It's All About the Sheep
Spring time around the world is the time when sheep farmers shear their flocks to prepare them for the upcoming warm weather. For the sheep, it's a welcome relief to be rid of that heavy, cumbersome coat. For us, it's the beginning of the process to create so many of those wool products we love. But of the 2000 types of sheep in the world, only a few can produce the kind of wool that is used best in your rug.
When you hear the word "wool" often what comes to mind is Merino wool suits or Cashmere sweaters...that very fine, high-quality wool that is perfect for clothing. The wool from the Merino sheep and Cashmere goat is not at all suitable for rugs, however. Those animals are found naturally in extreme climates like the Himalayan Mountains, New Zealand Alps and high-altitude regions throughout Europe. Their very fine wool coat protects them from the severe weather and keeps them from freezing, no other sheep can handle these temperatures. Their wool is too fine to fill a rug that requires thousands of knots, but perfect for the soft, warm sweater, overcoat or thermal underwear.
The sheep that produce the wool most often used in rugs are collectively referred to as carpet sheep. The wool they produce is longer and more coarse than that of the Merino sheep, making it easier for spinning. Most of the sheep that produce rug wool are raised in New Zealand and parts of India and the Middle East. The best wool will come from sheep that are raised in extreme climates, often cold and wet. Many of these sheep graze in high altitudes with lush foliage. This environment forces the sheep to grow a coat of wool that is thick and lustrous. The climate and the diet will have an impact on the quality of their wool. Wool that is thicker and longer can be spun easily into various widths to allow for suitable dye uptake and finer, versus coarser wool strands. Each sheep can net 10-15 pounds of wool per shearing and almost 75% of that can be made into usable rug wool. This makes it one of the most efficient natural and renewable resources available.
High Quality Wool
Of course, even the wool used within the rug industry varies in quality. Just by feeling your rug you can tell if the wool is coarse or fine. Thicker wool strands will create rugs with larger knots, finer strands are used for rugs with a high knot count. Some rugs can be made with Kork wool, wool that is taken from the underside of a lamb at its first shearing. This wool is only used in very fine weaving and is difficult to find in rugs. It is very soft to the touch and has a silky sheen to it. Wool that is taken from the shoulders, neck and belly of any sheep tends to be finer then the wool taken from the back and legs. All of the wool can be made to weave a rug, but finer rugs will use the finer wool. A good test to know if a rug has good wool is how much it sheds. Wool taken from an unhealthy or even dead sheep will lack the lanolin that keeps wool lustrous. The wool will be dry to the touch and very brittle, continuing to shed even after frequent vacuuming. Wool should be soft to the touch and easily bounce back when compressed. All rugs will shed initially when new, but it should be minimal. Quality wool is an integral factor in determining the quality of your rug.
Did you know.....
- Sheep were originally all black... that is the dominant trait. White sheep came about due to selective breeding because it is much easier to dye the wool of white sheep. Sheep were the first animals to ever be domesticated...about 10,000 years ago.
- Not all sheep have wool. Hair sheep don't produce wool and are usually found in warmer climates. They are mostly raised for meat and leather.
- The average life of a sheep is 10-12 years, but the sheared wool is only good for use in rugs for the first 6 years of their life
- It is very difficult for a sheep to get up on its own if it rolls over onto its back, especially if it has a full wool coat. It may die that way if not helped up.
- Sheep form friendships with other sheep within their flock and can remember up to 50 individual sheep faces for 2 years.
- Studies have shown counting sheep is actually not as effective at inducing sleep as imagining a calm scene such as a beach or waterfall.