Isn’t taking wool from a sheep a good thing? I thought they were kind of like dogs.. they need to be groomed then we use the wool.

Any animal with hair, fur, wool, etc., benefits from grooming – including humans1.

There are primarily two kinds of sheep, one hair (kemp) and one which produces a woolly undercoat in winter. Hair sheep have been domesticated primarily for milk and secondarily for meat. Wool sheep were domesticated for primarily for wool production, and secondarily milk and meat. There are still wild sheep of both hair and wool varieties. The wild wool sheep and some domesticated primitive wool sheep still shed their woolly undercoat in spring2,3, but the majority of domesticated wool sheep need to be sheared annually as the shedding genes have been bred out.

The majority of domesticated sheep are now kept for meat and milk, and have poor quality fleeces which are often unfit for any use – though some can be used as a natural home insulation. It costs the farmer to have such sheep sheared, and the farmer then has disposal costs. As a result there’s a trend towards breeding natural shedding back into some breeds, such as the Wiltshire Horn:

So yes, whether natural shedders like the Soay, or shearing sheep like Merino, sheep need to get rid of their winter undercoat, and we would use the cast-off or sheared fleece either way. Wool is strong, insulating, water-repellent, breathable, anti-microbial, hypoallergenic, non-flammable, renewable, and (if you buy locally) low carbon-footprint4,5, unlike synthetic substitutes. Its processing is non-polluting and very easy on the environment (sheep graze otherwise unusable land, and improve it), compared with many plant-based substitutes[6]. Accept no substitutes!


[1] What does it feel like for a sheep after it gets sheared?

[2] How do sheep get rid of their wool naturally?

[3] Do wild sheep exist anymore?

[4] Characteristics of Wool Fabrics | Properties of Wool Fabrics

[5] 7 Properties of Wool That Might Surprise You

[6] 7 Eco-Friendly Fabrics That Will Green Your Wardrobe

Quora linky.

Why are animals of the cooler region able to produce wool?

Some, not all, animals (including some birds) in cooler regions have a seasonal requirement for a warm undercoat. In warmer weather, that undercoat is usually shed or moulted: you will notice your pet cat or dog doing so in spring.

In domesticated (but not wild) sheep, the shedding function has been eliminated wholly or partially by selective breeding.

Quora linky.

Would it have been possible for Native Americans domesticate mountain goats and big horn sheep, or is there something about them that makes them harder to domesticate than other goat/sheep species?

Others have mentioned the difficulties of catching and domesticating mountain goats and Bighorns.

I’m going to look at what the benefits of Bighorn sheep might have been to the Native Americans. Sorry, I don’t know much about goats.

Factors in sheep domestication:

  1. Milk
  2. Meat
  3. Fleece
  4. Skins
  5. Docility

(1) I don’t know if Bighorns are particularly good milkers, but, if domesticated, the better milkers could be selected for. However, at least 74% of Native Americans lack the gene mutation for adult lactose tolerance. That figure could well have been higher in the past, so they would not necessarily have wanted to domesticate Bighorns for milk.

(2) Bighorns are big buggers, and can weigh up to 300 pounds. This would be a good reason for their domestication, but absent other reasons, why not simply hunt wild Bighorns?

(3) Bighorns are hair sheep. They have minimal undercoat (fleece).

(4) Another good reason for domestication, but insufficient on its own: hides would be a byproduct of hunting for meat.

(5) Bighorns are BIG. 2–300 pounds, around 1 metre (40 ins) tall at the shoulder, 1.6 – 1.85 m (5–6ft) long nose to tail. Those horns alone can weigh 14kg (30 pounds). This alone wouldn’t render them undomesticable – cattle are much larger. However, combined with their social structure, their size alone is risky. Unlike domesticated sheep, they live communally – males and females together, rather than many females and one ram. The latter social structure works for domesticability: if you can control the ram, you can control the flock – or simply eliminate the ram, and the ewes will follow you as the new leader. With Bighorns, you’d need to eliminate all the rams – even keeping one for breeding doesn’t keep control of the flock – and gain control of the oldest ewe (female Bighorns have an age-related hierarchy). If you did somehow manage to keep a Bighorn flock whole, you would have to deal with big, dangerous rams attacking each other (and, presumably, you) in rut to establish a pecking order for access to fertile ewes.

Herding Bighorns is far too much effort for access to their meat and skins – which can be obtained much more economically through hunting.

Quora linky.

Why don’t sheep shrink when it rains?

I don’t know. Why don’t sheep shrink in the rain?

Oh, this wasn’t the lead-in to a hilarious joke. I’m sad now. 😥

Mainly because shrinkage, felting or more correctly fulling occurs through agitation of wool and related animal fibres in heated water. So your sheep will shrink, but only if you put it in the washing machine on the Boil setting. Though frankly, shrinkage is the least of your sheep’s worries in that circumstance.

Quora linky.

Is organic wool better?


Not really. It depends what you’re looking for.

Organic anything is not necessarily better, and in many instances much ‘worse’. Organic vegetables, for example, are often smaller because they are grown in natural fertiliser (dung) which has fewer nutrients; they may have minor blemishes and scabbing, because they are not treated with commercial pesticides which produce better results, and so on.

Organic wool comes from sheep who are grazed on naturally-fertilised land – which may have less grazing, of less nutritive value. The sheep themselves are not given certain medications, and not put through certain dips, so they are potentially less healthy. The wool itself undergoes processing without the usual chemicals. Undernourishment, and limited veterinary intervention, can produce a finer wool*, though usually in smaller quantities. The finished yarn, organically processed in organic-only mills, can be greasy and full of VM**. Some people love this, others get hives at the thought. Come to market, it’s pricey and usually in limited supply – so no wandering in a month later when you realise you need just one more ball.

I rarely use organic wool myself, but much of my knitting is for pattern-writing – there’s no point in me writing a pattern for that limited-run almost-organic mohair-Wensleydale blend produced by a nice lady vet locally, because by the time it would be written, she’d be sold out of this year’s shearing. But I do bagsy a few batts to spin myself, and make a cowl or gloves just for me, and I know she doesn’t starve her animals or deny them treatment. Lesson being: buy organic when you can visit the sheep it comes from.

* – The best cashmere comes from half-starved desert and mountain Cashmere goats, not their well-fed and well-cared-for brethren in the south of England (ND: half-starved because the native forage is so poor. Not because they’re denied food).

** – Vegetable matter. Twigs, hay, thorns, and occasionally poop.

Is there such thing as ethical silk and wool?

Of course there is.

Tussah silk is made from silk cocoons the silkworm has abandoned. It’s a bit rougher and nuppy, because the single thread from which the cocoon was spun has been broken, but it’s still silk and quite lovely.

To my way of thinking, ALL wool is ethical. NOT shearing sheep is animal neglect at the very minimum.

There is a rather unpleasant practice, limited to Australia – and even there they’re trying to end it – called ‘mulesing’, which traditionally involves no-anaesthetic surgery to a sheep’s anus and tail. However, mulesing could be done with anaesthetic, and there are other measures being put in place to prevent flystrike. It’s pretty nasty for an animal-lover to read about, but the alternative is for the sheep to be eaten alive by blow-fly maggots. If it were me, I think I’d go with the no-anaesthetic surgery, but then I was once threatened with an emergency no-painkillers episiotomy. If you want to avoid Australian wool completely, until mulesing is history, just check at the yarn label. Alternatively, buy local, from artisan mills and dyers who source their fibre locally.

Originally appeared on Quora.

How do sheep get rid of their wool naturally?

Only some primitive breeds still retain natural wool* shedding.

Some, like the Wiltshire Horn, are primarily milk or meat animals. Their wool is short, kempy (full of hair) and usually of poor quality. The Wiltshire Horn has become more popular recently because their shedding saves farmers a lot of money on shearing and disposing of the wool – yes, it costs money to get rid of wool that’s not useful! Here are some WHs mid-shed:

The rams have glorious horns:

But otherwise I always feel they look like they have a skin disease…

Most of the rest are semi-feral Scottish breeds. There’s Soay, a rare-breed becoming popular as lawnmowers:

They’re tiny sheep, with decent enough fleece for spinning and knitting. Look at the weeness!

And the cootness!

They have mental horns too – any number, any shape.

Whoo thay fock are ye gleekin at, Jimmy?

Then there’s the Boreray:

Well, it’s either a Boreray ram, or the first sighting of a live haggis in the wild. Their wool has been described as a bit kempy, short and coarse, but handspinners I know who’ve worked with it RAVE about it. Some is next-to-the-skin soft, and it can have a pretty good staple of around 6″ or so – hardly short! The Boreray is critically endangered: there may be no more than 300 left in the world.

Some other Scottish breeds still have fleece-shedding genes that pop up in individual sheep, or in partial shedding. These include the rare-breed North Ronaldsay or Orkney (a seaweed forager):

The Shetland, which has probably best fleece for hand-knitting, in a wide range of natural colours:

Yarn spun from their fleece is widely used by Fair Isle knitters, and is one of my personal favourites. My birthday’s in September, gift vouchers are welcome.

Then there’s the Hebridean:

All hail our Dark Lord! These unfairly-disregarded lovelies have one of the densest natural black fleeces in the sheep world, their only competitor being first-shearing Zwartbles. This, of course, means the fleece is useless for dyeing – and many people don’t like to spin or knit with black yarn. I do, though, and it has a good sturdy hand.

Sometimes a shedding sheep will need some help to get rid of their fleece. It’s not necessary to call in a shearer, though: you can just tug the wool off, in a process called ‘rooing’:

* – I’m going to ignore hair-sheep, which shed naturally, because they don’t produce much wool.

Quora linky.

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