For today’s EU themed Wovember Words post we are talking about the endangered and rare breed sheep of Greece. The Greek word for sheep is πρόβατο (próvato) while the Greek word for wool is μαλλί (mallí). Our information for this post comes from a report by the SAVE foundation whom we mentioned earlier in the month; a scholarly report entitled Rare indigenous sheep breeds of Greece and written by Kominakis, A. and E. Rogdakis; the Greek Ravelry Knitters Group; and a blog post we found in the archives of Joanne Seiff detailing her adventures on the Greek Island of Crete. It has been difficult to locate photos that identify the many rare breed sheep that we found, so instead we have tried to show the variety of grazing contexts and the diverse environments of Greece that have produced so many different breeds.

'Sheep resting under a tree in Greece, Crete' - image found on Wiki Commons and attributable to Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho
‘Sheep resting under a tree in Greece, Crete’ – image found on Wiki Commons and attributable to Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho

The SAVE report is an accompaniment to an amazing online Atlas of different breeds of livestock kept in Greece. Rare Greek breeds of pigs, goats, cattle etc. are all included, but of course here at Wovember we are mainly interested in the sheep, and how they have adapted to the richly varied terrains and geographical context of Greece:

Sheep grazing at the barren landscape of Pezi plateau, Ikaria - photo found on Wiki Commons and attributable to Eimaiokanenas
Sheep grazing at the barren landscape of Pezi plateau, Ikaria – photo found on Wiki Commons and attributable to Eimaiokanenas

Up to the 1960s, livestock breeds have been adapted by breeding selection to their environmental conditions. Since multi use breeds are needed most (e.g. meat, milk and labour), not only the productivity of the animals was of importance, but also their adaptation to their environment and climate. Therefore traditional livestock breeds are generally smaller, but more frugal and more robust than modern power breeds. Especially in morphologically and climatically heterogeneous regions, different weights and interests in a livestock breed were made from valley to valley and from island to island. In such naturally heterogeneous countries like Greece with its mountains and islands, a rich diversity of livestock breeds could develop. Animal production in Greece is an important factor in agriculture, as is apparent from the following facts: More than two thirds of the country is hilly or mountainous; 9,841 islands make up 20% of the land surface of Greece; Approximately 40% of agricultural land consists of meadows and pastures.

Windfarm & sheep grazing in Panachaiko Mountains, Greece - photo found on Wiki Commons and attributable to Koliri
Windfarm & sheep grazing in Panachaiko Mountains, Greece – photo found on Wiki Commons and attributable to Koliri

The Convention on Biological Diversity (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) requires in-situ conservation of domesticated species. This can be achieved with comprehensive mapping to provide an appropriate overview. An accurate description, the region of origin and current distribution are essential information for monitoring indigenous livestock breeds, to assess their situation and take appropriate action. This type of documentation is often lacking in those regions that are, due to their ecological niche, particularly rich in indigenous breeds, as is the case in Greece.

Sheep in Gortys, Crete, photographed by Jebulon and put into the public domain through Wiki Commons
Sheep in Gortys, Crete, photographed by Jebulon and put into the public domain through Wiki Commons

The “Atlas of Rare Breeds and Varieties of Greece” is a basis for further conservation work at national and private level, to raise awareness and create more publicity. For documenting of the conservation of animal genetic resources, FAO expects that there are verifiable facts and figures (DAD-IS database and “State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources”). This demand cannot be met by the Greek authorities at the moment. The Atlas of Rare Breeds and Varieties of Greece may, therefore, fill a previously existing information gap

This printed version is an addition to the database on the internet: http://www.agrobiodiversity.net/greece/

Combining the list of sheep breeds from both the reports, an overview of rare breed sheep, their geographic location and their numbers produces a list a little bit like this:

Vulnerable sheep breeds
Anogia, Crete – 5,000
Kalaritiki, Hepirus – 2,800
Asterousia, Crete – 2,500
Kefalonia, Kefallonia Island -2,000
Skopelos, Skopelos island – 1,800
Katsika, Hepirus – 1,500
Piliou, Central Greece – 1200

Endangered sheep breeds
Agrinion Oak Forest Sheep, Agrinio oak forest – 673
Argos Sheep, Amos village, Messinia, Peloponnese – 110 – 500
Florina, Northwestern Greece – 650
Kimi, Eyboia island – 600
Kokovitiki, Peloponnesus – 700
Pelagonia, NW-Greece, Florina Prefecture, Western Makedonia – 500
Zakinthos, Zakynthos island – 600

Critically endangered sheep breeds
Argos, Peloponnesus – 110
Ikaria, Ikaria island – 30
Kivircik, Kehros, in Rodopi – 234
Sarakatsaniki (AKA Karakachan), Central Greece – 200
Thrace, Eastern Greece – 120

Extinct sheep breeds
Arvanito vlahiko
Chalkidiki, Chalkidiki
Gramoustiani
Katafygion Sheep, SE-Macedonia
Kerkyra
Rymoulkiou Sheep

The SAVE report is from 2010 and it’s not clear from the website what has happened since to preserve in particular the critically endangered sheep breeds, but it’s fascinating to read through the litany of their names and to try and imagine what the wool from these breeds might be (or might have been) like to work with or to wear. Also interesting to try and join the dots between these breeds of sheep; the long history of wool work with which Greece is associated; and contemporary wool businesses in Greece.

Woman spinning; a kalathos on the ground. Attic red-figure lekythos, 480–470 BC. - photo found in Wiki Commons and attributable to Marie-Lan Nguyen
Woman spinning; a kalathos on the ground. Attic red-figure lekythos, 480–470 BC. – photo found in Wiki Commons and attributable to Marie-Lan Nguyen

Joanne Seiff has an interesting post about her trip to the Greek island of Crete, and brings this observation to the local sheep and wool culture there:

…one could note here that sheep on Crete are a special and primitive breed. Very tough, wily and clever, they provide milk, meat and wool – a true triple purpose breed. There are lots of textile shops in Crete with embroidered table and bed linens – sadly, most of these aren’t hand done anymore, and probably not made in Crete. However, as I walked up through the town, peering into the shops, I saw what could only be a distaff, loaded with wool, and a spindle. I rushed into that shop!

Title Greek: Το Κορίτσι The Girl, painted 1876, by the Greek Artist Georgios Jakobides (1853–1932), image found on Wiki Commons and marked as being in the Public Domain
Το Κορίτσι – The Girl, painted 1876, by the Greek Artist Georgios Jakobides (1853–1932), image found on Wiki Commons and marked as being in the Public Domain

Most women on Crete don’t spin or weave anymore. In fact, spinning and weaving were common on the island up until at least the 1970’s, but today, there’s not much need for it anymore, with the improved availability of commercially made goods. However, this lady showed me with very little English, that she spun and wove for her own pleasure. When I showed her I too spun, she was tickled! She got out her handwoven blankets and sacks to show me. They were gorgeous! All single ply yarns, spun with the coarse wool of Crete.

When I tried her distaff and bottom wool spindle, I saw what well-made and beautiful tools they were. Well balanced, and handmade! She explained that they were hers, she had none for sale. She also showed me her handmade wool combs (a lot like Viking combs) that she used to process the wool herself. She did a beautiful job of that, too. Before we left, she showed us another traditional skill. The cords used on handwoven sacks are braided/woven on a distaff like stick. The stick is tucked under one arm, and the little prongs or branches at the end are used to separate strands of yarn. The braiding is done with both hands free – this could obviously be done while walking or tending children.

I was sad that we didn’t have enough language in common to talk further…but thrilled to see someone spinning for fun in Crete. What a universal language we spinners/knitters/fiber arts people have!

We at Wovember agree with the idea that most handspinners of the world can speak the Universal language of wool; accordingly, we shall close this post with a beautiful video that was found through the Greek Knitters Ravelry group and which shows the distaff in use for spinning. Even if you don’t speak Greek, it is very enlightening to watch the process by which the wool becomes cloth – a timeless process held in common by people of all nations across the world, and universally slow and skilled.

As ever, please help us expand the information here by adding anything you know or correcting anything that’s wrong.

4 thoughts on “Πρόβατα και μαλλί στην Ελλάδα – Sheep and Wool in Greece

  1. When I travelled to Creta in 2013, I remembered how I had bought wool there in the 70s and now there was nearly no woolshop to find…
    at last I found one shop in Rethymnon but without greek wool, they told me that only 2 factories had survived the economic crisis… and I bought some greek cotton

    How I remembered my knitting in Plakias in 1975…. all gone…
    I wrote about my quest for wool at my blog:
    http://www.wockensolle.de/?s=Kreta

    it is in german, but there is a google translator button in the sidebar…

  2. I love the warping board/wall. That is seriously ingenious. Also the winding thing which looks like a chair on a stake. I love that these things have been preserved in some form (video) so that others can learn from them.

  3. Thank you Felicity for this very informative post!
    I am Swiss-Greek and have been knitting for almost 10 years now, but since I live in the city, am not a Biology student, and knitting & sheep are not the topic of discussion for many years, I didn’t have the chance to learn about the state of sheep breeds in Greece.

    Your post has inspired me and I right now I am discussing with a friend, who is a knitter and a Biologist, to see if we can organise something for the preservation of Greek sheep and the promotion of yarn production.

    Your whole post series is absolutely great for raising awareness, and thank you for spending time on it!

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