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Historic breeds of Sheep

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Historic Breeds of Sheep

The very early breeds of sheep had two coats like a husky dog, an outer coat of kemp, or bristly hair, and an under coat of fine wool or down that is shed in warm weather. The bristly hair has been gradually bred out of most sheep so that they now have coats that are all wool.

1. Iron Age & Dark Age

Soay, Icelandic, Jacob

2. Medieval

Ryeland, Cotswold, Lincoln

3. Lustre Long-wool

Teeswater, Wensleydale,
Blue-faced Leicester

Buy Jacob’s wool tops here

1. Iron Age & Dark Age Breeds of Sheep

Soay sheep | Wild Fibres natural fibres

Icelandic sheep | Wild Fibres natural fibres

Jacob sheep | Wild Fibres natural fibres




The Soay is an example of the small, primitive sheep that inhabited the British Isles before the coming of the Romans and that were numerous before the Roman occupation. The name is derived from the island of Soay off the coast of Scotland and wild Soay sheep are currently found mainly on the island of St Kilda. The males of this breed are horned and the females may be either polled or horned. The Soay is short-tailed whilst all modern breeds have long tails and it has a white belly unlike modern breeds that lack a distinctive belly colour. The Soay also lacks the flocking instinct of most sheep and attempts to work them using sheep dogs result in the group scattering.

The Soay has a fleece varying from light to dark brown and sheds naturally in spring or summer. It is very fine and, in contrast to mouflon, the inner fleece is highly developed and it is difficult to distinguish an outer coat.

Wool quality: Staple length 5-15 cm; Bradford count 44-50; and fleece weight 1.5-2.25 Kg (3-5 lb).
[see the Glossary for an explanation of Bradford Count and Micron]

Icelandic sheep belong to the Northern Short-Tailed group of sheep and they were brought to Iceland by Viking settlers, who colonised the island between 870 and 930 AD. The Icelandic sheep  is related to breeds such as Shetland and Orkney, which were predominant in Scandinavia and the British Isles at that time. The Icelandic is not a docile breed and they are alert and fast on their feet. Most are individualistic, their flocking instinct is poor and they tend to spread out which makes them good users of rough pasture.

The fleece has an inner and an outer coat typical of the more primitive breeds, with a fine undercoat called thel and the long, coarser outercoat called the tog. The thel is down-like, springy, lustrous and soft. The longer tog coat is similar to mohair, wavy or corkscrewed rather than crimped and is good for worsted spinning. The natural colours vary from white through shades of grey to black as well as several shades of morrit to brownish black.

Wool quality: Staple length 6–21 cms (undercoat & outercoat); Bradford count 46–70; and fleece weight 2-3 Kgs.
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Jacob sheep typically have black and white fleeces and both males and females are horned, carrying two, four and occasionally six prominent horns. The four-horned rams may have two vertical horns up to two feet long and two side horns curling down the side of the head. The two-horned rams usually develop the more familiar classic double curl. Horns on the ewe are shorter and more delicate than the rams' horns.

The white and the black wool may fade at the tips to dark brown and shade to grey. The wool is of medium grade, and the black wool, which grows out of black skin, frequently is shorter than the white wool, which grows from white skin. The Jacob is an old, unimproved breed and is slight in build. Typical fleeces will weigh 2-2.5 Kg and vary in colouring, crimp and fineness.

Wool quality: Staple length 8-17 cm; Bradford count 44-56; fleece weight 2-2.5 Kg; and micron measurement 28–39.
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2. Medieval breeds of sheep

The Ryeland is a short-woolled sheep originating from Herefordshire in England that carries a fine Downs-type wool.

Ryeland sheep apparently acquired the name from the fields of rye stubble on which they traditionally grazed. The Leominster Benedictine priory kept large flocks on its granges and ‘Lemster Ore’ was the term used to describe the valuable short staple wool produced by its Ryeland sheep. In 1193, Leominster Priory gave the year's wool to help pay for the release of crusading Richard the Lion Heart. Queen Elizabeth was given 'Lemster' wool stockings and liked them so much that she insisted only on 'Lemster' Ryeland wool. An Elizabethan observer wrote that 'among short-wools, Ryeland has pre-eminence with Leominster as the centre of its trade'.”

Wool quality: Staple length 8-10cm; Bradford count 56-58; fleece weight 2-3Kg; and micron measurement 25-28.
[see the Glossary for an explanation of Bradford Count and Micron]

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The Cotswold breed originated in the Cotswold Hills of Gloucester, a south midland county of England touching the Bristol Channel. Because of its mild, temperate climate, the area is well suited to sheep raising. The name "Cotswold" appears to have been given the breed because they were housed in shelters known as "cots" or "cotes" and they were pastured on the wild, treeless hills of the area, called "wolds". The Cotswolds are a little smaller than the Lincoln and they carry more foretop than do Lincolns. The fleece is carried in bold locks and is finer and softer than that of the typical Lincoln. The ewe will shear about twelve pounds annually, while rams should shear appreciably more wool. The fleece of the Cotswold is white.

Wool quality: Staple length 20-25 cm; fleece weight 5-6 Kgs (12 lb)
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The Lincoln is one of the largest breeds of sheep. Mature Lincoln rams weigh 250 to 350 pounds (113-160 kg), and mature ewes range from 200 to 250 pounds (90-113 kg). Lincolns are rectangular in form, deep bodied and wide.

The fleece of the Lincoln is carried in heavy locks that are often twisted into a spiral near the end. Lincolns are well woolled to the knees and hocks and occasionally some carry wool below these points. The staple length in Lincolns is among the longest of all the breeds and the fleece often parts over the back on lambs and sometimes on older sheep. Lincolns produce the heaviest and coarsest fleeces of the long-woolled sheep with ewe fleeces weighing from 12 to 20 pounds (5-9kg). Although coarse and hair-like, the fleece has considerable lustre.

Wool quality: Staple length 20-38 cm; Bradford count 36-40; fleece weight 7-10 Kgs; micron measurement 41-45;

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3. Lustre & Semi Lustre Longwool Sheep

Wensleydale sheep | Wild Fibres natural fibres

Blue-faced Leicester sheep | Wild Fibres natural fibres


Blue-Faced Leicester

Teeswater sheep come from Teesdale in County Durham and have been bred by farmers in that region for two hundred years. They are large hornless sheep producing a fine, long-stapled lustre wool with a natural permanent curl and with no dark fibres in the fleece.

A fleece from the first clip can weigh up to 8 kg with a staple length of 30 cm. The wool is soft and supple to handle and retains its curl and lustre after washing. The lustre remains after spinning giving the finished product a pearly sheen. Teeswater wool is in demand for worsted suiting, knitting wools and also blending with other fibres.

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Wensleydale wool is the finest and one of the most valuable lustre long-wools in the world. It is a blue-faced, large, long wool breed producing a fleece with a very long staple that is often blended with fine but shorter-stapled wools where a strong wool is required. It originated in North Yorkshire early in the 1840s from a cross between a Teeswater ewe and a Leicester ram. The breed was developed to produce hardy rams for crossing onto hill ewes, together with high quality and valuable lustre fleeces. This breed is now found mainly on the Yorkshire Dales, North Lancashire, Westmorland, Cumberland and Scotland.

The fleece is completely kemp free and Wensleydale wool is used for its special effects in hand knitting yarn, knitwear and cloth and sometimes in upholstery fabrics. Because of its similarity, it is regularly used to blend with mohair.

Staple length 20-30cm; Bradford count – 44-48; Micron measurement – 33-35; Fleece weight – 6-9 kg

Blue-faced Leicester
The Blue-faced Leicester is an English Longwool sheep and originated near Hexham in the county of Northumberland, England during the early 1900's. The breed was originally developed to use in the production of high quality crossbred ewes which were pastures in the neighbouring hills of the region. They originated from Border Leicester sheep selected for the blue face (white hairs on black skin) and for finer fleeces. They are found primarily in northern England, Scotland and Wales. The wool is semi-lustre and one of the finest of British sheep. The wool is sought after by home spinners and commands a high price.

    1. Wool from sheep
    2. Fibre sizes and choosing fibre
    3. History of sheep and wool
    4. Fibre from other animals - alpaca, goats, rabbits, yak

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Gibb Street, Birmingham B9 4DT, UK

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Last updated on 25 July 2019
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