Know Your Fiber: Hog Island Wool
Posted on January 01 2022
Hog Island sheep, descended from the sheep brought by English settlers to Virginia in the early 1700s, are remarkably rare. They are a fascinating breed frozen in time, thanks to both their isolation from the mainland United States and their necessary abandonment by the residents of the island.
Hog Island was discovered and settled by English colonists in 1672 – reputedly John Smith, the founder of Jamestown, VA, was the first European to discover it. Of course, it had already been discovered and used by the Native American tribes of the area long, long before any Europeans showed up. Known by the local tribes for its abundance of fish, shellfish, and game, it is said to have been originally called Machipongo. Colonists would later lament that that the island lost this rather lovely sounding name in favor of Hog Island. However, Machipongo translated simply meant “the place of fine dust and flies,” a reference to the sandy shore, as well as the sand flies and mosquitos of the island. The island may have been abundant in food, but original residents were on the nose about the ever-present insects and dust from the sand.
Dust and insects aside, the island was forested and lush with underbrush, and there were many sea grasses near the shore. Fish and shellfish were abundant, and tribes associated with the Powhatan Confederacy would visit the island to stock up on seafood and hunt game in the forest. Once the English colonists arrived in the 1600s and laid claim to the island, Hog Island was used by farmers for their livestock, giving it the name Hog Island. Increasing colonists meant increasing complaints of livestock ruining crops on the mainland, and owners of livestock were required to put up fences to manage their animals. Wanting an out from this laborious process, the farmers instead made a concerted effort to wipe out any predators on Hog Island. This created a safe place for their livestock to roam free, and best of all no fences were needed as the sea itself was the fence. Hog Island, along with other small islands in the area, became a natural pen fenced in by the ocean.
Pigs, cattle, goats, sheep, and more were brought to the island, and eventually some people settled there as well. The livestock grazed in the woods and on the plants on the edge of the seashore, and the twenty-two colonists who settled there in 1672 fished and gathered shellfish. In what was reported by some to be a mysterious occurrence, all the colonists vanished around the Revolutionary War. However, it is likely that the colonists simply moved away to avoid being raided for food by the British Navy. After the war, Hog Island was once again settled and the small town of Broadwater was established. It remained quite small, even by the standards of the time, rarely being populated by more than a few hundred people.
The sheep raised on the island were a mix of English breeds from the late 1600s and early 1700s. Shipwrecks on or around Hog Island were hardly unheard of – residents would frequently scavenge the wrecks for goods or livestock. However, they were quite careful to assure anyone who would listen that they did not cause these wrecks by shining lights on the shore to assure ships that it was a safe area to drop anchor. The occasional Spanish ship with treasured Merino sheep would wreck near the island, and it is thought that it was this way that Merino sheep were added to the Hog Islands flocks, improving the softness of the wool a bit. Sheep on Hog Island were used more for wool than for meat, and much of the island’s residents were clothed in Hog Island Sheep wool.
Positioned where it was, the island and its livestock were isolated from the mainland, resulting in a breed that remained genetically close to the sheep of the original English colonists from the late 1600s. The island environment and challenges even improved the breed over time. Hog Island Sheep learned and grew to prefer browsing the underbrush and plants on the seashore, plants that other sheep on the mainland would have had a tough time living on. They became quite hardy due to the harsh weather on the island and clever as well, being left alone to mostly fend for themselves until it was time to harvest wool. Like many early sheep, they would shed their wool once a year. The residents of the island could simply walk through the woods and gather wool from the bushes and trees. However, the wool was mostly sheared to ensure that as much wool as possible was gotten.
Unfortunately for the settlers of Hog Island, the area was prone to large and increasingly destructive storms. The early settlers experienced the sort of storms they expected living on an island, and although they could be severe, over time they learned to manage. They developed a good fishing industry, and in later years established a hunting club for the well-to-do. Wealthy visitors who enjoyed the hunting club included President Grover Cleveland, the first and last president to ever visit Hog Island. However, in 1903 a violent storm coincided with a particularly high tide, and water covered the whole island. Even the highest point of the island was covered in about a foot of water. Although some erosion of the island had been noticed before, after the water finally went down the residents noticed even more significant erosion along the edges of the island. Another storm in 1928 further washed away some of the southern part of the island. However, it was the hurricane of 1933 that finally began to drive the residents of the island to the safety of the mainland. Water from the storm and the sea washed over the island, carrying away trees, a large number of livestock, and damaging many homes. One house even floated away because nobody had opened its doors to allow the sea to wash through.
The people of Hog Island knew that their island was shrinking and was no longer safe to live upon. Over the next decade or so, many floated their houses on barges to the mainland and resettled. Some even brought and reburied their dead. Most livestock were removed from the island, but some sheep remained. Like the colonists who first settled Hog Island, the owners of the sheep would visit annually to harvest the wool and then return to their homes, leaving the sheep to fend for themselves.
Over time, many sheep continued to be removed from the island, but some were abandoned there and forgotten. In the 1970s, The Nature Conservancy bought most of the island to use as a wildlife refuge. When their researchers arrived at the island to take account of the animals and plant life, they were astonished to discover a healthy heard of 100+ feral sheep living on the island. They removed the sheep from the island, with some Hog Island Sheep going to private owners and others going to Virginia Tech for studies. They quickly realized that the Hog Island Sheep was a breed unto itself and had traits that most modern sheep no longer had. Recognizing the importance of maintaining these diverse genetics, a breeding program was put into place to save them.
One of the most fascinating things about Hog Island Sheep is how genetically close they are to the sheep original English colonists brought over during the 1600 and 1700s. Their isolation and subsequent abandonment saved bloodlines that were otherwise though lost. Today, some Hog Island Sheep live on private farms, but they also can be found at living history museums such as Mount Vernon, the National Colonial Farm, and Colonial Williamsburg, where they are used to accurately represent the sheep that colonists kept. Today, the breed is exceptionally rare, with only about two hundred Hog Island Sheep registered. Efforts to increase breed numbers are ongoing, with both dedicated individuals and living museums working to preserve the breed.
Hog Island Sheep have mostly white wool, although about 10% of them are black. Both the males and females may or may not have horns, and their faces are frequently speckled. The lambs are frequently born spotted but lose this patterning by the time they are adults. The wool itself ranges from 20-30 microns, with most wool diameters falling somewhere in mid-20s. Hog Island wool can frequently be comfortably worn against the skin, although it certainly has a lot more texture than Merino. The staple is somewhat short, usually around 2 to 2.5 inches longs. It has a nice crimp and is fairly bouncy. Spinners will love using this wool to create a strong and resilient yarn, although if you find short staples challenging, you may consider blending it with a longer staple wool for ease of spinning.
Want to try out some Hog Island wool for yourself? We have limited supplies depending on the season and availability. Remember, this is an extremely rare breed, so supplies will be limited! We are currently working with several small farms to keep this wool in supply. Get it while it is available on our shelves!