Know Your Fiber: Rambouillet
Posted on March 01 2019
The late 1700s were an eventful time for French sheep! A French sheep (along with a rooster and a duck) were the first to escape gravity in a hot air balloon, French sheep were among the first to test the newly invented guillotine (poor little sheep!), and the French Rambouillet took its first steps on the journey to become the wonderfully productive fine wool producer we know today. Known at various points in history as the French Merino and Rambouillet Merino, these names were a nod to the Rambouillet’s Merino origins. Certainly, at the very beginning of its history, Rambouillet sheep were simply Merinos à la France.
In the 1600s and 1700s, Spain had a lock on the fine wool market, thanks to their Merino sheep. Merinos were so valuable to Spain that removal of Merino sheep from Spain was a crime punishable by death. Not that this stopped at least a few enterprising governments and individuals from trying, and in some cases succeeding. In the late 1600s, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the finance minister of King Louis XIV, paid out of his own pocket to have some Merinos brought over the Pyrenees from Spain. About 30 years later, a gentleman by the name of M. de Perce also managed to obtain some Merinos. These sheep were crossed with the native French sheep in an effort to improve them, but it appears that while this may have had limited success, no effort was made to maintain a pure line of Merino or document the breeding. France noted the potential, but with Merino sheep largely unavailable, these efforts faded over the decades. It wasn’t until the late 1700s that this would change.
By the late 1700s, only very limited amounts of raw Merino wool was available to other countries. Spain wanted to process as much finished wool and fabric as they could themselves, so as to get the highest possible price for their prized product. However, they only had so many people and facilities to accomplish this, which meant that at least some raw Merino was sold by Spain to other countries. Nonetheless, the monopoly that Spain had on Merino was clear, and Merino products were sold at a premium.
This caused concern in Europe – what if Spain decided to sharply increase their prices, or what if they no longer exported any unfinished Merino wool at all? France looked at their southern neighbor and saw that they were continuing to increase their wool processing facilities. Worried that Spain would soon prohibit exportation of Merino wool, as well as Merino sheep, they decided to take decisive steps obtain their own Merino flocks.
Luckily for France, King Louis XVI seemed to be on excellent terms with the king of Spain. It is not entirely clear how France convinced the king of Spain to give some of their precious Merinos to King Louis XVI of France, but they did. It is easy to imagine that not everyone in Spain was happy about this, and there is at least one anecdotal story of the Spanish shepherd in charge of taking the Merinos to France grumbling about it for all to hear, complaining that not a single lamb would cross the Pyrenees if it was up to him.
France sent their most knowledgeable people to Spain to select the Merinos, and in 1786 these Merinos arrived in France. There were transported to the Bergerie royale (Royal Sheepfold) in Rambouillet, a domain a little south of Paris that Louis XVI had purchased from his cousin in 1783. The castle of this domain, the Château de Rambouillet, was the same one that Louis XVI’s queen, Marie Antoinette, had transformed into a country estate with the famous Laiterie de la Reine (the Queen’s Dairy).
The Merinos from this flock quickly became known as the French or Rambouillet Merinos. During the reign of Louis XVI, this flock was carefully maintained so that Merino ewes could only be bred with Merino rams, thereby increasing the size of the Merino flock. Merino rams were allowed to breed with native French sheep in an effort to improve them, but this was the only exception. This mission was taken so seriously, that when a ram from a non-Merino flock made his way into the Merino flock, an entire year’s worth of lambs from the Merino ewes were destroyed to make absolutely certain that only pure Merinos were being lambed.
If you remember your French history, you will recall that the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette ended rather abruptly with a visit to the guillotine in 1793, courtesy of the French Revolution. This did not mean that the Rambouillet Merinos were abandoned to their own devices, though – the new French Republic knew full well what their worth was. The previously named Bergerie royale became the Bergerie nationale (National Sheepfold). With scientific advances in breeding, the French government began think about the possibilities of creating an even better, more productive sheep using their Merino flocks. Beginning in 1834, France took a look north at England’s long-wool breeds, selected some to cross with their Merinos… and the Rambouillet as an entirely separate breed of sheep came into existence. These large sheep with soft wool and a longer staple than Merino wool started to become quite popular.
It wasn’t until the 1870s that North Americans really began to take notice of Rambouillet sheep, and begin to bring them across the Atlantic in great numbers. This was because Rambouillet sheep stole the show at the Paris Exposition of 1870, during which the Rambouillet was proudly displayed for all to see. Mr. Moll, the chairman of the jury for wool at the Paris Exposition wrote in a U.S. Agricultural report that, “ we may safely say, the Rambouillet is at present the most perfect type of fine wool sheep in existence.”
With a glowing review like that from a respected authority on wool, who wouldn’t want Rambouillet sheep? The answer is almost every shepherd raising sheep for wool in North America during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Sure enough, the Rambouillet boom was off and running, and soon they could be found across the North American continent, with the majority of them found in the West. Rambouillet, along with sheep that were bred from Rambouillet, are still popular in the U.S. and Canada today. It is estimated that that 50% of sheep in the western U.S. are of Rambouillet blood.
Rambouillet has many of the same characteristics as Merino, but with a longer staple and a bit less sheen. It is a fine fiber that measures between 18.5 to 24.5 microns, which makes it very comfortable to wear directly against your skin. Like Merino, it can produce a very fine yarn that is a joy to spin and use. Interested in spinning up or felting some Rambouillet yourself? Check out our Rambouillet fiber at our shop in beautiful downtown Bellingham, WA, or purchase it online from our website. We hope you love it as much as we do!