When we think of the western states we think of cattle and naturally cowboys. But the west is known for its sheep and it doesn’t take as many cowboys to herd sheep because the best herders are dogs. The USA is a major producer of wool, not the top producer but still a major producer.
Cattle producers don’t like sheep producers. Trying to find out why actually sent me to talking to some real cowboys. Apparently sheep will eat grass to the ground and cattle will just nibble on the tops. So if a herd of cattle are sent into a field that field will recover by re-growing the grass very quickly. But sheep can leave a field devastated. Yet, wool production can be a financially lucrative for a rancher. So the pros and cons of wool farming continue today and so does the persistent animosity between cattle producers and wool producers.
In the late 1890’s there was a bitter war between the two different types of ranchers. And the accounts of the war were horrendously vicious. Thousands of sheep were clubbed to death or set aflame, as were the dogs and the cowboys. Yes, they even managed to roast the men to death!
Wyoming might be known as the Cowboy State, but throughout the state’s history, the sheep have out numbered the cattle. Texas today is the biggest wool producer of all the states. (Mongolia is the world’s top producer by country.)
Sheep are gentler creatures and smarter than cattle. That makes them easier to handle. Yes, there’s lamb as meat, but mostly they are being raised for their wool. And with today’s resurgence of interest in natural materials that don’t need to be dyed, lambs are becoming chic and useful pets. Anyone who has owned a merino sweater or pair of socks completely understands.
Sheep breeds vary and so does their wool. We all are familiar with black sheep and white sheep, but they also come in a wide variety of colors including blond, silver, brown, and red. Some wool spins easier than others, some tends to tangle and that can be a good
quality for certain wool fabrics, some wools are better used on exterior clothing, some are warmer, etc. But since so many universities are now teaching textile as art, we as consumers benefit with amazingly beautiful clothes, that can be waterproof, light enough to wear in the summer and or warm enough to wear during our coldest weather. Add to it, the fact that most wools don’t tend to wrinkle makes that wool suit perfect for the office or traveling.
There are also a variety of animals that produce enough wool that we can use, such as angora goats and even that big floppy-eared rabbit. Llamas are another wool producer. I knew a woman whose dog would rollover and allow her to glean some belly fur for her spin into yarn to be used in her textile art.
Hobby and craft stores usually stock yarn by companies such as Red Heart Yarn. These yarns come in a wide range of color and thickness and the company provides thousands of free patterns. The wools are easy to use. But then there are those who want something special and yarn shops will often carry wools and other natural materials and blends. Such shops will often have spinning wheels for sale and provide lessons on spinning.
It’s fun to learn new things and for those who manage to do it, it’s a very satisfying hobby. But for those who settled the west having a few lambs meant they had an instant supply of available yarn. Young lambs were also food. But spinning isn’t easy. The wool must be removed from the lamb. That’s done in the spring. Then it’s washed and carded. Carding removes any debris and puts the wool into a “straight” line - think of it as detangling. Then a small amount is picked up and spun into a twisted thread with the help of a spinning wheel.
The spinning wheel is ancient. Some think it dates to 500 AD and others seem to think it’s a newer invention. We really don’t know when it came about but we do know that people have used a variety of sticks to twist wool into yard. And once the spinning wheel came about it revolutionized the process. It’s traditionally been a woman’s job, maybe because it’s allowed women to be productive and creative.
It's the 1800's and picture a cold night in a cabin far from where that woman grew up. As the day draws to a close, she can pick up the wool that she’s washed and carded. Soft and fluffy, she begins to spin the wool knowing that the pretty yarn will become a sweater to keep her baby warm during the winter or maybe it will be socks or a scarf. It’s a job that she’s done for hours and hours. No longer must she think about what she's doing. The wool slips between her fingers, every movement a product of her memory. The satisfaction of knowing that she’s creating something from scratch, something that will make their lives a little nicer, something that she has done, a thing of beauty. Yarn that will become the white blanket for the child she carries, or the brown and silver cowl that will perfectly match her husband’s hair color. Maybe it will become a blanket for her son’s bed. Something to cover and keep him warm with a locomotive design while he dreams of one day driving such a train from coast to coast. That yarn can become a canvas and colorful yarns can become the embroidered flowers for her daughter’s cape. But for now, she sits while the fire crackles in the stove. The sound of the spinning wheel clacking and turning fills the silence of their cabin in the middle of nowhere. For now she rests quietly in her chair, as the warm memories of her mother and grandmother wrap her soul. She is a spinner of yarn and a spinner of dreams for her family.