You know it, you love it (and if it's less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit) you're probably wearing it. That's right, we're talking about wool. But not all wool is made equal! Learn about the different types of animals that have provided fibers for people around the world and throughout history.
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There are hundreds of breeds of sheep, and not all of them produce wool. Sheep breeds that aren't shorn and are instead cultivated for meat and milk are confusingly called hair sheep. Because....we *don't* use their hair?
- One popular type of sheep wool you've probably heard of is Merino wool. Merino wool comes from merino sheep which originated in Spain but are now bred mainly in New Zealand and Australia.
Goats are far more glamorous than they're given credit for. Have you heard of cashmere? It's made from the silky fine undercoat of the Kashmir goat, which is native to the Himalayas but is now bred the world over. Goats are also responsible for:
- Kashmir goats are also responsible for Pashmina, a specific type of cashmere produced in Kashmir Valley and commonly used for scarves and wraps.
- Mohair is a glossy, flossy fiber made from the wool of Angora goats.
Yaks are a source of milk, meat, and hides in China and Tibet, but they're increasingly being utilized for their fibers. Yaks' course outer hair is less desirable than the fine down that grows in before each winter to help protect the animals from the cold. That soft down fiber is shed every summer, collected and used.
The Native American Coast Salish people of the Pacific Northwest once cultivated an extra-wooly distinct breed of dog called Salish wool dogs or Comox dogs. These special pups were kept gated in caves or cloistered on islands to keep the breed pure and were fed a special diet made up almost exclusively of salmon. Their fiber was sheared and used for blankets and clothing.
- Even though the Salish wool dogs have long-since gone extinct, knitting with dog hair is still a thing.
Wooly Angora rabbits have soft, downy coats that can be sheared and spun into a fiber called angora. Angora goats and Angora rabbits both give fiber that’s spun into yarn, but the fiber from Angora goats is called mohair.
Camelids are a family of two-toed mammals with three-chambered stomachs (and an abundance of wooly fur).
- Alpacas are native to the Andes and provide meat, fiber and a livelihood for families in the highlands of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile.
- Llamas, the alpaca’s taller cousin, can also produce soft yarn that’s suitable for clothing.
- Vicuñas, wild camelids native to the South American Andes, produce the most expensive and rare animal fiber. Vicuña fiber was so prized during the Incan Empire that only royalty was allowed to wear it. Spanish conquistadors called vicuña fiber “the silk of the new world” and killed the animals to harvest their fiber, rather than just shearing them.
- The soft undercoat of a Bactrian camel can be spun into a luxury fiber that's lightweight but warm.