Know Your Fiber: Cheviot Wool
Posted on July 01 2020
The Cheviot Hills are located in English Northumberland and the Scottish Borders. Home to a variety of livestock since Neolithic times, it is these hills from which the white Cheviot sheep get their name. With their lovely white wool and distinctive long and wool-free faces, these sheep are worth getting to know!
The primary ancestor of Cheviot sheep are thought to have been the white and tan sheep kept by the Celts living in the Cheviot Hills area before the Romans ever arrived in the British Isles. There were apparently quite significant quantities of sheep in this region, as Roman writers seemed to take particular note of the large sheep population. It is likely that these pre-Roman sheep eventually also bred with the long-wooled breeds brought north by the Romans, which in turn helped to produce finer wool as well as the distinctive long legs and necks that were associated with early variants of this breed. According to Charles S. Plumb in his 1899 book The Cheviot Sheep, local farmers were still calling their Cheviots “long sheep” by the end of the 1800s, as perhaps they had been so called for centuries or even millennia.
Cheviot sheep were first described with any detail in church livestock records of the 1200s-1300s. During the Medieval era, it was common for religious orders to own large tracts of lands, and in the Borders this land was frequently used to raise early Cheviot sheep. The undyed wool cloth from these sheep helped clothe the members of such religious orders, such as the Cistercians who were known as the “white monks” for their undyed white Cheviot wool robes. The wool produced on Cistercian lands during this period far exceeded their needs, and the surplus wool ended up creating quite a bit of wealth for their religious order. During Medieval times, wool from the British Isles was held in high regard and could demand premium prices in Europe; most of the wool produced in the Cheviot Hills ended up being exported.
The rich wool trade from the Cheviot Hills would end up grinding to a halt for several centuries due to the Battle of Bannockburn and its subsequent effects on the farms in the region. Although the Scots won a decisive victory against the English in this 1314 battle, subsequent fighting and raids between the Scots and the English meant that the Borders descended into a lawless era during which farmers were constantly at risk for having their flocks stolen, killed or even worse, their families and farms destroyed. It was not until the early 1600s with King James I (or King James IV, as the Scottish knew him) and his ascension to the throne that peace would even start to be restored. However, even though steps were made towards bringing law back to the Borders during his reign, it was not really until the early 1700s that farmers really began to be able to feel confident about keeping flocks and other livestock in the Borders without risking them being stolen.
Still, by the 1700s Cheviot sheep remained well-regarded and the Cheviot sheep population in the Borders began to increase once again. However, like many wool sheep in the British Isles, they would soon face competition from the increasingly popular Spanish Merinos and their very fine wool. Although Cheviot wool had been considered quite fine by the standards of the British Isles, is was hard to compete to the much finer Spanish Merinos. Attempts were made to breed Merino with Cheviot to improve their wool, but these attempts instead undercut the Cheviot’s overall hardiness and ability to forage in the hills. Needless to say, Cheviot farmers were not pleased with the results, and instead began to work on making the Cheviot a dual-breed sheep – one that could be used for both wool and meat, but with an emphasis on a well flavored and large carcass.
Merino farmers set out to create a brand-new standard for the definition of fine wool during the 1700s-1800s, which meant that many breeds of sheep from the British Isles underwent changes as farmers and breeders worked on improving the older breeds for newer times. Since it was so hard for British sheep farmers to compete with some of the fine-wooled sheep breeds like the Merino, many sheep in the British Isles that had previously been primarily wool sheep (like the Cheviot) underwent intensive breeding to improve their carcasses so they could instead be raised as dual-breeds. During this period, Cheviot sheep began to spread even further into the lowlands of Scotland as the English began to further occupy these lands. However, Scottish farmers were resistant to the Cheviot for a number of reasons, and not all of them to do with the encroaching English. For a time, there was very serious debate about which sheep was better for Scotland – the Cheviot or the more populous and popular Scottish Blackface. By the late 1850s, though, most agreed that the Cheviot was at least not suited for the Scottish Highlands. Although relatively hardy, the Cheviot could not match the overall hardiness of the Scottish Blackface, as demonstrated by severe Cheviot flock losses during some of the harsh winters of the 1800s. Instead, Cheviots were typically kept on the lower hills of their ancestral lands, and in other areas south of the Scottish border with milder weather.
The majority of Cheviot in the world today are still kept in the U.K. However, they have also reached varying levels of popularity throughout the rest of the world. Cheviot first arrived here in the United States in 1828, with the first breeders association forming in 1891. By 1924, the breed was popular enough that the American Cheviot Sheep Society was established. Over the last century and a half, many of the improvements have focused on continuing to improve the Cheviot’s meat and carcass, which in turn has meant that the wool has perhaps become coarser than it was on earlier Cheviots. However, among spinners, weavers and other fiber artists and crafters it is still a popular wool. It has a not too tight, helical crimp that provides a sturdiness and resiliency to any yarn spun from it; it is not uncommon to blend Cheviot with other wools to help impart this quality to the end product.
Cheviot wool today is still as white and beautiful as ever. Even as its fineness has changed over time, it remains kemp free with a good staple length (3-5 inches), and has a reputation as an extremely hardy wool suitable for outerwear, rugs, blankets and more. With an average width of 30-35 microns, Cheviot wool falls into the medium-coarse category of wools.
Looking to try out some Cheviot for your next project? Check out our Cheviot top direct from the British Isles in our shop or online!