Know Your Fiber: Suffolk Wool
Posted on September 01 2020
With their long black faces and white wool, Suffolk sheep are easy to spot and are also one of the most common breeds in the United States. The Suffolk is an extremely popular dual-breed sheep that is today mainly raised for meat and only secondarily for its wool. However, Suffolk wool can be found by spinners and other crafters in yarn shops, often blended with other wools to make its short staple length more manageable.
To understand the Suffolk, we need to look at its most distinctive ancestor, the Norfolk Horn. When the Saxons invaded and settled England during the early part of the 5th century, they brought their sheep along with them. These Saxon sheep likely bred with the local, native sheep, as well as the Roman longwools that had made their home in England after the Romans had previously conquered and settled the area. The resulting sheep, a long-legged, lean, and black-faced breed, came to be called the Norfolk, or Norfolk Horn, after the East Anglian county in which it was found. A lean, lively, intelligent, and prolific breed, the Norfolk Horn was well regarded for both its milk, which was made into cheese, and its meat.
Norfolk Horn sheep were ideal for the open fields and the fold-course system that were commonly used in England all the way through the 17th century. Allowed to range during the summer on the grasses and shrubs of the heath, Norfolk Horn (and other sheep breeds of the time) were penned in, or as it was more commonly known at the time ‘folded’, on the arable fields during the winter to allow their manure to fertilize and prepare the fields for the following year’s crops. The manure produced by folded sheep was considered at least as valuable as the other products of the flock; without it farms producing grains and vegetables would not have been nearly productive enough to feed the population.
The fold-course system for which the Norfolk Horn was so well-adapted began to fall into disuse over a long period of about a century, beginning at the end of the 17th century. Some of this was because the land laws began to change during the late 17th and the 18th centuries. However, the embrace of the agricultural sciences by the land-owing upper classes was even more responsible for this change. As the development of larger, commercial farms began to take hold (the better to feed ever larger populations), the fold-course system began to fall into disuse. As the fold-course system disappeared, so did appreciation for the Norfolk Horn. Some of the very qualities that made the Norfolk Horn so valuable in the open fields and fold-courses (its intelligence, liveliness, and leanness), were not suitable for the new commercial farms. Indeed, there were some complaints from the commercial farmers that the intelligent, but cooped-up, Norfolk Horn would become aggressive toward both sheep and humans. Plus, the fences to contain them had to be built higher than needed for other breeds; the lean, long-legged and active Norfolk Horn would simply leap over fences that would otherwise easily contain other docile and fatter sheep. On top of all of that, the meat from the lean Norfolk Horn simply did not suit the palates of the time, as fattier mutton was preferred over lean.
The thing is, the Norfolk Horn was also known to be well-adapted to the weather and terrain of northern England, and it was extremely prolific – there are reports from the late 1700s of Norfolk Horn ewes frequently giving birth to twins, and sometimes even more than that. One 1700s farmer claimed that one of his Norfolk Horn ewes gave birth to nine lambs! Obviously, these were traits that farmers wanted to retain in their flocks. A couple of positive traits aside, though, Norfolk Horn were well on their way to being considered almost worse than useless. Enter Arthur Young, an agriculturalist and landed member of the upper class. Claiming in the Annals of Agriculture in 1791 to be the first to begin to improve the Norfolk Horn in 1786 by accidentally breeding his flock of Norfolk Horn ewes with his Southdown ram, he is largely held as the founder of the soon-to-be-named Suffolk breed. Whether or not he was actually the first to breed Norfolk Horn with Southdown is a matter for some debate; it is thought that he may very well have picked up on the idea from other, less literate farmers who were already working on improving Norfolk Horns with Southdown crosses. However, he was certainly the first to publish about it, and so claimed the innovation for himself.
By 1797, Suffolk was first used to describe these sheep, a name likely deriving from the location of the first stable Norfolk Horn/Southdown crosses. By the early 1800s these crosses had become increasingly popular among farmers, and by the mid-1800s, the crosses had stabilized enough that many began to consider them a new and separate breed. Not long thereafter, the first breed society for the Suffolk was formed in 1886. Although the breed was named after Suffolk county (an area known for its historical wool towns) and was technically a dual-breed sheep, the Suffolk’s main purpose was not wool, but rather meat. Still sheared every year and its wool and put into a wool pool for sale, it became most popular among farmers who raised sheep for mutton. It was such a popular sheep that it became one of the top live animal exports during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Introduced to the United States in 1888, it also became an extremely popular breed among farmers in the United States who wanted to raise both wool and meat.
Today, the Suffolk is one of the most populous dual-breed sheep in both North America and the U.K. It is one of the U.K.’s leading breeds of sheep, and here in the United States it makes up around 40% of the total flocks in the country. However, its ancestor, the Norfolk Horn, has faded from the sheep world. With only around 40 Norfolk Horn flocks still kept in the U.K., it has become as endangered as its descendant, the Suffolk, has become popular.
With a modern staple length of only 2-3½ inches, Suffolk wool is commonly only available to crafters blended with longer staple wools of white, black, and gray, making it easier to spin and work with. Here at Northwest Yarns, our Suffolk blend is mixed with gray and black wool, creating a lovely light-gray top. The fiber width is in the medium to medium-coarse range, with a width of around 35-45 microns. It is a fairly bulky top, mostly suitable for outwear, blankets, rugs, or anything that requires a nice dense and thick wool.
Want to try out some Suffolk in you next project? Check out our gray Suffolk-blend top in our shop and online!