Know Your Fiber: Polwarth Wool
Posted on December 01 2019
An extremely popular wool breed in many parts of the world, the Polwarth began its development into the fixed breed we know today the 1880s in southeastern Australia, in the state of Victoria. This breed originated on just three Australian family farms, and is today a popular and abundant wool producer for farms in many parts of the world.
In 1840, Alexander Dennis and his brothers sailed from England to Australia to begin a new life. Hailing from the county of Cornwall, a region of England well known for its sheep farms, Dennis knew exactly what he was going to do when he arrived in Australia – seek out a parcel of land on which he could raise sheep. First stopping in Tasmania, he soon ended up heading north to the mainland and purchased the right of occupation for his first farm in the state of Victoria. He named it after the Aboriginal name for the area, Tarndwarncoort, which in turn took its name from the resemblance of the hills to Bandicoot jumps.
Alexander Dennis and his brothers, like many settlers to the area, probably raised Saxon Merinos, one of the most popular breeds for the time. Over the next couple of decades, they purchased additional rights of occupation for other farms including Carr’s Plains and eventually Eeyuk Station. Unlike the other farms, Eeyuk Station focused on high grade Lincoln sheep. By the 1860s, the Alexander Dennis’ family sheep business was well established, and primed for the next generation to continue his work.
By the 1870s, the one of Alexander Dennis’ sons, Richard, took over Tarndwarncoort and his other son, Alexander, purchased Eeyuk. Carr’s Plains also ended up staying in the family through the marriage of Alexander’s daughter Mary to the manager of the Carr’s Plains farm, Holdford Wettenhall. Wettenhall would end up leasing Carr’s Plains from the Dennis family. By the 1880s, the stage was set for the first Polwarth.
The Dennis brothers’ interest in establishing a new breed came in steps. By the late 1870s, Richard had purchased a Lincoln ram from his brother’s farm at Eeyuk, and bred what are referred to as comebacks. Comeback sheep are bred by crossing a sheep that is ½ Merino and ½ of some variety of English longwool sheep with a purebred Merino; the resulting sheep are ¾ Merino and ¼ of whatever English longwool breed is used. In the case of the nascent Polwarth breed, this English longwool sheep that were added to the mix were the high-quality Lincolns from Eeyuk.
Both Dennis brothers noted that their new comeback sheep seemed to be hardier than their Merinos. They handled the snow and cold well during winters, and were good foragers – important for an area of Australia where the vegetation mainly consisted of scrubby bushes and sparse grass. When Richard first sold wool from these comebacks, the buyers and wool brokers were vocal in their appreciation for its length and quality. Realizing they had a winning combination on their hands, the brothers, along with their brother-in-law Wettenhall, began to develop what was known as the “Dennis Comebacks.” These sheep would eventually become what is known today as Polwarth.
Soon, other Australian farmers began to take note of this hardy and productive sheep, and through the efforts of the Dennis brothers they started to spread throughout Australia beyond the state of Victoria. However, their brother-in-law Wettenhall had visions of expanding the breed beyond Australia, and began marketing his comebacks to the cooler regions of South America. Wettenhall, wanting to make sure that his sheep stood out from the Dennis brothers’ flocks, renamed them Ideals. Marketing his sheep as Ideals proved particularly successful; Polwarth sheep are prominent in South America today are still called Ideals in that part of the world, rather than Polwarth.
By the 1910s, the breed had become a well-regarded dual-breed sheep, that is, a sheep that was raised for both wool and meat. In a relatively short period of time it became a very even breed, which meant that farmers who raised Polwarth could count on their sheep have consistent conformation and wool production. Encouraged by the Australian Sheepbreeders Association, in 1919 the sheep were registered as a fixed breed by a group of sheep farmers, and named Polwarth at the suggestion of William Dennis. Polwarth was the county in which the first experiments to create this new breed occurred. In suggesting this, William was following the naming conventions of his English roots; many English breeds are traditionally named after the county in which they originated.
Boom times for the Polwarth in Australia were to arrive just after WWII. Tasmania, the island state south of Victoria, was long known for its quality Saxon Merino sheep and the superfine fleece produced by these sheep was very popular. After WWII, however, the market demand for superfine wool began to decline, and farmers began looking for additional ways to make their flocks profitable. For many Tasmanian farms, Polwarth was the answer. Polwarth’s Merino and Lincoln heritage meant the sheep produced soft, long staple fleeces, while also having large carcasses suitable for selling as lamb or mutton – perfect for farms needing more than one way to make a living off of their flocks. Before WWII, Tasmania already had a few Polwarth flocks – the Dennis brothers had made their first Polwarth sale to Tasmania in 1902 and by the mid-1940s Polwarth sheep made up a little over 8% of the Tasmanian flocks. This number increased rapidly after the war to 41% by the 1960s, and 47% by the 1980s. In South America, Polwarth popularity also continued to rise.
The first Polwarth came to the United States in 1954. Purchased by the Wellman Combing Co. in South Carolina, the Polwarth were purchased to improve their model flocks; they wanted to try breeding Polwarth with their sheep to create a good wool producing breed for the South. These model flocks were also used to try to encourage cotton and tobacco farmers in the South to raise sheep. Ultimately, Wellman Combing Co. had very limited success with Southern farmers, and interest in raising Polwarth in the United States faded. There is no breed registry for Polwarth in the United States, and very, very few farms that raise them. Today, much of the Polwarth available to crafters and manufacturers is sourced from either Australia or the countries and territories of southern South America including Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and the Falkland Islands.
Polwarth is an amazingly soft wool. With a micron width between 22-25 microns, it is as soft as most Merino yarns, and is very comfortable to wear directly against your skin. With a staple length that can range between 4-6 inches, it is also a yarn that tends to not pill easily. Knitters and crocheters find that it is lovely to work with, and produces a yarn with good stitch definition. Spinners also love Polwarth for its ability to blend well with luxury fibers such as angora, alpaca, yak, and mohair.
Looking to try out some Polwarth for your next project? We have you covered! We sell Polwarth top by the ounce, and also carry Polwarth yarn for our knitters, crocheters, and weavers. We love Polwarth so much, and we think you will, too. Try it out and let us know what you think!