Sheep Breeds

Sheep are one of the oldest domesticated animals dating back to somewhere between 11,000 to 9,000 BC. Sheep bred primarily for wool date back to about 6,000 BC. It is believed that modern sheep descend from wild sheep called mouflon (Ovis gmelini). They have been bred for several uses: meat, wool, hides, or milk. Some breeds are dual purpose. Sheep may have horns or be polled (without horns). Sheep horns will curl and spiral and are more common and larger in rams. Some sheep, such as Jacob, have 4 horns.

All sheep have both hair and wool fibers. Over time some sheep breeds have been bred to predominately produce wool not hair. Wool unlike hair, does not shed and must be shorn from the sheep. A sheep that isn't shorn will suffer from overheating, disease, wool-blindness (wool growing over their eyes and obscuring their sight). A lamb born to a ewe that is not shorn may not be able to access milk.

Wool used in yarn for the handcrafting market is defined by crimp, the natural wave in the wool; micron count, the fiber diameter; and staple length, the length of individual fibers. Crimp defines how much bounce and memory (the ability for the wool garment to retain its shape) the wool has. More crimp means more bounce and more memory. Finer wools have more crimp. A finer micron count makes for a soft wool. Longer staple length increases the strength of the yarn and may reduce the amount of pilling that occurs though this also depends on how the yarn is constructed.

Wool classification

Fine wool breeds are Merino or Merino type breeds such as Rambouillet, American Cormo, Delaine-Merino, and Saxon Merino.

  • Ultra-fine Merino is less than 15.5 microns
  • Superfine Merino is 15.6 - 18.5 microns
  • Fine Merino is 18.6 - 20 microns
  • Medium Merino is 20.1 - 23 microns
  • Strong Merino is over 23 microns

Below are generalizations. There are always finer and coarser examples of every breed of wool.

Medium wool breeds include Columbia, Corriedale, Finnsheep, Polypay, and Targhee. They range from     microns.

Longwools have less crimp or are curly instead of having crimp and long staple lengths. They include Bluefaced Leicester, Border Leicester, Coopworth, Cotswold, Lincoln, Romney, and Wesleydale. They range from    microns.

Colored wools (non-white sheep) include Black Welsh Mountain, California Variegated Mutant (CVM), Icelandic, Jacob, Navajo-Churro, and Shetland. The micron counts vary as there are colored Merinos and Merino crosses.

Down breed wools originate in Southern England where they get the term down not because they are downy. This wool comes from breeds primarily used for meat but have interesting wool, especially to handspinners. The staple lengths are shorter, typically 2-4 inches and have less well defined crimp. They often are colored wools. Breeds include Black Welsh Mountain, California Red, Cheviot, Clun Forest, Hampshire, Kerry Hill, Polypay, Southdown, Suffolk, Texel, and Tunis. They micron counts tend towards 30 microns.

Wool up to 25 microns is considered next-to-skin soft by most people. Wool up to 32 microns is suitable for sweaters. Anything over 35 microns is considered a rug wool not suitable for garments.

For comparison, cashmere is less than 19 microns while human hair ranges from 50 to 120 microns.

All domesticated sheep are classified as Ovis aries.

Below are some of our favorite sheep breeds. We will keep adding to this, especially breeds we carry in the shop.


Bluefaced Leicester Sheep 

"Bled Leicesters, Yealand Conyers - - 2176599" by Karl and Ali is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Bluefaced Leicester (BFL) sheep, also know as Hexham Leicester were developed around Hexham in the county of Northumberland in northern England. BFL sheep were selected from Border Leicester sheep for their fine fleeces and blue face.  The blue face comes from short white hair over black skin. Mature BFL sheep will not have wool on their heads, necks, or legs.  Both ram and ewe are polled (without horns). One of their most distinguishing characteristics is their broad Roman nose.

The breed was developed primarily for crossbreeding to other native British breed around the turn of last century.  It has recently become a popular breed, especially among handspinners and is increasingly popular for hand knitting and crocheting..


"File:Bled Leicester Shearling Wool.jpg" by BlueLeicester is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The wool of the Bluefaced Leicester falls in the category of a luster longwool and occasionally contains kemp (wiry non-pigmented hairs). The wool has narrow curly locks rather than crimp and natural luster causing it to take dye beautifully. The micron count should fall between 24 and 28 microns and the staple length range is typically 3 to 6 inches. Fleeces will weigh between 2.5 and 4.5 pounds. The mature ewe weighs 150 to 175 pounds and the ram weighs 200 to 250 pounds. Most BFL sheep are white, a recessive gene can create an occasional colored sheep. The sheep are primarily found in the UK though flocks can also be found in the United States and Canada.

We like BFL wool for durable socks, sweaters, and other garments. that are more durable than those made from Merino while remaining next-to-the-skin soft.


Corriedale Sheep 

Corriedale sheep and lambs

"Corriedale Sheep @ Rokkosan Pasture" by Hyougushi is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Corriedale sheep were developed simultaneously in New Zealand and Australia in the mid 1800′s but credit is given to James Little for establishing the breed.  He was doing this breeding work while managing the Corriedale Estate in Otaga on the South Island of New Zealand.  Although Mr. Little started his work in the 1860′s Corriedale wasn’t chosen as the official name for the breed until 1902.  Corriedales were first imported into the United States in 1914.

The goal of the breed was to create a dual-purpose breed that would do well in the areas of New Zealand that have moderate amounts of rain.  To achieve this goal Lincoln rams were bred to Merino ewes.  The breed is marked by long living, docile animals whose ewes are good mothers and have a high percentage of multiple births. The rams will weigh between 175 and 275 pounds at maturity and the ewes weigh between 130 and 180 pounds with a fleece weights between 5 to 10 pounds skirted. The staple length range of a Corriedale fleece is 3.5 to 6 inches with a micron count between 24.5 and 31.5.

Corriedale sheep are adaptable to a wide variety of grazing situations and as such they are now the second most numerous sheep breed in the world behind Merino sheep.

We like Corriedale wool for garments that are more durable than those made from Merino while remaining next-to-the-skin soft.



"Finnsheep ewes and lambs, Finland" by David Smith from Elimäki, Finland is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Finnish Landrace Sheep also known as Finn sheep have many characteristics that make them ideal all around sheep. The ewes are good mothers typically having triplets or quadruplets and producing enough milk to feed them all. They are naturally short tailed so they don’t require tail docking. They are also naturally polled or horn-less. Finnsheep are considered a dual-purpose sheep as their meat is lean and tasty and their wool is fine and lustrous. While Finn wool is considered a medium-grade wool it is the finest of the group with a micron count falling between 23.5 and 31 microns with a 3-6 inch staple length. The wool also has the reputation of blending well with other fibers.

As their name implies, Finnsheep are originally from Finland. They are thought to be several hundred years old and therefore considered an ancient sheep breed. This descendant of the wild mouflon sheep first came to North America in 1966 for crossbreeding purposes to increase lambing percentages in existing flocks. In Finland they were bred to have multiple births because the extremely cold winters meant that only a few ewes were allowed to live indoors until spring. Then in spring these few ewes would be able to have many lambs thus quickly increasing the flock size during the warmer weather.

Because of its extensive use in crossbreeding programs there are very few flocks of purebred Finnsheep though their popularity is increasing as handspinners learn about this wonderful breed.  The majority of the Finnsheep in North America are white. Black, grey, and brown colors all exist as well as spotted or piebald. Due to an increased interest work is being done in Finland to preserve the color range of the Finnsheep.


Merino Sheep

"Merino Sheep Walter Peak New Zealand" by amanderson2 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Merino sheep are the gold standard against which all other wool is judged.  Originally from Spain, these animals were so highly valued that before the 18th century a person could be put to death if they exported a merino sheep out of Spain. During the 18th century the Spanish king sent a handful of merino sheep to France that founded the Rambouillet sheep line. Now most merino wool comes from Australia where approximately 80 percent of the sheep are merinos. All fine wool breeds of sheep are merino or merino crosses.

"Champion Merino Fleece" by kattekrab is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Merinos are valued primarily for their crimpy, soft wool that has a lot of lanolin and very little luster.  Generally their wool is 2.5 to 4 inches long and between 18.5 to 24 microns.  Merino can be extremely fine, as fine as 11.5 microns, well within the range of luxury fibers like cashmere, yak, and camel downs.

We like Merino for next-to-the-skin uses where durability and abrasion resistance isn't as important like scarves, cowls, and hats.


Targhee Sheep

"2009-Targhee-Sheep" by Yathin sk is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Targhee sheep breed was developed relatively recently. It originated in the early 20th century at the USDA sheep experiment station in Boise, Idaho, which is surrounded by the Targhee National Forest for which the breed was named. The goal of the breed was to create a dual-purpose breed that had a good yield of wool and that would thrive in the western plains and grasslands where the breed was developed.  The bases of the breed were Rambouillet, Corriedale, and Lincoln sheep using a ratio of ¾ fine wool and ¼ long wool breeding strategy. In 1966 the breeding books were closed and from then on all registered Targhee sheep have parents that are both registered Targhees.

Targhees are large sheep. Mature rams weigh between 200 and 300 pounds and mature ewes weigh between 140 and 200 pounds. Targhee ewes produce approximately 5 to 6 pounds of clean fleece while Targhee rams produce about 8 to 11 pounds of clean fleece.  The staple length is between 3 to 5 inches long with a micron count of between 21 to 25.

Targhee wool is bouncy and delicious. We love it for sweaters or any other next-to-the-skin garment.


Wensleydale Sheep

Wensleydale "File:Sheep breeds (18096851743).jpg" by Rictor Norton & David Allen from London, United Kingdom is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The Wensleydale sheep take their name from the Wensleydale region of North Yorkshire in the UK. The breed developed from a ram known as “Blue Cap” who was a result of the cross breeding of a Dishley Leister ram and a Teeswater ewe.  He got his name from the distinctive blue pigmentation of his head. This and other qualities such as his large size and distinctive wool have been passed down to his modern day predecessors. Wensleydale are considered to be the largest of the breeds found in the UK with mature rams weighing approximately 300lbs and mature ewes weighing approximately 250lbs.

The wool of the Wensleydale falls in the category of a luster longwool. While still on the hoof, the wool of the Wensleydale falls in ringlets almost to the ground. Due to a genetic quality the wool should be completely free of kemp (wiry non-pigmented hairs). The micron count should fall between 33-35 microns and the staple length can be 12 inches long for a years worth of growth. Sometimes Wensleydale sheep are shorn twice a year providing two 6 inch long fleeces per year. The sheep are primarily found in the UK and are classified as “at risk” by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust of the UK as the breed has less than 1500 registered breeding females.

"File:Wool Wensleydale Longwool sheep black.jpg" by Photographed by User:Bullenwächter is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

We love Wensleydale wool for durable socks, lace patterns that will block incredibly well, and any project where a durable lustrous wool is desired. And especially because the sheep are so cute!