Black and White


One of my favorite events of the summer is the Black Sheep Gathering, a three-day show featuring many breeds of sheep in all their natural colors. For people who work in the ancient handcrafts involving wool—spinning, weaving, knitting, felting, rug-hooking, and so on—it’s fiber-geek heaven!

Sheep are a diverse lot, with hundreds of breeds. For years I have kept Shetland sheep, a primitive breed that dates back to the Bronze Age. Their colors range from creamy white to black, with many shades of gray and brown in between. Their wool is often “inconsistent,” meaning it varies from soft to coarse from the front to the rear of the animal. The neck wool is very fine, perfect for the very softest clothing. In bygone days the long coarse wool on the breech was used for things such as sailcloth (that is, cloth for the sails of ships). There were uses for all of it, and all of the colors, so it was highly desirable in ancient times, and still is a joy for spinners.

With industrialization, however, breeders began selecting for more consistent fleeces and for white only, to meet the demands of wool millers.

The thing is, whenever you select for one thing, you select against another, and you usually don’t know what it will be. Primitive sheep are very different from their “improved” counterparts—the primitives are notably more intelligent. Sheep are famous for being stupid, but primitive sheep still have their smarts because it hasn’t been bred out of them.

Selecting for white-only resulted in stupid. That’s one to contemplate, isn’t it.

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