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Wool Exploration 1 – North Ronaldsay

View of North Ronaldsay.

As the name suggests, North Ronaldsay sheep are from the island of North Ronaldsay, the northernmost island in the Orkneys. The breed is included among the feral breed of sheep – animals that for one reason or another have been allowed to go wild. Most feral sheep live in remote islands, away from human contact. I am glad Louise chose this particular breed to begin our year of wool exploration since it is not only an endangered breed but also it is a fascinating one! It is one of the oldest breeds of sheep in existence, with DNA tests dating it to the early days of sheep domestication, around 3,000 BCE. Although we don’t really know how it got to the island of North Ronaldsay, the story of its adaptation to the local environment is an interesting one. Until the early nineteenth century, the inhabitants of this remote island in the North Atlantic made a living out of harvesting and drying seaweed for the kelp industry. Once that industry collapsed, the local inhabitants had to go back to subsistence farming and to keep the feral sheep from the bit of good land in the island, they built a dry wall all around the island and place the sheep on the other side of the wall, between the sea and the wall. Cut off from the rest of the island, the sheep evolved to tolerate a diet of seaweed.

North Ronaldsay sheep. Image from The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, by Deb Robson and Carol Ekarius.

According to the North Ronaldsay Sheep Fellowship, there are only about 600 breeding females, which is why it is considered a “vulnerable” breed.

The sheep are small, weighing no more than 35kg, and its meat is considered very “gamey” because of the amount of iodine in the sheep’s diet.

I was thrilled to find a Canadian connection to wool manufacturing at North Ronaldsay. It seems that until the 1990s, the local fleece was sold to the wool board at low prices and sent to the mainland for processing. The local community council decided to start a company that would buy the local fleece at higher prices than paid by the wool board to bring back some value to the community. They got scaled down spinning equipment from Prince Edward Island and were able to start producing yarn in the island itself. The yarn I bought to test is processed in island and I am thrilled to have got some on its way. Can’t wait to try it out!

For more information on this very interesting sheep, check out “North Ronaldsay Sheep” in the Rare Breeds Survival Trust website (accessed on November 23, 2017) as well as Louise Scollay’s post. The Fleece and Fiber sourcebook by Deb Robson and Carol Ekarius is also highly recommended.

Wool Exploration 2018

Map from The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, by Deb Robson and Carol Ekarius.

When I first started knitting, back in 2011-12, my friend Kathleen, my knitting mentor at the time, encouraged me to experiment with different fibres and introduced me to the notion of breed-specific yarn. I had no idea at the time there were so many breeds of sheep and that the fleece from each breed could vary so much. Over the years, I have knit with cotton, linen, silk, yak, alpaca, and yarn from merino, BFL, Wensleydale, Shetland, Icelandic, and a few other breeds. I wanted to learn a lot more so when Louise Scollay from Knit British announced her Wool Exploration project for 2018 I knew I simply had to join. The idea is that each month of 2018 will be dedicated to one sheep breed and participants will source any yarn from that breed and knit or crochet any pattern in a big swatch to explore the properties of that sheep’s wool. The first four months are:

  • January – North Ronaldsay
  • February – Gotland
  • March – Ryeland
  • April – Jacob

My plan is to knit at least two swatches for each yarn: one in a tight gauge to see if it would be good for a garment, perhaps with a cable and plain stockinette section, and another at a looser gauge with some lace to see how it behaves for shawls. I’ll create a page for the project to organize a table of contents for all the posts and then write two posts each month: one about the sheep and one with a review of the yarn. I am very excited about it!