A yarn’s look and feel can be affected by so many things — fiber preparation, spinning specifications, color blends — but definitely one of the most fundamental elements affecting a yarn’s identity is the choice of fiber. If our blossoming communal-fiber-awareness has taught us anything, it’s that a label touting “100% Wool” is leaving a lot of details out of the equation. Wool, like wine, is a nuanced universe that knitters and handspinners are starting to explore more and more deeply. Knowing that the general interest in breed-specific wools has been steadily increasing in our industry, I was beyond thrilled to be able to get down to the nitty-gritty and explore the different behaviors of some of the breeds that are being grown in abundance here in the US.
My goal was to find a fiber that had woolly structure and body — something that could withstand years of wear with the high quality feel of traditional knitting yarn — while also having a degree of softness that would keep the yarn out of the ‘too scratchy’ category.
My original strategy (a very literal one) was to experiment with blending two different breeds of wool together in the same yarn – something soft and fine (like American Merino) with another wool that had more strength and structure. Sourcing and testing American wools was so much fun — I geeked out on this part for weeks! In my testing I looked at various breeds including Merino, Rambouillet, Targhee and Columbia in order to compare their qualities and find the right balance for the yarn I had in mind.
In the end, I fell totally in love with the balanced nature of a Targhee-Columbia cross breed grown in Wyoming. It was the perfect match for the qualities and behavior of the yarn I had envisioned and brought a sense of balance to the yarn that I found pleasing.
Both Targhee and Columbia were developed as American sheep breeds in the early 20th century and have rich farming histories in the West. Both breeds have specific qualities that create wonderful wool for handknitting. Targhee is considered a Fine Wool (21-25 microns), bringing softness, while Columbia is a Medium Wool (24-31 microns) that brings an element of structure and strength.
Targhee is very young in the broader scope of breed history, having been developed in 1926 in Dubois, Idaho. The goal in the breed’s development was an “ideal sheep” based on three quarters finewool and one quarter longwool blood. The large animals grow fine and uniform fleece with a glorious, spongey crimp that allows knitted fabrics a notable level of softness and elasticity.
Columbia is a slightly older breed whose development began in 1912 in the Western United States. Columbia is an all-purpose wool that brings robust substance and warmth. The Columbia breed began as a cross between Rambouillet and Lincoln sheep and is wonderful for warm, durable fabrics.
A cross between these breeds brings together the sometimes disparate qualities of both wearability and durability, creating a yarn that is uniquely suited for the needs of handknitters and wool-wearers alike.
As I mentioned in the beginning of the post — the fact that a large demographic of knitters are becoming increasingly more attuned to breed-specific qualities of wool is something that I find incredibly exciting! I can’t wait to see more and more yarns listing specific sheep breeds on their labels. It’s happened to wine, it’s happened to cheese, it’s happened to coffee… how about wool? It’s exciting to think about where we are all headed and what knitting has in store for us in the (very near) future!