Sheep are not all the same. It is surprising how much difference there is between the different breeds. Often we think of sheep as supplying wool for clothing but that is just the start of the story. Fat-tailed breeds such as the black-headed Persian are prized for the allyah or fat which is stored in the tail and rump.
Dairy breeds like the East Friesian produce prolific amounts of milk for cheese-making. Some breeds such as the American blackbelly and the Cameroon have hair instead of wool and some like the Dorper and Wiltshire Horn shed their fleeces without the need for shearing.
Even wool fleeces are divided into fine, medium and coarse wool with intermediate grades as well. The fleeces of those breeds which have a naturally coarse, low grade wool are ideally suited to the manufacture of carpets. Such breeds often have a double coat. The long, coarse outer coat provides protection against extreme weather conditions. Wool over 38 microns is usually used for the manufacture of carpets.
There are both western and eastern breeds suited to carpet wool. In the United States, the Icelandic, Navajo Churro, Scottish Blackface and Karakul are used for carpet wool. In New Zealand and Australia, the four breeds producing speciality carpet wools are the Drysdale, Tukidale, Carpetmaster and Elliottdale which have all come originally from Romney or Perendale sheep.
Several of the fat-tail breeds have fleeces which are used for carpet-making. The Awassi is one of these. Its main claim to fame is as an outstanding dairy breed. The fleece has a varying amount of hair.
The Altay has its origins in the dry, cold mountain basins of China. They belong to the Kazakh group of sheep and are of the fat-rumped, carpet wool type.
The Churra breed is native to north-western Spain. Their descendants inclue the Navajo Churro which were the first domesticated sheep to be introduced into North America. Chuuro sheep arrived from southern Spain in 1514. They were herded on the Spanish ranches and villages along the Rio Grande.Credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lechazos_raza_churra.jpg
Through raids and trading, the native Indians gradually built up flocks of Churros. Then, in the mid-1900s, a government 'sheep improvement program' almost made the breed extinct. Although it is now recovering, it is still considered rare by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy. The breed is small and hardy. Rams may have four horns indicating what a primitive breed they are. The fleece is a double fleece and is long, fine and coarse. Native tribes use the fleece to weave rugs and blankets.
The Scottish Blackface is one of Great Britain's native breeds. Its main purpose is for crossing with other breeds, producing crossbred mothers to bear prime lambs. The Scottish Blackface is usually crossed with the Border or Bluefaced Leicester. Their fleece is lightweight but long and coarse.Credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blackface_ewe_and_Cheviot-cross_lambs.jpg
The Icelandic breed belongs to a group known as the North European Short Tailed type. It is related to breeds such as the Finnsheep, Romanov and Shetland. The Icelandic has the typical double coat of primitive breeds.
The Valais Blacknose is endemic to Switzerland where it is kept mainly for its meat. It is also found in Germany where it has the name Walliser Schwarznasenschaf. The wool is used for mattress stuffing or carpet manufacture.
In Australia, there are four breeds used to produce speciality carpet wool. The Drysdale, Tukidale, Carpetmaster and Elliottdale are all derived from the Romney Marsh or Perendale breeds. All grow a similar fleece. Carpet wool must be free from vegetable matter and dust. The length of the staple is important and sheep are usually shorn every six months to prevent the fleece from being too long to process.
The four breeds are very seasonal breeders and generally run as self-replacing flocks. The wether lambs are usually sold as prime lamb. The lambs are generally shorn at least once and weaned. They are not finished enough to sell before this time. However the carcasses are of high quality and lean. The skins from speciality carpet wool breeds tan well, producing high quality leather and skins with wool-on.