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Sheep, sheep, sheep

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It all started because I was sort of sick and jetlagged, and didn’t have a design ready to hook, so I pulled out a small pattern someone had given me. And it has a sheep in it. So I was looking at this minimalistic shape of the sheep’s head:

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So…hook in hand, ready to begin, I realized I had to stop. What does a sheep’s head look like, anyhow? And that got me reading about our friends, the sheep.

There are over 1,000 breeds of sheep. There are more breeds of sheep than breeds of any other livestock species, except poultry. Sheep were among the first animals domesticated. An archeological site in Iran produced a statuette of a wooled sheep which suggests that selective breeding for woolly sheep had begun to occur over 6000 years ago.

Sheep breeds are divided into long-wool, medium wool and fine wool. And then there are those breeds grown primarily for meat. In England, the place I have lived closest to flocks, one day you would hear the ewes bleating very loudly, when their lambs were taken away to market. That’s why I don’t eat lamb.

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The Merino (ewe and lamb pictured just above) is one of the oldest breeds of sheep in the world, with one of the finest wools. Merino sheep originally were developed in Spain, and during the Middle Ages, Spain’s wealth was based on these sheep, and it was a capital offense to export a Merino sheep. They are regarded has having the finest and softest wool of all sheep, and many other breeds were cross bred from Merino.

Fine wool sheep like Merino produce wool fibers with a very small fiber diameter, usually 20 microns or less. And mind you, there are 25,400 microns to an inch. Fine wool sheep account for more than half of the world’s sheep population. Found throughout Australia, South Africa, South America, and the Western United States, most sheep of this type are Merino or trace their ancestry to the Merino.

The Rambouillet (pictured in the top photo) is related to the Merino, and is the most common breed of sheep in the U.S., especially the western states (California, Colorado, and Wyoming) where the majority of sheep in the U.S. can still be found.

No wonder people try to get to sleep by counting sheep.

Wool is a freely-traded international commodity, subject to global supply and demand. Wool represents only 3% of world fiber production, but it is important to the economy and way of life in many countries. Australia dominates the world wool market. Though China is the largest producer of wool, it is also the largest wool buyer. The United States accounts for less than 1 percent of the world’s wool production and is a net importer of wool. Probably because of us rughookers.

OK, but what do we do about hooking a sheep? What color? What shape ears? Brown face, droopy ears? Black face, pointy ears? White face, with pink ears? Relax, it’s all good. Take a look at this chart of colors in only one breed – Shetland sheep:

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So before I went off the deep end completely, I hooked my little sheep like this:

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Now let’s look at an example of someone who really hooks sheep. Here is one of my favorite sheep rugs, by Sarah J. McNamara, of Greenport, NY. She named it Paisley Sheep:

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Sarah wrote, “The sheep’s coat is made from the Standing Wool Rug technique. Lots of people incorporate this technique into their mats these days — they are often called “quillies” after the Victorian paper craft of quilling. I like to stick with the original name, but I don’t stick with the original technique. I like to shape my circles using a needle and thread, squeezing and manipulating them as I go, often using layers of different colored wool. I love to do it, but it takes a lot of time, as every piece is hand sewn and then applied to the linen backing before I begin hooking.”

Marvelous! What a great rug!

Sarah sells the pattern for Paisley Sheep on her etsy page, The Paisley Studio, here, and her design is copyrighted 2014, and so protected, and used here with her very kind permission. And on her etsy page and her blog, you’ll see a lot of other fine sheep rugs. Her blog is online at

http://paisleystudio.blogspot.com.au/2014/03/new-season-new-rug.html

And no talk of sheep rugs could go without mentioning Patty Yoder (1943-2005). If you ever get a chance to see her 2003 book, The Alphabet of Sheep, go through it, slowly, and you will fall further in love with sheep, as Patty clearly did. She hooked them so well, and so creatively. It’s a hard book to find, and currently sells online for about $200+. How I wish I had met Patty!

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Or head up to the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, VT to see many of Patty’s rugs in person. The museum is online at shelburnemuseum.org.

Well, now my little sheep-face looks a little, uh, basic. It’s entirely possible that if I told someone it was a dog’s face, they would believe me. But I bet they won’t know how many microns there are to an inch…

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