This is a picture comparing my wool fleece (on the outside) vest with shed hair fleece from our Katahdins. I’m often asked if we process our sheep fleeces into yarn. Well, the short answer is no, our sheep do not produce wool. Wait! What’s that shaggy growth on the Katahdins then? Glad you asked! Hair sheep shed! Hair- not wool. The difference is clear when you start picking apart Katahdin sheds. Wool has long, plastic (meaning stretchy) fibers that lend themselves to spinning into yarn. Wool can also be felted, and Katahdin fleece does have enough wool in it to felt, but the hairs dominate Katahdin fleece composition, and hairs are short and stiff, which makes for a brittle fiber, not conducive to pliability, which is imperative for clothing.
Some hair sheep have a higher wool count in their fleece, the most important aspect of a hair sheep’s coat is shedability. Hair sheds, wool must be shorn. A mix of the two must still shed on a Katahdin. If the coat does not fully shed, that animal should be culled from Katahdin stock to prevent the laps back into wool. In the same way, fiber sheep should not be crossed with hair sheep, or the quality of the wool will decrease. The clump of shed hair below looks very woolly, and indeed, the fiber is longer and wavy, but sheds properly as hair. The ewe producing this coat will most likely be culled sooner, we’ll see how her lambs turn out. The climate of Western Washington is getting hotter, so we’re selecting animals that are more comfortable in summer temperatures, which shedding sheep like Katahdins excel at.
Much of hair breed sheep were developed in tropical climates adapting to humid conditions. Katahdins are a mix of many Caribbean hair sheep and some naturally shedding UK varieties. There is a great summery of this animal’s development by Michael Piel here. The coat of these sheep was bred to shed because wool lost its value. The lanolin in wool is also part of the cause of most sheep meat being greasy, and falling to mutton status after a sheep matures. Katahdin sheep don’t produce a lot of lanolin, and use the energy that was put into wool growth, into meat growth instead. What you end up with is great flavor and a low maintenance fleece. The shed hair clumps up around the landscape, but is put to good use by nesting birds, borrowing insects like bumblebees- who use the fleece as insulation, and the soil its self, receiving rich calcium through the breakdown of hair on the ground.
Wool is still a great fiber to invest in when shopping for durable, warm clothing, but the time and energy that goes into shearing, cleaning, processing, and weaving to make wearable clothing from such material would be a full time job unto it’s self. At EEC, we’re looking for smart livestock operations offering good food, great ecological return, and easy maintenance. Katahdin hair sheep rise to the occasion on all fronts- with the self shedding fleece.
Below is another great picture of two different fleeces from our Katahdin hair sheep. This short, course hair will not make a sweater, but it keeps the sheep warm in winter, and relives it of the burden once warm weather arrives with no stress to the animal, or added cost and time to the farmer. Shedding season may be less flattering for the sheep, as they look mangy at best when the chunks of hair start rubbing off- most of the sheep spend a lot of time against the fences and barn posts working to loosen the itchy hair as it releases. Sometimes a partially shed fleece will naturally felt up and shed as a tattered mat. Ideally, the fleece should fully shed from the animal by early summer. All my girls have started the shed season, but it will take about a month for a full shed to complete. Once the old coat is gone, a sheen of fine new hair begins its slow growth into thick fleece by next fall.