by Robin Nistock
Cotswold sheep have been in the United States since at least the early 1800s but because of dwindling demand during the mid 1900s the breed almost became extinct. Thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated shepherds Cotswolds are now enjoying a slow but steady revival.
The Livestock Conservancy lists the breed as ‘threatened’, meaning that there are fewer than 1,000 annual registrations in the United States and the estimated global population is less than 5,000 individuals. Because of modern information sharing technology and worldwide shipping many fiber artists are now rediscovering the excellent qualities of the fiber and the versatility of the breed.
Cotswold is a luster longwool, meaning that the fiber is naturally shiny and grows 8-12 inches a year, earning it the nickname ‘poor man’s mohair’. Additionally, the locks by nature form beautiful curls, giving an animal in full fleece a very distinctive look. As with most long wools, Cotswold is considered coarse and has an average micron count of 36 to 40. In comparison, Merino averages 18-24 microns. ‘Coarse’ is an unfortunate word as it makes people think the wool is harsh and unpleasant and spinners sometimes steer clear of it thinking it would be suitable only for rugs. Not true! ‘Sturdy’ would be a more accurate adjective and Cotswold excels in several traits that make it ideal for garments, including taking dye beautifully and being able to withstand wear and use without pilling or fraying. Cotswold can be spun into lace weight yarn and still be very strong and can be used as embroidery floss and warp yarn without fear of thinning and breakage. The long locks can be incorporated into novelty yarns such as in tailspinning. When spun softly a woolen yarn will raise a halo like mohair.
The sheep themselves are large with ewes weighing 200 lbs and rams averaging 300 lbs. They are relatively calm, slow growing but long lived, able to maintain good condition on rough feed and are generally good mothers. The flavor of the meat is reliably mild even when an older animal is eaten as mutton. Traditionally white, Cotswolds can also carry black or gray shaded fleeces and are registered as such in a separate Cotswold registry. Because the wool grows so quickly our spring born lambs can be shorn in the fall to give an especially beautiful lamb fleece and can then be shorn again late the following spring for another clip. (Not shearing a lamb before winter hay season usually results in much VM contamination as the fleece is softer and finer than adult and trash doesn’t shake out as readily). Thereafter we shear once a year.
I knew very little of this when I acquired our first Cotswolds in 2000. I just knew that I was smitten with their fiber and demeanor and wanted to add them to my flock of handspinning crossbreds. I appreciate the fiber from many breeds and already bred medium and long wool crosses to produce the colors and traits I liked and that sold well. But this breed appealed to me like no other.
Since 2000 the Cotswold flock has expanded to roughly 40 ewes and a group of six rams. We maintain a nearly closed flock, only bringing in a new ram occasionally when mating choices become difficult due to familial relationship. We don’t show, partly because of biosecurity concerns, partly because the show ring is not always the best way to present a rare breed and largely due to a lack of time! In our flock we select for fleece on the fine end of the breed standard with high luster, a dense drape-y hand and small curls. Size to meet the breed standard is important but increasing body size is not our primary goal. Fleece quality, mothering ability and overall health are our top criteria.
We derive many products from the Cotswold flock which are sold online through our website – www.nistockfarms.com – and at fiber festivals and through a local fiber craft store – Finger Lakes Fiber and Arts Emporium in Hammondsport, NY. Raw fleeces generally weigh 8-13 lbs and are sold skirted to spinners or are washed and dyed here and then taken to an excellent local mill (Acorn Works in Churchville, NY) to be made to roving. We are delighted when a new spinner is introduced to this old breed’s wool. “THIS is Cotswold??” is the frequent reaction when they discover that the fiber they thought was going to be harsh is instead silky and luxurious…. in a sturdy sort of way. Doll and Santa crafters use the curly locks for hair and bearding. We also have yarn spun at Stonehedge Fiber Mill in Michigan which is then sold in natural white or dyed to whatever colors tickle my fancy at the time. Second and third quality fiber is made to quilt batting which is also desired by felters as Cotswold will felt readily.
Ram lambs that aren’t breeding quality go into our freezer trade and the pelts from all such lambs are tanned and sell very quickly. Lambs and yearlings that are of breeding stock quality are sold to other shepherds and some that are more suited to being cherished members of a fiber flock are sold for that purpose.
Besides the Cotswolds we do have another 40 or so crossbreds whose fleeces are sold exclusively to spinners and other fiber artists. These sheep are coated before we go into hay feeding season.
The Cotswolds are not coated, due in part to good hay feeders that minimize VM contamination and also to the more open lock structure in their fleece which allows them to shake out most debris. What little they pick up is removed during processing. The crossbred flock includes mixtures of Border Leicester, CVM, Rambouillet, Finn, Romney and Corriedale in white, gray, black and moorit. Excess lambs from these sheep also go into the freezer channel and their hides are tanned too.
In addition to the sheep and wool products, Andy builds some excellent fiber equipment at affordable prices. Fiber artists are very tactile folk and the appeal of tools used in spinning, weaving and other pursuits is as much in how they look and feel as how they function.
Cherry, oak and maple are the woods he uses most frequently, partly because those hardwoods are strong enough to withstand daily use but also because that is what is readily available here. With minor exceptions, the wood used is derived from trees from our property which Andy mills to lumber on his sawmill and then stacks to dry. He has a lumber stash like we spinners have fiber stash!
Skein winders are an essential tool for anyone handling yarn and he makes a handsome sturdy model with a digital counter. Having a hundred or so pounds of Cotswold milled to yarn quickly made me investigate the skein winders currently on the market. I found them to be either industrial sized (and priced) and not very attractive, or small and apparently intended for light use. I needed something strong but simple – a work horse, but preferably a pretty one. The winder Andy developed is just that! It has adjustable arms and can also function as a swift. A unique tensioning knob allows for the arms to rotate with complete freedom or have just a little drag applied so that they can’t whirl out of control and snarl yarn like backlash on a fishing reel. From lace weight to super bulky, this skein winder functions smoothly without wobbling, collapsing or mistreating your yarn. A body of Baltic Birch and contrasting arms and feet of cherry finished in oil make it handsome, too.
Rug hooking frames in both fixed and collapsible models are a popular item as rug hooking seems to be enjoying a renaissance. We use Howard Brush gripper strips for superior stability of the foundation fabric. The basic ‘beginner’ frame is a useful 10 inch by 10 inch size. Many rug hookers have multiple frames for different projects. As one experienced hooker pointed out, you can hook a big project on a small frame if you need to, but you can’t always hook a small project on a big frame! The innovative collapsible models (two sizes – 11X11 and 12X15) are great for travelling and workshops. Folding down to a thin 2 inches, this frame will fit into a tote bag with room to spare. He can custom build any size frame that’s desired and has made some small sizes for punch needle crafters. Again, they are built of cherry wood, sanded to satin smoothness and finished with oil.
Andy is hoping to delve into spinning wheel design and also create a motorized version of the skein winder.
I plan to continue working hard to introduce good Cotswold wool to fiber artists and offer some new products soon – spinning batts of Cotswold with added fibers such as silk and alpaca, maybe some felted goods, perhaps blankets, knitting kits featuring our Cotswold yarn, introduce more weavers to Cotswold….. many ideas to explore with this versatile fiber.
Excuse me, I think I better go get busy!
For further information on Cotswold sheep and listings of breeders go to:
Find out more about Nistock Farms here : www.nistockfarms.com