by Cary Smith
Corriedale wool, Corriedale yarn, Corriedale sheep….what do you think of when you hear Corriedale?
If you knit or crochet, it may not be a yarn you are familiar with. If you are a spinner, especially one fairly new to the craft, you may have heard of Corriedale in passing or in browsing internet shops and fiber festivals, but it probably isn’t a breed you hear spoken of in the same terms as the mighty Merino or the glamorous Cormo, the silky Blue-Faced Leicester or the relative new-kid on the fiber block, CVM.
If you are a prospective new shepherd, thinking of acquiring a few sheep for a spinners flock for your small farm or homestead, you might be looking at Shetlands or Icelandics or even Babydoll Southdown’s because you have heard how easy they are to care for, how efficient they are, and what good multi-purpose breeds they are. You might even be more familiar with Columbia or Targhee sheep than you are with Corriedale.
And that’s a shame.
The Corriedale breed ought to be on everyone’s short list of favorites, no matter why you are looking at sheep!
Some facts you may not know about Corriedale sheep: They have been in existence since the late 1800’s, developed from a cross between Merino and Lincoln or Leicester breeds.
They are second in numbers only to the Merino breed worldwide. (I have had people ask me if Corriedales are descendents of Cormo sheep, when in fact it is the other way around! Cormo were developed by crossing Corriedale and Merino. Just something you may not have known!).
Corriedale sheep are a medium size, dual-purpose breed of sheep developed to raise a good carcass with a quantity of bright white wool for the trades. They are even-tempered, efficient and generally good mothers. Add to that easy keeping with a heavy yielding fleece, and you have a potential for profit for the small farmer and a dream fiber for the hand spinner and knitter.
I could go on and on about the value of raising Corriedale sheep, and if anyone has questions or would like more information about this, we would be happy to visit with you. Please feel free to visit our website or contact us here at the farm.
But I assume that if you are a reader of Ennea Collective magazine, what you are really interested in is the fiber – that delicious wool Corriedale sheep make so well!
At our small family farm in the middle of Michigan, we are raising good old-fashioned Corriedales to graze our fields and provide us lamb and wool, with an emphasis on the wool. I have often said that even if our ewes were no longer able to have lambs, I would raise them for their fiber, because in my mind, Corriedale wool has it all! Softness with structure; quality with character; comfortable and classic Corriedale wool has crimp, fineness and bounce all with a staple length that makes it a breeze to spin.
Although pure white is the only color recognized in the breed registry, natural colors do occur and fortunately for us, there have been those before us who have made it a point to keep these colored sheep in small fiber flocks across the country. In our own flock, we have both white and natural colored Corriedale, as well as a few crossbloods (mostly Corriedale crossed with fine wool Merino or CVM).
When we first started thinking about having wool to sell, I thought we would have just one or two whites but we quickly found that the white wool is in as much demand as the natural colors. In fact, most of our repeat customers purchase one white fleece and one natural colored – the white fleeces are often the first to sell out! We have all colors except moorit in our flock, but the most popular has to be the beautiful silver grays and we are very fortunate to have a family line of ewes that produce that for us. We never seem to have enough pale silvery gray wool.
Corriedale is considered a fine to medium wool, with well-defined crimp and a staple length between 3 and 5 inches. The staple (wool locks) have a fairly flat tip and the fleece is heavy in the grease (lanolin).
It is soft, lofty and has a lot of bounce…we like to joke that Corriedale fiber goes “poof” when you comb, card or wash it! This makes it warm without a lot of weight.
An adult Corriedale will yield between 8 and 15 pounds of wool annually. Lambs (first shearing) usually give between 5 and 8 pounds.
I mentioned that I think Corriedale fiber has something for everyone and this is especially true for the hand spinner. It can be as soft as Merino but with more staple length, making it easier to draft and spin for the beginner and relaxing for the more experienced. It is also less fussy to process than some of the other fine wools, not usually as many problems with neps and noils.
One of the truly great pleasures in life, in my mind, is washing and then combing a Corriedale lamb fleece to spin. Heavenly! Corriedale blends well with other fibers and some of our most popular include Corriedale with Alpaca, Kid Mohair or Angora bunny.
At Serenity Farms, we have selected for our breeding flock individual sheep in the finer range of the Corriedale wool, something closer to the Merino in their heritage. We also maintain a few with the more traditional crimp that some of our customers look for.
Our adult sheep wear covers or coats year round to keep the fleece relatively free of chaff and other vm (vegetable matter). When we keep a lamb to raise up in the flock, we will begin coating them after they are weaned…between three to five months of age.
Lamb fleeces, although they are often dirtier and fussy to work with, are highly sought after and bring a premium….after all, a sheep only has one lamb fleece in its lifetime. A sheep will usually have a change of coat sizes three times per year. As the fleece grows longer, the coat needs to be changed to both fit the sheep comfortably and give the wool room to “breathe” and not felt. We shear our sheep about a month before lambing begins, usually mid-March, to avoid having a fleece that is soiled from the birthing process or one that may have a “break” (weak spot) develop from having a lamb. This also makes it easier for the new lambs to find the “milk bar” and they don’t end up snacking on a piece of dirty wool.
In a manner similar to what you may have heard Alpaca breeders do, I skirt and sort my fleeces heavily and divide them into various “grades” of fiber from the same fleece.
The wonderfully clean wool that is under the sheep coats – the “blanket” if you will – is prime and is what we offer to our customers. Neck wool and any wool from along the sides that may have peeked out from under the coats and gotten dirty is separated into another pile that I will wash and clean myself.
This is very often the finest wool but also gets the dirtiest because it isn’t coated, so it is my winter project and what goes into our rovings or yarns.
Sometimes we will find that no matter how careful we are about keeping the coats changed on the sheep, especially with the finer-wooled girls, we will have tips that are matted or slightly felted and again, that is wool that I will keep to prepare for myself or for sale as roving or yarn. This is what we call “seconds”, not because it is second in quality, but in cleanliness and every fiber mill I have ever worked with has told me that our seconds are better than many peoples “prime” – praise we appreciate!
Belly and leg wool, wool from the hindquarters, anything that is contaminated (with manure or urine) goes into the “mulch” bag and is not sold.
We sell the majority of those prime blanket fleeces to hand spinners for processing themselves and most years we have a waiting list for fleeces. They sell out quickly and many of them go to repeat customers. We don’t require a deposit, nor do we require you to buy a full fleece – we will gladly sell by the pound. Because most of the fleeces are sold raw, we only offer a limited amount of rovings for sale and that, too, sells out very fast. We are hoping to offer a small amount of custom, artisan, farm yarns and knitting kits in the coming year but we have encountered two “obstacles” to this plan…one is not really a problem, it is just the fact that the raw wool is in such demand that we usually don’t have enough to have a batch of yarn spun up! That is a “good” problem.
The second is having the mill spin the yarn exactly as we would like to offer it. There is always tweaking to do. We have three wonderful mills to work with; two right here in Michigan and one in the western United States and each one of them offers something we want in our yarns. We just need to settle on that perfect balance!
If you have never had the pleasure of working with Corriedale or if you have had a less than pleasant experience with any you have tried in the past, please seek out a farm that is raising them with an emphasis on wool and treat yourself to this wonderful fiber. I would suggest that you look for one of the several smaller farms that know the hand spinner and knitters’ market and are breeding their sheep with that in mind. Of course we would love to be able to supply you with Corriedale, so feel free to contact us at Serenity Farms. We can and will ship anywhere, or if you are ever in our area, we would love to have you visit the sheep and the farm. Our goal is to get quality Corriedale into the hands of all the fiber folks we can. We are more than happy to send you a small sample of raw fleece, processed roving, combed top or even yarn if it is available at the time of your request.
I imagine it is obvious that we are passionate about our product here at Serenity Farms….we love Corriedale! I have heard people say about us that of course we use/recommend/like Corriedale because that is what we raise, but I have to tell you that it really is the other way around! We raise Corriedale because that is what we love to work with. If we could no longer raise sheep, I would still seek out Corriedale fiber. I have yet to find a project that Corriedale wasn’t perfect for and I hope that I have inspired you to Consider Corriedale!