Quality Wool from Black Wool Sheep

Meet a sheep farmer who is doing his best to produce black wool, a product commercial buyers typically reject.

| March/April 1983

  • black wool - sheep flock in pen
    It takes many breeds of sheep, both black and white, to create a top-quality line of black wool-bearers. Here's a part of the Jones flock at chow time.
    Photo by Randy Kidd
  • black wool - single black sheep
    Gary displays a fine specimen.
    Randy Kidd

  • black wool - sheep flock in pen
  • black wool - single black sheep

Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags
One for my master, one for my dame,
And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.

For 15 years now, Gary Jones of Peabody, Kansas and his wife Marilyn have worked hard to develop a strain of sheep that consistently produce high-quality black wool — a product that's usually discarded by commercial buyers because it can't be dyed (in fact, a fleece with even a few strands of black is generally classed as less than desirable). Good-quality dark fleece is highly esteemed, however, by handspinners: crafts people who can turn naturally shaded brown, gray, and black wool into beautiful fabric or yarn creations.

Furthermore, in the eyes of these fiber artists, the key to value in wool of any color is its quality, and the production of top-grade fleece has been the primary objective of the Jones farm. In order to achieve this goal, Gary has incorporated as many as 25 different strains of sheep into his flock, crossbreeding to produce a lamb crop that's consistently 90-95% black.

There's no easy formula for success in such an undertaking, either. After all, different sheep have varying genetic capabilities for color: Some, like the blackfaced Hampshires and Suffolks, can be bred to produce all-black young after only one generation. Others, such as the fine-wooled Merinos, rarely do. Unfortunately, those breeds that most easily revert to black also tend to produce poorer quality wool. Therefore, a stringent program of selective crossbreeding must be established to develop high-quality, all-black fleece.

The only true black sheep in the world (all others being genetic variants of some white-fleeced breed) is the Asian Karakul, which is the source of Persian lamb and broadtail pelts as well as of a coarse, rug-quality wool. Karakul rams will usually sire black lambs regardless of the color of the ewe, but the rams' coarse fleece which Gary describes as looking "like a hunk of bear fur lying on the floor" is also passed on to the offspring. The breeder must therefore keep infusing the blood of one or another of the high-quality wool animals, such as the Merino or Border Leicester, into his already dark line of sheep.

If asked, Gary says, "I'll tell anyone the secret to creating a quality all-black flock." Grin wrinkles deepen around his eyes as he continues, "Just study your sheep and work hard on your breeding program for 15 years like I did."

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