‘Please, draw me a sheep’: The history of the Hog Island sheep

Three white sheep with black faces in the snow.

Photo courtesy of Holly Hill Ranch

Imagine a sheep, as unique as the one Antoine de St Exupery drew one morning for the Little Prince. That is the Hog Island sheep, from somewhat unknown origins, and needing protection, a special sheep, a sheep like no other… The Hog Island sheep is unique to the United States. It originated on Hog Island, a barrier island off the coast of Virginia. So few of them are left today that they are a rare, critical, conservation breed.

In the words of Jeanette Beranger, senior manager of the Livestock Conservancy, the Hog Island Sheep is a “snapshot of livestock from the 1700s.” To understand how special the Hog Island sheep is, we have to go back in time 400 years, when Hog Island was settled. Along with the settlers came sheep of British origin. It is also believed that Merino sheep were already roaming free on the island, after having been abandoned by ship-wrecked Spaniards. Even though we cannot clearly match the DNA of the Hog Island sheep with any modern English breed, some surmise that Down breeds have been contributors to this unique sheep.

The sheep roamed the rugged island freely. The settlers would gather them once a year to shear them. The rugged conditions set the stage for the development of the breed into a sheep well adapted to foraging and living in harsh, wet weather conditions. Rugged life continued, unchanged for both the settlers and the sheep for hundreds of years, each year bringing its share of storms. But in 1933, after a terrible hurricane, causing massive erosion that reduced the size of the island by half, the residents of Hog Island found themselves forced to abandon the island and move their homes to the mainland. The sheep were left on the island.

Two sheep in the snow.

Photo courtesy of Holly Hill Ranch

In the 1970s, the island was purchased by the Nature Conservancy. A decision was made to remove the now feral sheep from the island to protect the natural vegetation. The sheep were resettled at particular sites, among them Mount Vernon and Virginia Tech, and efforts began to study and preserve the breed. Hog Island sheep can still be seen today in living museums like the Accokeek Foundation National Colonial Farm. They are also being raised by farmers dedicated to the preservation of rare breeds.

Geographic isolation, the conditions on the island, few predators, and the lack of human intervention allowed the development of a hardy, self-shedding, parasite-resistant, foraging breed, which reproduced efficiently, with ewes often birthing twins. Most Hog Island sheep are white, with 10 to 20% of them being black. The lambs have the cutest speckled faces. Adults often have dark legs and faces. The Hog Island Sheep is a smaller sheep, weighing around 90 to 150 pounds. It is also a slow-growing sheep, taking 18 months to mature. Alert and docile, they prefer to live in tight flocks.

A black and white lamb in tall grass.

Photo courtesy of Holly Hill Ranch

What about the fiber they produce? To quote Holly Callahan of the Baltimore Wool Company, “The wool is like the sheep, relaxed and friendly!” To examine the unique qualities of the Hog Island fiber, I purchased some raw fleece, and some roving from Holly Hill Ranch.

White, beige and brown fleece.

Raw fleece from Holly Hill Ranch

The raw fibers are very high in lanolin, a perfect protection from harsh weather. The fibers are dense, compact, with a very tight, disorganized crimp, and a matte appearance. The staple length ranges from 1.5 to 2.5 inches. The newer generations, which are being fed a richer diet can have a staple length up to 3 inches. Overall, the staple length is short, which makes the fiber a perfect candidate for light, warm woolen yarns. The fineness of the fibers is uneven, with some being appropriate for next-to-the-skin wear, while others should be reserved for outerwear.

White, beige and brown fleece.

Raw fleece from Holly Hill Ranch

To spin, I used the carded roving I had purchased, and spun it with a supported long draw to create a lofty woolen yarn. After spinning two fine singles, I plied them together to create a 2-ply yarn. What struck me most was the incredible bounce and elasticity of the yarn!

A hand holding a ball of white yarn.

Woolen yarn spun from Holly Hill Ranch fibers

I knitted a simple swatch, which I then dyed with natural dyes. The swatch was knitted on US 4 needles. The soft matte halo is clearly noticeable, slightly reducing the stitch definition, while giving it a gentle subtlety. The incredible elasticity of the yarn reduces the openness of the sample lacework. The swatch took color beautifully, showcasing the matte appearance. The swatch also proved to be naturally felt resistant, a credit to the Down breed origins of the Hog Island sheep.

A green square of knitting.

A dyed swatch from handspun woolen yarn.

Armed with the knowledge I gained from swatching, I decided to knit a warm, comfy pair of house socks, which would encounter less wear than regular socks, while taking full advantage of the elasticity of the fibers!

A view of white handknit socks from above.

So where can you get this very special fiber? The Livestock Conservancy has created a wonderful program called Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em. Shepherds register their flocks of conservation breeds and are listed as providers of rare fibers and yarns. Fiber artists are encouraged to try different breeds and get stickers for their breed passport! Because of its smaller size, and slower growth, the Hog Island sheep is not as attractive for large-scale farming. It is thanks to the Livestock Conservancy, the dedication of rare breed farmers, and the desire of fiber artists like you and me to preserve breeds by working with breed-specific fibers, like the Hog Island, that we can hope to see this amazing breed thrive in the future.

A white sheep with a black face.

Photo courtesy of Holly Hill Ranch


More resources:

Hog Island Part 1: A Feral Breed, a blog post from Knitting the Stash!
The history of the Hog Island sheep from Quietude Farm

Superwash versus Non-Superwash

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Skeins of gray yarn hanging on wooden clothespins.

Superwash skein left, non-Superwash skein right.

Superwash and non-Superwash yarns, what’s the difference? After all, aren’t they both wool? In my view as a knitter and a natural dyer, they are related in the way a horse, and the Emerald City’s Horse of a Different Color would be!

To understand, let’s look at the horse first, or in our case the raw wool! Sheep wool is made of natural fibrous proteins from the keratin group. The keratin is what gives yarn its flexibility, elasticity, resilience and memory. Each “hair” has a complex physical structure, and is made up of overlapping minuscule scales. The scales help repel dirt and allow the fibers to felt. In the case of some non-Superwash fibers, felting does not occur, as in down breeds. In their natural state, the fibers are coated with a waxy coat of lanolin which serves as a water repellent. During wool processing, the lanolin is removed.

Now, let’s look at the Horse of a Different Color, the Superwash. The most common treatment used to transform a yarn into “Superwash” is the Chlorine-Hercosett process. To etch the scales we talked about earlier, the fiber is chlorinated with either chlorine gas or a chlorine solution, followed by the application of a plastic resin to coat the fibers. The result is a yarn you can wash in the washing machine that will not felt.

Before I discuss the difference between the two types of yarn from a dyeing and a knitting perspective, I want to point out some of the negative environmental impacts of the Chlorine-Hercosett process. This process is not sustainable, it uses hazardous chemicals, and creates toxic waste. It uses more water and energy than traditionally processed wools, and the yarns, after they are transformed into garments or household products, shed microplastics during washing.

Because of the negative environmental impacts of the traditional Chlorine-Hercosett process, new processes have been developed to improve the washability of wool, and decrease felting. Among them, to name only a few, are the EXP process which does not use chlorine and instead uses natural salts as oxidizing agents, and the Naturetexx Plasma Process which uses air and electricity.

Now that I have said that, and that I am sure you are looking sadly at all the beautiful skeins of Superwash in your stash, you are wondering what to do. My answer is: use them! The resources and energy that were used to produce them have already been expended, and not using them would be a waste.

So how do the horse and the Horse of a Different Color compare? The two skeins below and their samples were knitted from 100% Merino fingering yarn, one non-Superwash, the other Superwash, with both skeins weighing 20g each.

Body in the skein

Two photos of gray yarn, with the bottom one curling over the edge of a table.

Non-Superwash top, Superwash bottom.

The difference in body between the two skeins is very apparent in the pictures below. The non-superwash skein which appears first has body, whereas the superwash clearly has not retained its natural structure. The yarn is flatter, and denser.

Drape

Four gray swatches of knitting.

No-Superwash top, Superwash bottom.

The difference in body translates into the drape. I knitted two identical swatches. The Superwash Merino drapes more than the non-Superwash, but is also more shapeless.

Color

Small balls of gray yarn.

This is where my experience as a hand-dyer comes in. Superwash yarns absorb color more readily than non-Superwash. Non-Superwash yarns appear more subtle, while Superwash yarns are deeply saturated. Even with natural dyes, my dyes of choice, the color difference is striking. Both yarns were identically dyed together using sequoia. In addition, the absorption of color is faster in a Superwash skein than it is in a non-Superwash skein.

Shine

The difference in color is only accentuated by the difference in light reflection. A Superwash yarn is smooth with a slight sheen, while a non-Superwash yarn is matte with a soft glow.

Elasticity/Memory

Gray yarn swatches hanging on wooden clothespins.

Superwash skein left, non-Superwash right.

Superwash yarns lose their elasticity, and memory. The absence of scales, means the fibers and stitches are sitting next to each other but are not interlocked, so they tend to stretch more readily. This would be fine for a shawl, but less attractive for a sweater. The tendency to stretch is visible when the samples are wet.

Gauge

Folded swatches and twisted hanks of gray yarn.

Superwash left, non-Superwash right.

With an equal number of stitches cast on in these samples, the Superwash swatch is wider and longer than the non-Superwash swatch. The stitches in the non-Superwash swatch are closely connected to each other, while the stitches in the Superwash swatch remain clearly separate, with minute gaps. This will have an impact on the warmth of the knitted garment, with non-Superwash yarn being significantly warmer. The Superwash swatch is flatter. Textured stitches will appear flat in the Superwash Merino, and round and plump in the non-Superwash Merino.

Softness

Both are soft, though in a slightly different way. In the case of Merino yarns, Superwash feels sleek and non-Superwash feels pillow-y.

Water

Water sitting on gray stockinette swatches.

Non-Superwash top, Superwash bottom.

The Superwash yarn will absorb water faster as opposed to the non-Superwash yarn which will repel the water. A non-Superwash garment will allow you to stay warmer even when wet.

As a natural dyer, a knitter and a spinner, I prefer non-Superwash fibers. Each breed-specific fiber has unique properties that make one fiber or another ideal for a particular project. The same way a Superwash Merino is drastically different from a non-Superwash Merino, Merino fiber is drastically different from let’s say Suffolk or Wensleydale. And as I hinted earlier in my post, some fibers felt and some do not. There is a perfect natural fiber for any project! This could be the subject of a whole new post, but for now, I hope you will look at your stash a little differently, and that you will explore the possibilities in using non-Superwash fibers.

References

It’s Not You, It’s the Yarn: Superwash Edition by Jillian Moreno

Why Not Superwash Yarns? from Knitting the Natural Way

Why Is Superwash Yarn Not Sustainable? by Making Stories

Are There Sustainable Superwash Options? by Making Stories

The Structure of Wool

The color outside my door

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Green and brown leaves.

Turkey Tail (back), lichen (front) and leaves found on a fallen tree limb.

I always enjoy exploring the process behind the yarns featured on Indie Untangled. Caroline of The Noble Thread, based in North Carolina, has provided a fascinating walk through the world of naturally-dyed yarn.

I would like you to do something for me. Put a sweater on, open your front or back door, and take a walk in your yard, or around your neighborhood. Look around you. There are leaves at your feet, acorns crackling underfoot, mushrooms, a few last minute blooms if you live in warmer climates, fallen branches covered with lichen and maybe even walnuts still in their green husks… This is the world of color that awaits you!

For thousands of years, people have used what was around them — minerals, insects and plants — to color yarns that would become textiles, reeds that would be woven into baskets.

Certain colors even became a status symbol like the Tyrian purple, a color extracted from snails, which was reserved for royalty. But the color that I find most amazing is the color that everyday people created with what was available to them.

Green, lacy leaves.

Resurrection fern on live oak.

When we look at the embroideries of early American settlers, though their designs were originally inspired by Jacobean crewelwork, it is the world around them that made their work uniquely theirs. Their designs were grounded in the scenes they saw every day, and their colors were the ones that surrounded them.

Fall is a wonderful time to harvest local dyestuff. When I go harvesting, I always do so with moderation. The squirrels need acorns, the birds need berries and the bumble bees, flowers! I only harvest lichen that has fallen from a tree because lichen grows so slowly.

A bee on white flowers.

Pollinators on Loquat blossoms.

People have recorded recipes. I have my own, and maybe after you read this article, you will start your own recipe book!

Natural dyeing is very different from chemical dyeing. For one thing, there is no label on the dyestuff, but more seriously, the color you see may not be the color you get! When you dye with natural dyes, there is always an element of surprise.

If you look at gloriously red amaryllis blooms, which grow year after year in my yard, you could think you would be getting red dye. Instead, you would get a pale yellow! Experimentation is key, and so is the recipe book!

Green, yellow and brown leaves.

Grape leaves.

The colors that are most readily created with natural dyes are yellows and tans. Green cannot be extracted from the greenest leaves or the greenest grass. Your first experiments will most likely result in shades of yellow and tan, but your heart will beat faster when you identify the plants that can give you reds and purples!

Once you start experimenting and dyeing with natural dyes, you will never look at a leaf, a flower, a berry or a mushroom in the same way!

Plant pieces scattered on a table.

From left to right. Top: oak leaves, grape leaves, oak leaf. Center: turkey tail, ganoderma, chestnuts husks, and chestnut. Bottom: acorns, juniper berries, pecans, lichen.

So let me share the fruits of my harvests with you! I live in Wilmington, a coastal North Carolina town. Our summers are tropical and our winters mild. Deciduous and non-deciduous trees make for an amazing landscape. Glorious camellias bloom in December! Fall comes late here, but it does bring beautiful changes to nature. Every morning, for the last few weeks, accompanied by my faithful dog, Brioche, I have gone foraging.

I have found walnuts, pecans, acorns, bits of fallen lichen, loquat leaves, pokeberries, goldenrod and mushrooms… Together, these natural treasures form my unique fall palette.

With the use of alum and iron, I not only fix the colors, but I can also change them. Yellows become khaki greens, pinks become purples, and tans become greys from the lightest pearly greys to the darkest charcoals. If I add a bit of indigo, I can create luminous greens and aquas. With indigo and walnut, I make antique black. By varying the fibers, at times dyeing on a natural cream, a natural grey or a tan, I can create an endless range of colors from the most luminous, sun-infused colors, to the warmest tones of fall.

Bright hanks of yarn arranged in a circle.

A rainbow of naturally-dyed yarns.

Now, look outside your door again, grab a basket, and go foraging! Get a book on natural dyeing from the library, so you can dye safely. Pick an old stainless steel pot and some wooden spoons that you will use only for dyeing, gloves, a few rusty nails, alum from the grocery store, a mask and of course, yarn. Simmer away, and take lots of notes in your recipe book. You will create your own unique palette, one that connects you to your region, to your neighborhood, to the land, and in some ways to the millions of people who throughout the ages have created magical colors with natural dyes.