Know Your Fiber: Carpathian Mountain Sheep Wool
Posted on March 01 2023
Carpathian Mountain sheep are a breed of domesticated sheep that are native to the Carpathian Mountains in Central and Eastern Europe. Although this breed is found in the many countries through which the mountain range lies, they are particularly well-known today as the sheep raised by the Hutsul ethnic group in Ukraine.
The Hutsul originally lived throughout much of Carpathian Mountains in what is now Ukraine, Romania, and Slovakia. Over centuries of breeding, the Hutsul developed the Carpathian Mountain sheep into the animal it is today – a breed that well-suited to the Carpathian mountain glades and meadows. Used for wool, meat, and milk, Carpathian Mountain sheep were essential for living in the mountains. Sheep and cattle were an essential part of the Hutsul economy for centuries and have remained important in a number of Hutsul traditions, tales, and songs that have survived through the centuries.
With little in the way of early writings about the Carpathian Mountain sheep, it is difficult to know much of their history and lineage. However, it is popularly thought that they are descended from the Tsigaia and Zackel breeds that were prevalent throughout central and southeastern Europe. It is likely that they fall into the landrace category of sheep, having been shaped largely by the environment in which they lived. Likewise, the meadows and forests adapted to the sheep; it is estimated by some historians that at the height of their population in the 1800s, there were over 200,000 Carpathian Mountain sheep which had a direct effect on the biodiversity in the parts of the mountain range that they roamed. Along with their shepherds, Carpathian Mountain sheep lived for months in the mountain forests and meadows. Hardiness was valued, and it was these sheep that would become the progenitors of the breed.
As with many livestock in continental Europe, Carpathian Mountain sheep population suffered a major decline during WWII. Many sheep herds and other livestock were killed for food or stolen by occupying forces. After the war, the breed was further threatened by modernization and industrialization, as some Hutsul farmers chose to pursue modern and more profitable pursuits. In recent decades, though, effort has been made to preserve the Carpathian Mountain sheep breed, with breeding programs established in both Romania and Ukraine. Among the Hutsul of Ukraine, it remains a valuable breed that continues to be used for food and wool. Along with meat, Carpathian Mountain sheep milk is used for cooking and to make a variety of traditional cheeses, such as the smoked Budz, crumbly Urdă, salty and spreadable Bryndza, and the yogurt-like Guslianka. The wool is still used today to make traditional and modern Hutsul rugs and blankets, which have seen increased popularity as the international fiber arts community and collectors have sought ways to support the Hutsul during the current Ukrainian-Russian war.
It is not known how many Carpathian Mountain sheep remain today, but some estimates have placed the pure-bred population at fewer than 1000. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine there had been some movement towards breed preservation, but this push is currently seen as much less urgent until the war has ended, and Ukrainian restoration has begun. As they are not a common breed outside of certain areas of the Carpathian Mountains, it is hoped that preservation of this breed can be maintained. It would be a tragic loss of genetic diversity and culture should Carpathian Mountain sheep continue their decline to its end.
Carpathian Mountain sheep wool is coarse and often contains kemp that is spun along with the rest of the wool, creating a tweed effect. The most common color of wool is white, but Carpathian Mountain sheep can also have brown, gray, or black fleeces. Due to its thickness and durability, it is commonly used for blankets and rugs.
Want to try out some Carpathian Mountain sheep wool? We have purchased some from Hutsul farmers in Ukraine as we, like so many other, look for ways to support Ukrainians during this time of war. This is a rare wool that is not always available around the entire year, so make sure to get yours while it is in stock!