Yarn weights are considerations when deciding which fiber breed or species to raise for your yarn. Wool, fleece, and fiber can be harvested from a number of wool-yielding animals, including sheep, goats, rabbits, camels, llamas, alpaca, bison, and yak! The fiber from bison, camels, and yak are the more rare fibers. The fiber from the camelid family of animals is very soft and fine. It feels similar to alpaca and angora rabbit.
Deciding on the right species for your small farm or backyard requires some research and even field trips if possible. Fifteen years ago, when I was first investigating wool-yielding animals for our farm, I wasn’t even aware of the breed of goat we eventually bred and raised.
We started with fiber goats because someone convinced me that sheep were harder to raise and more susceptible to illness and death. Nothing could be further from the truth. If managed appropriately, fed correctly, and given good forage, and enough space, sheep are quite easy to keep.
Sheep need mostly forage and grass. We supplement with a small bit of grain each day. I like the interaction this gives us with the animals, and they look at the grain as a treat. This feeding gives us a chance to interact with them and check for signs of illness, runny noses, limping, pale eyelids or breathing issues.
Providing the proper feed is vital for good health. Inspecting the grazing areas for toxic plants, feeding an appropriate concentrate for wool breeds, (hint — no fiber-producing animal should have copper in their grain mix), and plenty of available fresh water at all times
Some shepherds will cover their flock with a thin blanket made of nylon like fabric. These covers keep the wool cleaner up until shearing time. If you use a cover on a growing lamb, check frequently to make sure it is not getting too tight on the animal. Using the covers is really up to your discretion. The wool will clean up after it is sheared. It may protect the fiber from wool break from rubbing on things. It’s a personal choice for each shepherd, taking into consideration the weather conditions, pasture conditions and the final product desired. There is little doubt, however, that the use of covers does produce a cleaner and more consistent wool product.
Which Wool-Yielding Animals Should you Raise?
Many sheep breeds produce a fleece, but not all wool is garment quality. Some wool produced by meat breeds such as the Suffolk sheep will yield a more coarse product. The yarn from coarse wool may be used in rug yarn production or felted into dense wool pads. When raising wool-yielding animals consider those traditionally used in yarn production for clothing.
The breeds of sheep are varied in size and type of fleece.
Longwool Breeds of sheep grow a long staple length fiber. This is often sought after by hand spinners for the staple length. The crimp is looser and wavy and the fiber has a beautiful luster. Leicester Longwool, Coopworth, Lincoln, Romney, are Wensleydale are among the breeds in the longwool category.
If you are desiring a fine wool, with higher loft yarn, consider the Rambouillet, American Cormo and Merino. These fleeces are finer with a tighter crimp and shorter staple length.
Dual-purpose breeds may suit homesteader’s needs in raising a breed that produces a tender carcass along with wool production for spinning, weaving, or needle felting. Consider the Finn, Corriedale, Jacob, East Friesian, Polypay, and Targhee.
Another type of fiber is found on the sheep breeds known as hair breeds. Often, the self-releasing fiber on these breeds does not require yearly shearing. The fiber will need to be de-haired though before the fiber can be spun into a yarn. The Dorper, Blackbelly, Katahdin and St.Croix are among the breeds referred to as hair sheep.
Even those primarily interested in raising sheep for meat can benefit from the wool grown during the winter. Dorset, Cheviot, Southdown and Suffolk sheep are often bred for the superb weight gain but their fleece can be used for felting projects and the hide for rugs.
Once your homestead is producing a marketable yarn, you can expand into teaching classes on certain subjects, if that interests you. Classes could include, how to felt wool, tapestry, weaving, spinning for beginners, beginner, and advanced knitting or crocheting.
Adding Goat Fiber to the Fleece Market
Goats can be also added, as wool-yielding animals, to a flock. The most common fiber goats are the Angora and the Pygora. Angora goats are recognized for their long curly locks of fleece on the horned goat. The Pygora breed of wool producing animal was derived from the Angora. The Pygora breed was a result of careful, specific breeding of Angora and Pygmy breeds of goats. While the Angora has largely one type of fleece, long ringlets of fiber, Pygoras can be one of three types of fleece.
Type A is most Angora like.
Type B is a mixture of Angora appearing locks and a dense Cashmere undercoat.
Type C is a cashmere coat type of fleece.
Each type of Pygora fiber is considered a luxury, exotic fiber and brings a good price on the fiber market. Raising a combination herd of Angoras, or Pygoras along with traditional wool breeds of sheep yields a beautifully blended yarn.
Space requirements are not as grand as you might think. The management plan for a smaller grazing area will include more frequent cleanup of pasture and a good source of hay forage. Always provide clean fresh water. The sheep and goats, if you have both, can be housed and grazed together. The one problem with small space grazing is that the parasite load might become a problem if the ruminants don’t have a second area to go to. Pasture rotation is a great way to let parasites die off. Rotating pasture also allows the grass or forage to not be overgrazed.
What About Rabbits?
True Angora fiber is harvested from rabbits, and not Angora goats, which yield cashmere fiber. There are a few breeds of Angora Rabbit that can be raised for the fiber. English, French, Satin, German, and Giant, are the commonly found breeds of Angora goats. Angora fiber is considered a luxury fiber, yielding a lightweight yarn that has incredible warmth and softness. Like other luxury fiber, Angora is often blended with Merino wool or nylon.
Angora Rabbits are at least 6 months old before being bred. The babies are born hairless, like other rabbit kits. Once mature, the fiber is harvested every 90 days for both the comfort of the rabbit and the quality of the fiber. Allowing the fiber to grow without grooming and harvesting leads to uncomfortable matting and clumping on the rabbit. The wool fiber will also become dirty from urine and feces, if not groomed and sheared or plucked. Caring for Angora Rabbits is time-consuming, although working with the rabbits is peaceful and rewarding. In addition to the fiber care, rabbits require clean cages, fresh water, hay and timothy pellets.
Raising wool-yielding animals is very rewarding. The wool fleece and fiber is renewable, year after year as long as the sheep remains healthy. Managing a small flock, tending to their needs and then harvesting the wool in the spring is hard work. For the do-it-yourself-minded homesteader or farmer, it can become a rewarding and enriching activity with potential income.
Which wool-yielding animals interest you?