A few years back, on the first weekend in May, my then-fiance-now-husband and I were wandering through the barns at the Maryland Sheep and Wool festival. We were looking at all of the breeds and chatting with shepherds and trying to make a list of the sheep we wanted to start with at our new smallholding. As a lifelong farm girl and a long time fiber artist I had plenty of ideas, but my husband was pretty new to livestock. He’d been helping me for the past few years with my llamas and alpacas and chickens, but we were doing this together and I wanted him to come up with his own preferences. We had already agreed that we wanted a smaller heritage breed with versatile wool and good feet (not prone to hoof rot, etc.) that would do well on our grass/browse type pastures.
In the end, it was the Hog Island sheep that really interested both of us. Staff from the Mount Vernon estate, George Washington’s home on the Potomac River, were at the festival with a pair of ewes. We put our names on their email list, I bought a small white Hog Island fleece (of course!) and we continued on our way. I was surprised by how lovely the fleece was while my husband really appreciated how alert but calm and friendly the ewes had been. And those freckled faces were ridiculously cute. We went to work planning our sheep shed and fencing and working out the plans for our small sustainable farm.
Well, you know what so often happens to the best laid plans. Our first sheep were not Hog Island. We ended up adopting a pair of Jacob ewes from a local rescue. Jacobs had been #2 on our list and we really fell in love with those girls. Our Hog Island ewes, Olga and Anita, came about a year later. And we immediately fell in love with them as well. Getting them home from Mount Vernon was an adventure and involved me taking the wrong exit, ending up in downtown D.C., and driving alongside the National Mall as tourists pointed out the crazy people with the sheep in the Subaru. But that’s a story for another time.
Hog Island sheep are a small, compact, well balanced breed with sturdy legs and feet. Ewes can be either polled or horned while rams either have horns or small scurs. Most of the Hog Island sheep are white wooled and around 20% are black. This breed seems to have a lot of color in its genes. The lambs are often born spotted but the spots fade as they grow older and turn to white. Black lambs are born black and remain black as adults. Adult sheep can have brown, black, or white faces and legs, with many of them having speckles instead of solid color. Even the white wool has some pigment, being various shades of cream or ivory often with some darker tinted neck wool. The wool itself is quite matte with no visible luster. When dyed, it produces a soft color effect that can be quite lovely. Much more about dying Hog Island wool in a later post.
The average staple length of the Hog Island fleece I have worked with is 2.5 inches, though I’ve seen both longer and shorter. My girls each have an average staple of about 3 inches. In the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, Deborah Robson notes that the few samples of Hog Island that she had access to for the book ranged from 1.5 to 2.5 inches in length. I think it’s safe to conclude that Hog Island wool tends to be on the shorter side, similar to what you find with many of the Down breeds. In fact, Hog Island sheep share a lot of characteristics with Southdown sheep, something else I’ll explore in more depth in the coming months.
I currently have 5 Hog Island fleeces in my studio. They’re from 2 wethers, 2 non-breeding ewes, and 1 bred ewe. As I work with each fleece I’ll be making detailed notes, doing lots of research, and writing posts based on the strongest characteristics of HI wool. From past experience I’m expecting these qualities to be fineness, elasticity and moisture management, and resistance to fulling/felting. I am sending samples of each fleece off for micron testing and will be awaiting results. Microns, if you don’t already know, are 1/1,000,000 of a meter, and are currently the measurement of wool fineness recognized by most fiber artists. Most Hog Island wool that has been tested falls in the 20-30 micron range with the smallest numbers being the softest. Of the samples, I expect Anita’s the be the finest, judging by the feel and the naked eye. We shall see. Hog Island wool has an undeserved reputation as a coarse fiber when in reality it falls into the fine/medium range. In my future post about our micron counts and fineness I’ll write a lot more about the way we as fiber artists and consumers choose wool and why we should widen our parameters a bit more. Right now I’m going to concentrate on Hog Island’s wonderful elasticity.
Sheep’s wool is the only natural fiber that is elastic. All other fibers with the quality of elasticity are synthetic. And all types of wool possess the qualities of elasticity and resiliency/recovery to some degree. However, all things not being equal, some breeds grow wool that excel at these qualities. Hog Island is one of them. In general, wool is composed of long, flexible molecular chains. The outside of a strand of wool is covered by cuticle cells, more commonly called scales. The scales will vary according to breed group (down, longwool, etc.) and determine how well the wool will felt or full. The interior of the strand, the wool’s cortex, contains a spring-like structure in the very center that gives wool its flexibility, elasticity, and resiliency. The down breeds, some of the fine wool breeds, and a few of the breeds that don’t fit neatly in groups have extra stretchy springs. They are also helped along by fiber density and natural crimp present in their locks. Hog Island wool is quite dense – each staple containing hundreds of strands of wool – and has a fairly disorganized crimp. This causes the fibers to move away from each other into an airy jumble instead of lying against each other in even ripples. The result is a warn and lofty woolen yarn with plenty of bounce and spring.
What’s so important about elasticity in fiber? Elastic fiber creates elastic garments. It means that your clothes won’t stretch out and remain that way. Without elasticity your knitted hats and gloves would not spring back into shape, and your socks would grow loose, fall down, and stay that way. Knitted fabric is intended to be body hugging while woven fabric is drapey. There are exceptions, but in general these rules stand. Yarn made from Hog Island wool – and several other breeds on the Livestock Conservancy’s conservation list – has plenty of stretch and resiliency. Elasticity also ties in to textile strength in general. Wool can stretch an average of 25-30% of its length before breaking under the strain. Adding twist to wool by spinning adds even more tensile strength.
There’s another quality that goes hand in hand with elasticity, and that is moisture management. Wool is excellent at repelling moisture and also absorbing it. The cuticle scales on each wool shaft have a waxy covering that helps them repel water while still allowing the absorption of water vapor. The cortical cells that surround the small flexible spring contain sulfur proteins that attract and absorb water molecules. According to Clara Parkes on page 20 of The Knitter’s Book of Socks, “Even when the wool fiber is pulled taut, its molecules still have room to stretch out further – which is what gives wool its exceptional elasticity. Such an arrangement tends to allow more moisture to penetrate and reside within the fiber without our feeling it.”
Wool has the ability to absorb 30% of its own weight in moisture before we begin to feel any wetness. This means wearing wool helps wick away sweat as well as keeping you dry from light rain or fog. That’s a great quality for socks and outerwear garments. I’m going to put this to the test in real life. I’m currently spinning a 3 ply sock yarn from my Olga’s fiber. I plan to knit myself a pair of socks and wear them as I’m working around the farm. I’m hard on socks so this experiment will answer a lot of questions!
I’m curious to know if the people who lived on Hog Island made garments out of the Hog Island sheep’s wool. This is part of my ongoing research into the lives of people and sheep on Hog Island. Did the island’s residents spin the wool in the grease for even more moisture control? Many of the island folk were watermen and I can see the value of wearing a sweater spun in the grease while you’re fishing or harvesting oysters. One side of Hog Island borders the Atlantic Ocean and the island gets plenty of rain storms and sea spray. And Hog Island wool is quite heavy in lanolin. I may experiment with spinning some of it in the grease and knitting some kind of useful garment with the yarn. If I do, I’ll write about it here. I could really use a moisture repelling winter hat to wear around the farm when it snows.
More in October, when I write about knitting and felting with Hog Island wool. Thanks for reading!
Amos, Alden. The Big Book of Handspinning. Loveland: Interweave Press, 2001
Robson, Deborah and Ekarius, Carol. The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook. North Adams: Storey Publishing, 2011.
Parkes, Clara. The Knitters Book of Wool. New York: Potter Craft, 2007
Parkes, Clara. The Knitters Book of Socks. New York: Potter Craft, 2011
Smith, Beth. The Spinners Book of Fleece. North Adams: Storey Publishing, 2004
SPEAKMAN, J. The Perfect Elasticity of Wool. Nature 124, 948 (1929). https://doi.org/10.1038/124948b
By Milton Harris. Louis R. Mizell. and Lyman Fourt. ELASTICITY OF WOOL AS RELATED TO ITS CHEMICAL STRUCTURE. RESEARCH PAPER RP1486. Part of Journal of Research of the N.ational Bureau of Standards, Volume 29, July 1942 https://nvlpubs.nist.gov/nistpubs/jres/29/jresv29n1p73_A1b.pdf