested heavily in cotton plantations and the Egyptian government of Viceroy Isma’il took out substantial loans from European bankers and stock exchanges. After the American Civil War ended in 1865, British and French traders abandoned Egyptian cotton and returned to cheap American exports, sending Egypt into a deficit spiral that led to the country declaring bankruptcy in 1876, a key factor behind Egypt’s annexation by the British Empire in 1882.

source: flickr
(Cotton in Bags on a street in Esna, Egypt)

As you can see by this next chart, Egypt does not rank in the top ten cotton producing nations of today:

source: wiki/National Cotton Council of America

The flooding in Pakistan during the past growing season wiped out a large portion of the “Egyptian cotton” crop, where much of it is grown today, making it especially pricey, currently.

As a final note, the “Egyptian cotton” sheets which I purchased that were “made in China” are starting to pill, so they are obviously a “fraud”. You get what you pay for.