North Ronaldsay Sheep, Rare and Hardy

Sheep that eat seaweed is a thing. Read more about it here and in Handwoven January/February 2021.

Sarah Wroot Dec 3, 2020 - 14 min read

North Ronaldsay Sheep, Rare and Hardy Primary Image

Photo by Ian Caldwell

Greta Holmstrom wove her Trinity Shawl featured in Handwoven January/February 2021 using North Ronaldsday wool, from sheep that survive by eating seaweed. Here is an article from SpinKnit Fall 2011 (no longer available) by Sarah Wroot that goes into more detail about these interesting sheep and their wool. - Susan

When I started spinning, about four years ago, I had a single very specific project in mind: to spin a barberpole sock yarn to knit a pair of socks. I was going to spin (on a spindle) one braid of dyed fiber and knit it. That’s all.

How did I go from a spindle and two braids of fiber—I knew I’d have to practice to spin that perfect sock yarn—to a fascination with unique, wild sheep? My trip through history and around the world began not far from my home in England.

As I spin, I often think about how tools and materials were used in the past. Last year, while fitting new shafts to some medieval spindle whorls, I thought about the people who’d used those whorls before me and wondered what sort of wool they would have spun. M. L. Ryder’s book Sheep & Man has that information and much more; while consulting that book, my attention was caught by a graph showing that fibers in the underwool of the dual-coated wild mouflon average 12 microns in thickness, the equivalent of cashmere and the finest modern Merino. I was instantly intrigued. I wanted to see—and feel—this fiber.

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Wild mouflon sheep are thought to be one of the ancestors of all modern sheep. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user 4029mdk09.

Sadly, there are no wild mouflon where I live in Cambridgeshire; the most primitive sheep found in the United Kingdom was the best alternative. The dual-coated North Ronaldsay seemed like a good place to start when I discovered a flock less than an hour away owned by Rita Peace. I spent a glorious June morning with her and her mixed flock of Hebridean and North Ronaldsay sheep. I left with two fleeces, slightly stunned by the beauty of the contrast between the long dark hair and white wool, and I soon added fleeces from North Auskerry and North Ronaldsay to my collection.

The North Ronaldsay is one of the group of primitive breeds known as Northern short-tailed sheep, which also includes Soay, Boreray, Gotland, and Icelandic, among others. These breeds are thought to have developed in northern Europe from Iron Age sheep, and as the name suggests, they all have short tails by comparison with more modern breeds.

North Ronaldsay Sheep

These sheep are famed for eating seaweed on the beaches of North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of the Orkney Islands. North Ronaldsay is a tiny island, only four square miles in area, with very limited good farmland; it made sense that the islanders reserved that land for arable crops and high-value livestock by restricting the hardy, nimble sheep to the rough grazing available on the shore. On North Ronaldsay the sheep are free to wander behind thirteen miles of a high drystone wall built early in the nineteenth century, but individual groups tend to stay and breed together in the same area, so the qualities of the fleeces vary between areas. Seaweed is relatively low in copper, and the North Ronaldsay developed the ability to absorb more copper from their diet. (Early attempts to introduce the sheep to mainland Britain failed when they succumbed to copper poisoning, but this problem has been resolved.)

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A ewe and lambs show just a few colors of the North Ronaldsay breed. Photo by John Lane.

According to British Sheep & Wool, the small, fine-boned North Ronaldsay arrived in Britain with the Vikings just over 1,000 years ago, but 4,000-year-old skulls from the late Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae in Orkney are virtually identical to those of the modern North Ronaldsay. Adult North Ronaldsay sheep rarely weigh more than 25 kilograms (about 55 pounds), with white, gray, or brown fleeces weighing 1–2½ kilograms (2.2–5.5 pounds). As a breed they are double-coated, with fleece containing both hair and wool, but the amounts vary dramatically between individual fleeces. The brown and true white may be as soft as Shetland with almost no hair, while gray fleece is usually white wool with a high proportion of dark hair. Unlike modern sheep, the North Ronaldsay and other primitive sheep shed their fleece each summer; the new growth or “rise” lifts a layer of dead skin flakes, which usually appears at the butt of a shorn fleece.

Fiber preparation

The fleeces were washed in hot water (60°C, or 140°F) with dishwashing liquid. When the fleeces were dry, I removed the bulk of the hair before further processing by holding the base of the staple in one hand, gathering the long hair into the other, and pulling firmly. It’s possible to remove more hair by pulling slowly and shifting the grip down the emerging hair; this catches wool as well, and I did this when I wanted a mix of fiber.

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Combing the fiber was the best way to remove long hairs and skin flakes. Photo by Joe Coca.

I lashed the locks onto a Forsyth mini-comb (taking care that the mat of skin flakes was on or behind the last row of tines) and combed once; I pulled the fiber off the second comb. Combs are the best way to dehair the fleece: many of the long hairs are held in the mat, and if I took care when pulling the fiber off the second comb, even more hair was left behind. Using good fleece, this technique yielded wool of the same quality as the commercial roving produced from fleeces that are dehaired before processing (which I also sampled; see below).

Spinning from the lock was difficult unless I used scissors to remove the base of the staple with the layer of skin flakes, and it produced an unpleasantly spiky yarn. Handcarding was even worse: the spiral structure of singles spun woolen from rolags ensures that any prickly hairs stick out at every angle along the yarn. Although modern spinners tend to think of longdraw from rolags as the traditional method of spinning, handcards were a late development in fiber preparation—they did not appear until the thirteenth century, when many sheep had been bred for a single uniform coat. The Vikings combed the wool of their dual-coated sheep, and the bone or wood combs found in Iron Age settlements may have been used to process the double-coated fleece of sheep like the North Ronaldsay.

Fibers

Hair

When I first pulled the hair from Rita’s North Ronaldsay fleece, I imagined weaving with the dark hairs as warp and the white wool as weft. As soon as I began to spin the hair, however, I knew this would not work for the fleece I had—or at least would not produce cloth I liked. Even spun worsted with great care, the coarse hairs stood out in a prickly halo around the singles. I was determined to find a use for it; I wished I’d had a rope jack (a specialized rope-making tool). Instead I put a large cup hook into the chuck of an electric screwdriver, a pothook around a convenient tree, and cabled the singles under moderate tension. This heavy yarn has a good hand, and it proved its strength when I needed something to lead a stray bull terrier back to its owner! #### Wool
At a craft fair in Kirkwall, Orkney, I saw North Ronaldsay roving along with hats, scarves, and other items knitted from the yarn. My first thought was that the soft commercial roving should become a soft, warm hat. I spun pieces of roving from the fold into a relatively soft singles, then plied them to make a soft, lofty three-ply. The knitted sample is soft and warm, but my forehead objected to even the few remaining hairs; if I do make a hat from this yarn, I’ll probably knit a liner for the bits that touch my skin.

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A friend mentioned that she’d enjoyed wearing socks knitted from Icelandic fleece, another Northern short-tailed sheep, because the hairs acted like mohair in a sock blend. I spun a second bag of roving into soft singles, adding more plying twist to produce a slightly denser and bouncy three-ply, and I spun some combed pale fleece from the fold to make a similar but even softer yarn to use at the ankle. The resulting socks are warm and soft, and I’m looking forward to wearing them around the house next winter. A similar yarn would work well for outerwear, sweaters, or vests.
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Socks knitted from North Ronaldsay roving with combed top cuffs. Photo by Joe Coca.

Knitting is a relatively recent technique; for thousands of years the wool of Northern short-tail sheep was woven. After hearing Anna Nørgard of the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum speak about reconstructing Viking ship sails, I decided to try spinning lightly dehaired combed top into worsted singles for a tablet-woven band.

Weaving seemed likely to be a good use for this yarn, as the “under-and-over” of warp and weft yarns would lock the long hairs down into the fabric, unlike the loose loop structure and movement of a knitted fabric, which might almost encourage them to pop out of the fabric over time. A technique dating back at least to the early Iron Age, tablet-weaving seemed particularly appropriate for this wool. The band is woven in various patterns based on the threading for “Egyptian Diagonals.”

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This tablet-woven band uses different colors of worsted-spun singles. Photo by Sarah Wroot.

If I were to do this again, I’d add more twist to the singles and leave them for a longer time before warping, but on balance I’m pleased with the result; weaving was a particularly good use for the hairier portions of the fleece.

Soft wool/down

These are the fibers that first drew my interest, the fine short fibers at the base of the fleece. Two hours in good light, using tweezers to pull finer and finer hairs from a staple and a piece of handcombed top, yielded 2.3 grams (.08 ounces) of almost hair-free fine wool. I could have continued until I had a higher proportion of the short, extremely fine fibers, but I’d have had almost nothing to work with. I spun the small cloud into singles for a soft two-ply that reminds me of kid mohair. In contrast with the yarn spun from entire locks of the same fleece, it’s extraordinarily soft with a hint of luster. After washing, it softened even more and developed a soft halo.

I might be biased (or slightly mad), but I think this particular yarn was well worth the time and effort needed to produce it. The softness suggests what might be possible if I took the time to sort more fiber and worked more carefully to isolate the down. As I peered at the hairs, I imagined other people sitting outside in the sunlight doing the same thing 2,000 or more years ago, taking the time needed to create a very soft fabric for the delicate skin of a child.

Ancient Versatility

Last year, if you’d asked me to choose my “desert island” fleece, it would have been something soft and soothing, probably Polwarth. Now there’s no question in my mind: I’ll have a double-coated primitive, please—ideally North Ronaldsay, because I want to support the shepherds who maintain this rare historic breed. Working with these fleeces to find out what they can become has taught me a great deal about every stage of fiber preparation and spinning, and the end result is a range of yarns suitable for a wide variety of uses, from rope to lace.

Further reading

Robson, Deb, and Carol Ekarius. The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook. North Adams, Massachusetts: Storey Publishing, 2011.
Ryder, Michael L. Sheep & Man. London: Duckworth & Co., 2007.
British Sheep & Wool.
The British Wool Marketing Board
North Ronaldsay Sheep Fellowship

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