Photo Betty Rowe from Rare Breeds website
New Zealand has a variety of now rare feral sheep such as Pitt island, Chatham, Arapawa, Hokanui, and several others originating from domesticated sheep left on some of the islands or escaped to remote parts of the country in the 1800’s. Many of these seem to have had a merino background, plus probably genetics from other sheep breeds as well brought over to this country.
Over the sheep generations, the hardy survivors shrank in size, reverted back to coloured wool, became cautious as they were hunted by man, and browsed on whatever vegetation was available. Their story is remarkable in that their evolution has gone backwards from domestication to a primitive breed type surviving on their own.
The Arapawa sheep numbered about 20 when it was saved from total eradication from the island by a lady from Picton called Betty Rowe who set up a sanctuary in the 1970’s to preserve the tiny gene pool. The offspring from these few sheep now number over 1,000 and are spread around NZ. Photo by Betty Rowe from Rare Breeds website
There are mixed views on the quality of the fleece. These sheep will self shed their fibre although generally breeders do shear their sheep. From the small pile of fleeces I have, there is a variety of qualities in even a single fleece. The raw greasy fleece was relatively uninspiring to look at, and mine needed further skirting and sorting. It was softer than I expected. Photo Trotter/McCulloch from Rare Breeds website
Although the sheep look brown in the photos there is no moorit colouring and the fibre is predominantly dark with sun bleached tips (giving it a brown cast), but some of the fleece is patched and spotted with light coloured fibre. The lamb fleeces are the darkest.
Here are the characteristics I’ve observed in my fleeces:-
1. Variable length, with the longest staples being up to 8cms, although most are much shorter. Disorganised staples. These fleeces have been sheared from the animals so are complete although quite lightweight.
2. Colour is predominantly dark brown/grey although it appears dark brown in the grease (the lamb’s fibre were probably nearly black) with some white patches on some of the fleeces. The tips are faded to caramel and tan.
3. Relatively greasy but the wax washed out easily in a hot wash with soap flakes.
4. The clean fibre bulked up when dry.
5. The handle was bouncy like a down breed with a crisp feel. The crimp is disorganized but apparent and finely corrugated.
6. The fibres were too short to flick or hand comb but the fleece was fairly clean of vegetable matter and was easy to open prior to carding.
7. It went through the carder easily and made uniform batts after two passes. The fleece hand cards into rolags nicely too.
8. Easy to spin into a woollen style yarn. Spinning a fine thread was effortless. Once washed the skein puffed up into a light bouncy yarn with tweed type colours from the light sun-faded tips and white patches in the original fleece.
I plan to spin and weave with the bulk of the fibre and turn it into light woollen finished fabric. Some of the yarn I’ll definitely save for knitting. The handle on the finished knitted fabric is bouncy and elastic but not as soft as modern day Merino. It should wear well and will be resilient much like the sheep it came from. I'm now sampling the yarns.
If you want to try a sample of fleece leave a comment below with your contact details and I’ll send you some.