Know Your Fiber: Florida Cracker Wool
Posted on May 01 2022
Two words: swamp sheep. Intrigued? Then get ready to learn all about the Florida Cracker sheep, a lovely breed with an odd little name, whose history sets it among some of the oldest breeds in North America.
Like many other native breeds in the southernmost part of the United States, Florida Cracker sheep are descended from the hardy Churra sheep brought to North America by the Spanish conquistadors and settlers. By the time the Spanish began to colonize Florida there had, of course, already been nations there for millennia. Upset by the incursions on their territories, The tribes surrounding the Spanish settlements would frequently attack and raid, badly damaging or even wiping out the settlements. Spain’s answer was to send Ponce de Leon with the largest number yet of soldiers and settlers, along with seeds and various livestock. These livestock included Churra sheep, a durable and hardy dual-breed. When Ponce de Leon and company arrived, one of the first things they did was unload their livestock from the boats. As they did so, they were attacked by members of the Calusa tribe. Outmatched, the Spanish fled and left their livestock behind. Although it is not known if any of the livestock continued to be raised by the Calusa, it is certainly a possibility that Florida Cracker sheep descended from this abandoned flock.
However, even if Florida Cracker sheep are not descended from this original genetic line, they are certainly descended from subsequent Churra sheep that were brought to Florida as Spanish settlements continued to grow and spread. With settlers came missions and the missionaries used tribal labor, often forced, to raise their livestock. Indeed, the missions of the Franciscans and Jesuits owned the greatest numbers of sheep. However, this would begin to change as Florida was traded to Great Britain, was regained by Spain, and in the end was purchased by the United States in 1819. Over the course of those turbulent centuries, nearly all of the Spanish missions in Florida were abandoned and the livestock, including the sheep, were left to live or die on their own.
As it turned out, a good number of these semi-wild flocks of sheep survived. Although there were Florida farmers who would raise them on pasture, most Florida Crackers were left to roam the palmetto swamps and pineywoods of Florida and rounded up a couple of times a year for shearing and slaughter. Farmers would occasionally work to improve the Florida Cracker by breeding them with English longwools and even Merino, but mostly they were left to their own devices, becoming a landrace breed that was wily, parasite-resistant, hardy, and that could withstand the hot and humid weather of the summer months. The perfect Florida sheep, and one that provided a significant percentage of the wool used in the South before WWII.
But, about that name. Florida Cracker sheep are named after the farmers who rounded them up a few times every year. Although people not from Florida may be more familiar with the term Cracker as a pejorative, it is in fact a common name of the descendants of the early American Florida settlers, a subculture with its own traditions, foodways, and music, found in Florida and other surrounding states. People who claim their Cracker heritage are proud of the name and have no hesitation about using it. Granted, casual use of the word tends to be a regional phenomenon; most people not living in and around Florida still would not typically use it in polite conversation. Unless, of course, you are talking about the most excellent Florida Cracker Sheep. The etymology of their name is a little hazy, but most linguists have reduced it to one of two things. Either it comes from the Scottish settlers who used the word cracker to talk about someone who liked to joke and boast, or it comes from the sound of the whips that the shepherds would use while on horseback when they rounded up the Florida Cracker sheep. Who knows? Maybe it is a bit of both.
Despite their low maintenance and usefulness, by the early 1900s the Florida Cracker sheep began to decline. Previously unused land in Florida was beginning to be developed, and as the more modern breeds began to produce ever greater quantities of wool, the lower-producing Florida Cracker fell out of popularity. Indeed, sheep farming in Florida in general started to undergo a slow decline as large sheep ranches began to develop in the West. By 1949 it was illegal to free-range sheep in Florida, so the last of the Florida Cracker sheep were rounded up and kept in pasture by a few dedicated farmers. Soon, the breed was close to extinct, with only a few small flocks left. However, in 2007, the Florida Cracker Breed Association was created to save this endangered breed. Over time, their numbers have gradually begun to increase again, and there has been a renewed appreciation for their wool among fiber artists, and for their meat among farmers who raise heritage breeds for the market.
Florida Cracker wool has a shorter staple, running somewhere between around 1.5-2.5 inches. The crimp is quite even, and the combed wool tends to have an especially fuzzy character, even when compared to its close cousin, the Gulf Coast Native. Although it has a fiber width range between 24 to 35 microns, it tends to still feel much softer than the micron count indicates. However, it should be noted that as a landrace breed there will always be some variability between fleeces and processed wool from different farms and wool mills.
Ready to try out some Florida Cracker wool? We are lucky enough to have a supplier. Our Florida Cracker wool is seasonally available, so check to see what we have in stock. Make sure to check out all of our other single-breed wools as well – you never know what interesting or rare breed you might find on our shelves!