Know Your Fiber: Falklands Wool
Posted on November 01 2019
There exists a land where sheep and penguins live together in harmony – the Falkland Islands. A beautiful group of islands in the southern hemisphere about 300 miles off the southern coast of Argentina, the Falklands (or Las Malvinas in Spanish) have had sheep since 1851. Sheep have been so important to the history and economy of the Falklands, that they even have a sheep on their flag!
Before we launch into the story of Falklands wool, though, we need to take a look at the politics of the islands because there is some disagreement over who owns them. The UK has governed the Falklands since 1833, but both the UK and Argentina claim that the Falklands belong to them – these claims have been made by both countries with varying intensity (usually depending on the perceived value of the islands at various points in history) for more than 180 years. In 1982, this longstanding dispute resulted in the Falklands War. This dispute over sovereignty remains unresolved. It is worth noting that the people of the Falklands want their UK citizenship to remain as is – a 2013 referendum showed that a little more than 99% of the voters wanted to remain as a territory of the UK. However, it should also be noted that a 2016 UN commission found that the Falklands lie in Argentinian waters. Today, the UK continues to claim the Falklands as its territory and grants UK citizenship to the islanders. Although the Falklands are largely self-governed under the authority of the UK, the UK provides military support and oversees foreign affairs.
Fuegians, prehistoric inhabitants of Patagonia, seem to have been the first to discover the Falklands – an ancient wooden canoe and arrowheads left behind have provided proof of their presence. If the Fuegians had permanent settlements, though, they did not persist; the islands were found to be uninhabited by the time of the first recorded European landing on the islands in 1690 by English captain John Strong. The first settlements of the Falklands by Europeans were made in 1764 by the French, followed by the English in 1766. France relinquished its claim to the Falklands in 1767, and over the next 100 or so years a succession of countries claimed possession of the Falklands, including England, Spain, and the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata (a predecessor of Argentina).
By 1833 the British had successfully asserted their possession of the Falklands, although not without protests from the Argentine Confederation. The islands were largely used as resupply or repair ports by ships passing through, along with some cattle and sheep being raised on the islands for food. It was not until 1851 that concerted efforts were made to establish sheep farms specializing in wool production. Samuel Lafone was at the head of this effort when he arrived that year with flocks of Cheviot sheep from the Cheviot Hills between England and Scotland. The Falkland Islands Company, of which Lafone was a major shareholder, had received a charter from Queen Victoria to tame the wild cattle of the Falklands (they had been left there by previous Spanish settlers), open a general store, start a postal system, and develop sheep farms. Although the Cheviot brought by the Falkland Islands Company were crossed with other breeds as time went on, they remained as one of the most popular breeds on the islands up until the 1980s. A large number of immigrants who settled in the Falklands during this period were Scottish or Welsh workers who had extensive experience with sheep farming – additional immigrants came from England, France, Scandinavia and South America. Many of the current Falkland islanders today are descended from these immigrants.
At first, the Falklands struggled to establish their flocks and wool production. Sheep scab, a skin condition caused by tiny mites, causes sheep to itch and rub against hard surfaces resulting in scabs and wool loss. By 1867, nearly half the sheep on the Falklands had sheep scab, and as a result had very little or no wool. Fortunately for the Falklands flocks, a group of farmers from New Zealand arrived in the islands in that same year with knowledge of how to treat the condition. The Falkland Islands Company hired one of them, and by 1880 most of the Falklands sheep were free of sheep scab, with only a few outbreaks showing up from time to time. By 1898, the Falklands had, in total, 807,000 wool-producing sheep. Between the flocks of the Falkland Islands Company and other Falklands farms, wool soon became the Falklands’ most valuable, and certainly largest, export.
Although there were other farms on the Falklands besides those of the Falkland Islands Company, for many years the Falkland Islands Company owned more than half of the land on the islands. The rest of the farms were largely owned by people based out of London who hired workers to tend their flocks. Very few islanders owned their own land, let alone their own farms. This meant that most islanders were not able to advance beyond the position of farm worker, which ultimately led to increasing rates of emigrations. By the 1970s, this emigration had reached an all-time high, leaving only about 1,800 people on the Falklands. In the mid-1970s, an economic report by Ernest Shackleton (not the Antarctic explorer of the early 1900s, but rather his son) recommended that the large land holdings owned by absentee landlords be broken up and sold to Falkland islanders. This move, along with other economic suggestions, began to reverse the emigration and population began to once again increase.
In 1982, the Falklands War began with the invasion of Argentinian troops. This 10-week undeclared war would eventually see the UK victorious, but not without cost to the flocks of the Falklands. Looting and destruction was not uncommon during the war, and many of the sheep and other livestock were killed for food by Argentine soldiers. Additionally, minefields were placed by Argentinian troops to defend their positions against the UK. These minefields also managed to kill some sheep, although fortunately very few. At the end of the Falklands war, the minefields were dealt with placing fences around them, keeping out both humans and their sheep. As it turned out, the land mines were a boon for the penguin populations of the Falklands. Not being heavy enough to set off the mines, penguins were able to establish their rookeries in the coastal minefields without disturbance from humans or livestock. These de facto penguin nesting sanctuaries mean that today the various penguin populations on the Falklands are quite stable, leading to what are apparently completely normal pastoral views of both sheep and penguins coexisting on the pastures near the islands’ shores.
After the Falklands War, donations of money and livestock from the UK helped the islands’ agricultural economy recover. The largely Cheviot and mixed breed varieties of sheep that had been the mainstay of the islands’ flocks were replaced with Romney and Corriedale. Since then, additional wool breeds have been brought in, including Polwarth and Merino. Although the Falklands economy has broadened substantially since the Falklands War to include commercial fishing and tourism, sheep remain an important part of both the economy and the culture. Sheep are so important that the daily weather forecast on Falklands Radio includes the wind chill temperature for newly shorn sheep!
Wool from the Falklands is largely gathered into what is known as a wool pool, essentially an enormous stock of combined wool from a variety of sheep farmers. The wool of the wool pool is then marketed and sold for the highest price that it can receive. This practice means that a variety of breeds can be present in yarns and top labeled as Falklands wool. Most exports of Falklands wool goes to the European markets, where it is very well regarded for its texture and whiteness. Increasingly, though, Falklands wool is entering other markets around the world.
Falklands wool is a high quality, white wool that is wonderful for a variety of projects. Since Falklands wool is the product of a number of different sheep breeds, fiber widths can potentially range from 18-32 microns with most Falklands wool having fiber widths around 27-30 microns. Comfortable to wear against the skin, Falklands wool makes a wonderful yarn for knitters, crocheters, and weavers. Fiber artists and crafters seeking a naturally white wool will love Falklands wool – it is among the whitest of the unbleached wools available. Spinners will find that Falklands wool can have a variety of crimps due to the variety of breeds, and may also find that there can be subtle differences in texture depending upon particular wool pool years and mill runs. We recommend that spinners purchasing fiber get enough from the same mill batch to complete their project – this will ensure that the resulting yarn’s hand and luster remain consistent.
Looking to try some wool from the land of penguins yourself? We have lovely Falklands wool top ready and waiting for you! Stop by the shop in Bellingham, WA to pick some up, or order online.