Spinning with the British Isles’ Rare & Heritage Sheep Breeds

aforementioned archipelago

aforementioned archipelago

Nestled in an often rainy corner of the North Atlantic, the British Isles are home to an outsized number of sheep. England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are home to 60-odd distinct sheep breeds. Not all of these are native, but many are. It’s incredible to have such diversity here on this fairly tiny archipelago.

For a novice handspinner like me, trying out fleece from rare and heritage breeds has been a big part of learning about spinning. Luckily some heritage breed fleece is quite easy to find– at least in the UK (see list below). You can buy a raw fleece direct from a farmer and dig in, but many breeds’ fleeces are available as roving–if you know where to look.

What’s so great about trying out heritage and rare breeds? There is a lot to be said for putting down your acid-dyed Merino or Corriedale roving and picking up some Blue-Faced Leicester, then moving on to Shetland, Gotland, Cotswold, Ryeland, Manx Loaghtan or North Ronaldsay–whatever captures your imagination.

In sourcing rare- and/or heritage-breed fleece you may choose to buy direct from the farmer. That’s a great way to buy because you will be supporting a whole chain of traditional skills and industry. You’re supporting the farmer who has chosen to raise rare or endangered breeds and follow high animal welfare standards. You’re also supporting shearers and perhaps even woollen mills that cater to small scale producers. It’s a virtuous circle.

Even if you don’t buy direct from the farm by seeking out rare or heritage-breed fleece you’re still supporting a network of farmers, traditional skills and artisans. The truth is there aren’t a lot of rare breed sheep around and most aren’t farmed on a large scale.

Once you whet your appetite for heritage and rare breed fiber there are a lot of options. You can dive in and spin a single-breed yarn. You can blend silky mohair-like Cotswold with Shetland or Gotland. Or you can try blending alpaca with a bit of Norfolk Horn. Next thing you know you’re working with different textures, colors, short staples and long and creating a unique yarn with a completely different feel and luster.



It’s worth mentioning how incredibly handsome and adorable some of these rare breeds are. Their distinctive looks also make me excited about using their fleece in a project. Take the Lincoln Longwool.

Or the many-horned Manx Loaghtan. There is something about these breeds that say–hey come spin my fleece. I know I may look a bit funny, but I’m soft and fluffy too. (Well, most of the time.) And hey, some of these sheep are actually endangered. Take a minute to browse the UK Rare Breed Survival Trust’s list of endangered or threatened sheep breeds. See if any of these breeds capture your imagination or inspire your next project.

Visiting festivals like Woolfest, WonderWoolWales, Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival, FiberEast, Rheinbeck Sheep & Wool festival– and many more–gives you the chance to meet different sheep breeds and speak to the dedicated people who raise them. Most of these events have fleece sales. When you buy a raw fleece (ie straight off the sheep) ask to look at it first. Check to see it’s relatively clean (not too much poo or vegetable matter) and not felted. Yes fleece can felt on the sheep! Take the time to ask people about their fleeces if possible. Most of the time they are happy to help you pick a good one.

In a future post I will show some yarn and other projects I’ve made with heritage breed and rare breed sheep fleece. Right now I have Shetland, Gotland, Cotswold, Ryeland, Norfolk Horn and Llanwenog fleece in my stash that I plan to use straight and in blends. I hope that some of my heritage and rare breed-based projects will convince you to try something a little different. Also, I’d like to show some different ways of using colored fleece imaginatively. To be honest, natural coloured fleece can be a turn off for some spinners.

Manx Loagtan: multi-pronged

Manx Loagtan: multi-pronged

Suppliers–not comprehensive, or in alphabetical order

Wingham Wool Works: Based in Wentworth, Yorkshire (near Rotherham) Wingham’s is well worth a visit if you are up in that area. The people are extremely helpful, knowledgeable and friendly. Wingham’s stock a wide variety of heritage and rare breed fleece as well as other non-wool exotics and a lot of fun equipment.

Adelaide Walker: Also in Yorkshire. I have not visited personally, but I have bought Gotland roving. Lovely.

Little Grey Sheep: Gorgeous Cotswold fleece and other goodies.

World of Wool: Yorkshire-based. Lots of choice.

Natural Yarn: British yarn and fleeces. Shetland, Manx Loaghtan, Norfolk Horn & more. Run by Jean Cairns, who I know from the Mid-Essex Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers.

North Ronaldsay Yarn: Yarn from the famous Orkney Isles’ seaweed-eating sheep–the North Ronaldsay, of North Ronaldsay, Orkney. They also sell fleece, roving, batts and pre-felt. *I just bought some beautiful roving from this seller. It’s beautiful. I’ll post a photo once some gets spun.

Whistlebare Yarns: I just came across this small producer of mohair yarns in Northumberland. Alice Elsworth creates yarn from her own flock of Angora goats.

Also check Ebay’s UK site for some exciting raw fleeces from UK rare/heritage breed sheep. Including Zwartables, North Ronaldsay, Hebridean, Romney, Castlemilk Moorit, Portland, Whitefaced Dartmoor and many more. (FYI I just bought a Zwartables fleece!!)

The Un-ironic Holiday Sweater


I’ve been getting Knitting Daily in my inbox telling me that NOW is the time to start holiday knitting, along with patterns for hats, scarves, and other smallish items. I can probably knock out a decent hat or scarf in a few days, but if I want a festive holiday sweater, now is the time to start.

The Ugly Holiday Sweater Party is apparently a thing now, but if I’m going to bother to knit a whole sweater, I want to un-ironically like it, and feel good about running around in it for more than one garish night. Plus, the whole reason for the holidays is to celebrate the better parts of ourselves, and I tend to think that being cynical isn’t on the list. So here are a few starting ideas for what might make a pretty decent, festive, and snugly sweater:

"Buck" from Classic Elite Yarns

“Buck” from Classic Elite Yarns

I saw this on a female model on the back cover of a Vogue Knitting magazine. It looked oversized and casual on her.  I love the natural colored yarn, the shawl collar, and of course the chunky deer motifs. The colorblocking is interesting too, it makes the sweater look shorter than it is.

Fur trimmed hood! And certainly faux fur, sparkly eyelash, or mohair would also work. The fair isle motifs could be modified to be more obviously holiday themed, and several people on Ravelry have posted pictures of this with long sleeves. Plus, it zips! I love zippers.

Fur trimmed hoodie from Vogue Knitting Holiday '09

Fur trimmed hoodie from Vogue Knitting Holiday ’09

These remind me of a vintage ski sweaters. The short sleeves make the upper one, I think, quite chic. The color palette could be changed around easily enough. The ski sweater with pompoms has some neat lacework, and I can see some possibilities with those pompoms.


Ski sweater with pompoms

Ski sweater with pompoms

Tied-with-a-bow sweater

Tied-with-a-bow sweater


I can see this not being everyone’s cup of tea with a bow at the bust line, but it is festive, and I love the funnel neck instead of a turtleneck, which always make me feel like a little stifled. The cranberry color is great, and would work for other festive occasions, like anniversaries or Valentine’s Day.

Crocheted snowflake top

Crocheted snowflake top

I love this top. It’s texturally interesting, and a great layering piece. I’m a beginning crocheter, so this would be challenging for me, but I think it’s stunning.

Cables, bobbles, and loops, but still elegant. I love this cardigan, and it looks fun to knit. If I were to do it for a holiday sweater, I would pick a different color, with some sparkle in the trimmings.

Loopy-trimmed cardi

Loopy-trimmed cardi

I’m imagining this in green with red trim. I think with the sophisticated pattern it would avoid being kitschy even in traditional “Christmas colors”.

Op-art cardi

Op-art cardi

I’m going to mull these examples over for a bit and see where I end up. Stay tuned…



Welcome to Sheep Cabana



just sheepEver wonder how to use all that gorgeous handspun yarn you have created? Looking for inspiration for your next project? The Sheep Cabana team can help.

Sally and Rachel may live on opposite sides of the planet, but that hasn’t stopped us from puzzling through fiber projects together. Now we are sharing the lessons learned over years of fiber obsession.

Sally and Rachel first met back in 1989 at college, living in adjacent dorms. Rachel went out of her way to heckle the resident troublemakers, and Sally went out of her way to cause trouble. But by their senior year, they conceived and co-edited a controversial feminist newspaper. After graduation *sniff* they lost contact. Sally went off to work on cars and after farting around Rachel eventually became a journalist.

Eighteen years later, they reconnected and realised they were both bonkers about knitting. Sally had just bought her first few sheep, a goat and a spinning wheel. When Rachel saw the wheel and met the sheep… let’s just say if she had enough room for sheep, she would have them too. She has settled for a spinning wheel. For now.

Sourcing high-welfare fiber is just one reason Sally started her own fiber flock. The other is, well, sheep are pretty adorable and are good lawnmowers. The goat has a lot of attitude and is best friends with the llama. Rachel has a special fondness for rare and heritage breed fiber animals of the British Isles. Living out in the sticks means she knows where to go (apart from calling Sal) when she needs something special and high welfare to spin.

Sally and Rachel believe in making beautiful projects starting with a bag of fleece. Just because the fiber might be a bit smelly and have a few burrs in it when it comes off the animal, doesn’t mean you can’t create luxurious hand-made objects. It just takes a little work and imagination. Let us show you how. Follow our adventures of trial and error as we try new techniques and seek inspiration for projects. We love confabbing about fiber almost as much as we love fiber!


  1. 1.
    an informal private conversation or discussion.
    “they wandered off to the woods for a private confab”
  1. 1.
    engage in informal private conversation.
    “Peter was confabbing with a curly-haired guy”