Know Your Fiber: Finnsheep Wool
Posted on August 01 2020
Native to Finland, Finnsheep (also called Finnish Landrace or just Finnish) are a part of Finland’s national identity and an important part of their cultural heritage. This breed has thrived in Finland for millennia and has maintained its importance to Finnish agriculture by being perfectly adapted to Finland’s climate and environment.
Like all domestic sheep breeds, Finnsheep are descended from mouflon. These wild sheep began to be domesticated during the late Paleolithic, and from that point began to spread throughout the world. Finnsheep are thought to be descended from the domesticated mouflon of Sardinia or Corsica. As domesticated sheep began to spread throughout Europe during the Bronze Age, many of them developed characteristics and biology that gave them the ability to thrive in the many different climates and terrains of Europe. When domestic animals produce these adaptive characteristics over long periods of time without active human interaction they are referred to as a landrace. The Finnsheep is one of these landrace sheep, being particularly well-adapted to the cold weather and terrain of Finland. Its breeding season is also adapted to the short summers of Finland, and it is well known for its ability to produce twins, triplets, quadruplet, or even more – some Finnsheep have given birth to up to seven lambs.
Evidence of domesticated sheep and the use of wool make up some of Finland’s earliest archaeological finds. Pottery impressed with textiles as a design element have been found that were made sometime around 2000 BCE, and the oldest extant piece of fabric found in Finland was made from wool sometime around 300 CE. The bones of sheep from the Viking period have also been found in archaeological digs throughout Finland. It is well known that in addition to using wool for clothing and other household items, Vikings also made their ship sails from wool – it appears that Finnsheep may have been essential to the conquest, colonization, and trade practiced by the Vikings from around 800-1000 CE.
Sheep in Finland were largely kept by farming households to supply their domestic needs. Used for the wool that warmly clothed the household in Finland’s cold climate, Finnsheep also produced milk for cheesemaking and meat. It is thought that close inbreeding was common, which may have also ultimately served to strengthen the physical traits that made Finnsheep so admirably adapted to Finland. Nonetheless, there were attempts to try and improve upon Finnsheep. During the mid-1700s and the 1800s there was a drive among many nations in Europe to use scientific breeding methods to improve their native sheep. With the advent of the Merino, finer wool was becoming increasingly popular. In the mid-1700s the Finnish government decided that they would produce some Merinos to help improve Finnsheep wool and make it finer. To this end, a number of Merino rams were placed on farms and the farmers instructed to breed them on the Finnsheep. However, there was a resistance among farmers to breeding Merinos with Finnsheep. Common thought was that Merino wool was too fine to make yarn for proper weaving, and on top of that, Merinos were just thought by many farmers to just be a hassle to keep. Unlike Finnsheep, Merinos needed more food and higher quality pasture – Finnsheep made do by wandering around and eating whatever rough pasture they found, and would happily eat lower quality hay. Additionally, the imported Merinos seemed more susceptible to disease than the native Finnsheep. As it turned out, the Finnish government ultimately failed to convince the farmers it was a good idea, and very few Merinos ended up being bred with Finnsheep. And so, Finnsheep continued on pretty much as they always had.
For years, Finnsheep were the sheep that most farmers kept in Finland – if you saw a flock from the side of the road, chances were that you were looking at Finnsheep. No flock books were kept, no breeding programs were maintained. It was not until 1918 that the first Finnish Sheep Breeders Association was formed, and eleven years after that in 1929 that the first herd book was published. Much of the rest of the world outside of the Nordic countries had not heard or known much about Finnsheep until this point, but with the Finnish Sheep Breeders Association to promote the breed little by little it became better known. The most attractive trait of Finnsheep for non-Finnish farmers was its prolificacy. Finnsheep are used even today to breed with other sheep to improve their lambing numbers.
Like many other sheep farmers throughout Europe, Finnsheep farmers saw a sharp reduction in the demand for wool and mutton following WWII. However, there was still a market for Finnsheep breeding rams to help improve the lambing numbers of other breeds. More importantly for crafters and fiber artists like us, though, interest in reviving handicrafts such as spinning and weaving were on the horizon. Although the majority of Finnsheep are white, they also have the genetics for black, brown, fawn, and gray wool. As handspinning and weaving became more and more popular again, so too did the demand for naturally colored wools. Today we are still seeing a continuing increase in breeding Finnsheep with colored wool for the specialty fiber arts markets.
Although Finnsheep can be found around the globe these days, much of their population still lives in Finland. With around 150,000 sheep on over 1000 farms, it remains the most common sheep breed there. It is so valued by Finland that it was one of several livestock breeds that has seen the large-scale organized collection of its genetic material by the Finnish government to ensure its continued existence and protection of its contributions to biodiversity.
Finnsheep wool is noted for its lovely luster, as well as its range of natural colors. With a fiber width of around 24-30 microns, it falls comfortably into the medium range of wools, and is comfortable to wear next to the skin for most people. Finnsheep start producing wool as young as six month old, and many who have raised them have noted that unlike some other breeds of sheep, their wool does not appear to get significantly coarser as they age. Finnsheep wool has a medium crimp to it and the staple ranges around three to six inches in length, making it popular with both spinners and felters.
Interested in trying some Finnsheep wool for your next project? Check out our available Finnsheep top in our shop or on our website. Remember, we would love to see your finished projects, too! Feel free to tag us on Instagram, @northwestyarns. Happy crafting, everyone!