If you usually think of breed-specific wool as that gorgeous skein of Merino in your favourite colour at your local yarn shop, then think again.

Lincoln Longwool Sheep, picture submitted to Wovember2011 Gallery by Helena Callum

“The usual classification of our [British breed] sheep into MOUNTAIN, LONGWOOLS and DOWNS, is that which emphasises the character of their native surroundings and, in consequence, the character of the covering they grow to protect them.

Mountain breeds: these are sheep of the hills around and over the 1,000 ft line. They are small, giving excellent meat, very hardy and the fleeces are strong, coarse, medium long in staple and often kempy. The extreme humidity of our mountainous districts produces wools peculiar to this country and attempts to maintain its character in flocks exported to various parts of the world have been unsuccessful. Example breeds: Scottish Blackface, Cheviot, Cotswold, Dalesbred, Derbyshire Gritstone, Exmoor Horn, Herdwick, Lonk, Pennistone, Radnor, Rough Fell, Swaledale, Welsh Mountain, Shetland.

Longwool breeds: these are the breeds of the richer, grassy lowlands and the coastal plains. Their wool is long, lustrous and somewhat coarse. In earlier times, the longwooled sheep of the Midlands gave the fleece which was combed and spun by the ‘worsted’ process for use on the family loom. Example breeds: Lincoln, Leicester,  Border Leicester, Dartmoor, Devon Longwool, South Devon, Kent or Romney Marsh, Wensleydale.

Down breeds: these sheep are native to the lower hills, downs, and sometimes forests, in the true meaning of the word, i.e. open woodland and wide, treeless heath. They give excellent, lean mutton and fine short wool, although the wool is less fine and short in those breeds which have spread to hill country approaching the 1,000 ft line, where rainfall is higher. Example breeds: Southdown, Suffolk, Hampshire Down, Dorset Down, Wiltshire Horn, Dorset Horn, Devon Closewool, Ryeland, Shropshire, Oxford Down, Kerry Hill, Clun Forest.”

– Elsie G. Davenport, Your Handspinning, 1971, Select Books, Mountain View, MO, USA