Know Your Fiber: American Karakul Wool
Posted on March 01 2021
Named for a village in what is today Turkmenistan, Karakul sheep originated in Central Asia and only arrived relatively recently on North American shores. North American farmers in early 1900s were primarily interested in Karakul for their value as fur sheep, and the Karakul in North America today are a bit of a different breed than their relatives in central Asia and other parts of the world, due to North American farmers breeding Karakul with other sheep breeds. Today, American Karakul is exceedingly rare, but continues to be raised as a wool sheep and as a unique contributor to the North American sheep gene pool.
While American Karakul sheep are rare, the original Karakul breed from which they descended are not at all rare in other parts of the world. In the land of their origin, today known as Turkmenistan, many Karakul sheep and their descendants can be found. Based on a relief of rams being presented to King Darius I of the Persian Achaemenid Empire (559 BCE-331 BCE), Karakul-type sheep could be found in the Middle East and Central Asia thousands of year ago. The relief shows rams with the curly horns and fat tails of Karakul sheep, but even more interesting is that it shows the distinctive S-shaped end right below the fatty part of the tail, just like Karakul sheep today have.
Bred and used in Central Asia for millennia, Karakul sheep and their ancestors provided wool, meat, milk, fur, skins, and tallow for generations upon generations of people. Although these qualities were what made the sheep useful, it was the lambskins that became most valuable of all. Karakul lambs are born with a shiny black fleece that has ripples, very tight curls, or waves depending on the age of the lamb. When black Karakul lambs are born prematurely, the fleeces are at their softest and have particularly distinctive ripples – these sheepskins are known as Broadtail. Once lambs are born, their fleeces are still black, but also very tightly curled. This type of highly desired lambskin only exists for about five days after birth - the fleeces are known as Persian. After five days the curls began to loosen and form gentle waves; this wavy coat only remains only for about two months and is called Caracul. After this, the lambs’ black fleece begins to straighten out and typically becomes gray and coarser as they reach maturity.
Today, crafters in the Western world primarily value Karakul for their wool. However, Karakul lambskins were, and still are in some parts of the world, enormously valued for their distinctive and lustrous black curls. During the late 1800s and through the early 1900s in Europe and North America, these lambskins became the very height of fashion and luxury. Used to make coats and to trim and outerwear, Karakul lambskins were shipped in quantity, with no particular regard for quality, from Central Asia to other parts of the world. Buyers for clothing companies would buy pallets and pallets of Karakul sheep skins, hoping to find Broadtail or Persian lambskins for use in their trade. Seeing an opportunity, some North American and Eurasian sheep producers began to explore the notion of raising Karakul themselves to provide guaranteed high-quality lambskins to these buyers without requiring them to buy otherwise undesirable sheepskins. Russia was among the first to begin importing and breeding Karakul specifically for their lambskins. However, breeders in both the US and Canada were not far behind.
In 1908, Dr. C. C. Young, a naturalized US citizen born in Russia, brought back five Karakul rams and ten Karakul ewes from Russia. The US Secretary of Agriculture, James Wilson, was worried that these sheep might carry diseases harmful to US herds and demanded that the Karakul either be slaughtered or sent immediately back to Russia. However, with some successful lobbying by interested parties, President Theodore Roosevelt made the decision to allow the Karakul to remain in the US. They were required to be quarantined, though, to ensure that they did not carry any new sheep diseases. More Karakul were brought to the US in 1911, followed by yet another small herd in 1912, and what was thought to be a particularly high-quality herd in 1914, The final importation of Karakuls to the US occurred in 1916. As for Canada, they brough their first Karakul herd to Prince Edward Island in 1913, followed by additional Karakuls in 1914. Unfortunately, Canadian farmers soon found that the cool and moist weather found on Prince Edward Island was not suitable for Karakul sheep – many of those sheep went to the more central provinces or were sold to US farmers. It is from these Karakul importations that all Karakul sheep in North America are descended.
North American farmers were not as interested in keeping the purity of the original breed as they were in maximizing the quality and quantity of pelts and meat they could get from their Karakul. They began to breed the Karakul with other sheep, such as Lincoln Longwool, to try and further improve the quality of the fleece, further improve hardiness, and create better mutton. This had very mixed results, though, and North American farmers were largely disappointed with the results. However, the Karakul industry flourished for a time, reaching its height during the 1920s-1940s. Ultimately, it seems that farmers of the era did not succeeded in improving upon the original Karakul sheep as fur sheep, and that attempts to do so just further diluted the genetics that produced desirable lambskins. Soon, there were very few sheep with enough Karakul blood to remain Karakuls. As farmers lost interest in their Karakul fur sheep ventures, the breed became in danger of dying out entirely within North America.
In the 1950s, a sheep farming family in Ontario, the Carsons, became interested in saving the breed. They purchased any remaining Karakul flocks they could find, and even imported a few from the US for good measure. These Karakuls would become the basis of the breed as it exists in Canada today. In the southwestern US there were also still a number of Karakul sheep to be found – the dry environment of that region was like their land of the origin in Central Asia, and they thrived there. Some farmers in the Southwest had found that the Karakuls ability to eat just about anything and to thrive on less forage than other breeds made them an ideal sheep for remote desert areas that might not otherwise support livestock. Because of this, the largest flocks of Karakul in North America today are found in the southwestern US, although their numbers are still few. Only 1300-1500 or so Karakul are estimated to remain in the Southwest.
Karakul sheep raised in North America today are mainly raised for their wool, rather than for their pelts. Although black lambswool was most desirable when the pelts were used for fur, Karakul sheep come in a variety of colors including grays, tans, reddish-brown, white with bits of other colors, and white. With encouragement from spinners and other crafters, some modern breeders have been working on breeding for a wide variety of wool color. Karakul ewes are polled, but the rams can be either horned or polled. When horned, the rams have a gorgeous swoop that goes over their heads and up towards their faces. Both rams and ewes have those adorable fatty tails with the little S-curve on the end, provided they have not been docked as sometimes occurs to help with ease of breeding.
Karakul wool has steadily increased in popularity over the last couple of decades, particularly among spinners and weavers. It has an especially long staple, with the wool growing between 6-12 inches in just one year. It is quite lustrous and takes up dye well, although it should be noted that that is has very little to no crimp, unlike most other wools. Most North American Karakul wool falls somewhere between 28-36 microns, making it most suitable for rugs, blankets, wall hangings, and durable outerwear.
Ready to try out some Karakul? We have Karakul from Woolhalla arriving in early February. Woolhalla, a farm in Arizona dedicated to raising rare sheep breeds and to purchasing rare breeds’ fleeces from other like-minded farms, provides wool top for a number of the rare wools that we carry in the store. Be sure to check out everything else Woolhalla has in our shop as well. We can hardly wait to see what you create with Karakul wool!