Know Your Fiber: Tunis Wool
Posted on December 01 2020
Tunis sheep are one of a handful of the oldest sheep breeds in the United States and were a particularly popular breed right up through the mid-1800s. Today they are a rare American sheep breed, but their ancestors’ history spans thousands of years. Read on to learn more about these beautiful red-faced, red-legged, and white wool dual-breed sheep!
Tunis sheep are directly descended from the fat-tailed sheep of Northern Africa and the Middle East. With references to fat-tailed sheep found in Babylonian tablets, the Torah, the Bible, and various historical documents and travelogues all the way up to and through the 20th century, these sheep were valued not just for their wool, but also for their particularly large and fatty tails, which were considered to be a delicacy. Some fat-tailed sheep had tails that were so large that they were reputedly fitted with belts or even little carriages to support these oversized tails. While some historians consider the tales of tail carts to be apocryphal, other researchers point to records showing that these tales are true. John Goodridge, a professor at Nottingham Trent University, has pointed out that in addition to the numerous instances that tail carts are mentioned in travelogues and other documents from the 20th century and before, they have also been mentioned as being used as recently as the 1980s in Afghanistan by travel writer Bruce Chatwin.
While perhaps not as impressively fat-tailed as some of their ancestors and close cousins, it was the fat tails and promises of quality, soft wool that brought the first Tunis sheep to the United States. At the time they were better known as Barbary sheep, due to their importation from the Barbary Coast – a term used by Europeans and European colonists of the day to refer to the coastal regions of North Africa. While relatively well-known by name in Europe and North America before the American Revolution, the first recorded Tunis sheep only arrived in the United States by 1799, purchased by General William Eaton who was serving as the U.S. consul in Tunisia. These sheep crossed the Atlantic via a U.S. Navy man-of-war, but only two of the ten sheep that were purchased survived their travels – a ram and a ewe.
This ram and ewe would form the basis of the Tunis breed in the United States, a breed of sheep that would, through cross breeding, soon become uniquely North American. Judge Richard Peters of Pennsylvania took in the Tunis ram and ewe, and with just these two sheep he bred an impressive flock of Tunis over a period of about twenty years. With additional imports of Tunis sheep to the U.S. in 1808 and 1825, the breed began to see increased popularity as a hardy dual-breed sheep that could be used both for wool and for exceptionally flavorful lamb and mutton. Notable U.S. founders and presidents such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison also began to include Tunis sheep (referred to variously in historical documents as Barbary, broad-tail, or Persian sheep) on their farms, with Thomas Jefferson referring to breeding pure Tunis as his “favorite object.” Unfortunately for Jefferson his favorite, but legendarily aggressive, Shetland ram ended up killing two of his Tunis rams when an enclosure failed to keep the two breeds separated.
Although their fatty tails were delicacy that brought additional value to the breed, the tails of purebred Tunis sheep in the early 1800s were large enough that some breeders were convinced that they were getting in the way of successful breeding. With this conviction, John Powell of Pennsylvania embarked on a Tunis breeding program that he hoped would both improve the wool of the breed and at the same time reduce the tail size. Crossing his Tunis sheep with Leicesters and Southdowns, Powell was able to breed sheep with high quality white wool and smaller tails. Tunis sheep would never completely lose their fat tails – to this day they are still considered to be a delicacy by a number of gourmands, and Powell did not want to get rid of the tails completely. However, Powell and other farmers did successfully reduce the Tunis’ tail size. With these types of crosses and breeding programs, the Tunis sheep that still survives in North America today became a uniquely American breed.
During the early to mid-1800s became exceptionally popular in the southern states, even with the advent of the newly popular Merino sheep, because of their ability to thrive in warmer climates. Soon most of the United States’ population of Tunis sheep were found in the southern states, which contributed to those states’ success in the wool and mutton markets. However, with the onset and duration of the Civil War, the Tunis sheep population was nearly wiped out. Food shortages in the South meant that many Tunis, among other sheep breeds, went to slaughter to help feed the local populations, and many more were confiscated by Union troops in an effort to increase their own food stores, or just as a. Fortunately for us, however, twenty years later a group of sheep farmers from Indiana made an effort to purchase the best of the still existing, though rare, Tunis flocks. This bold and risky investment helped to preserve the Tunis breed; without it Tunis sheep may not have survived. From Indiana the breed spread throughout the nearby regions, all the way up to New England. Although still rare, today Tunis sheep can mostly be found in Midwest and Northeastern regions, with a handful of shepherds in the Western and Southwestern states also keeping small herds. Some Tunis herds can be also be found in other countries, such as Australia and South Africa, where they are largely (although not exclusively) used in experimental breeding programs intended to improve other sheep breeds.
Although Tunis lambs are born with a coat that is tan to a coppery red, as they become adults this fleece is replaced with fluffy white wool. Their faces and legs remain tan or red, though, which creates quite striking looking sheep when seen in the pasture. Like down wools, Tunis wool has an irregular crimp that makes it resistant to felting. This can be used to good effect when doing textured knitting, crocheting, or weaving with Tunis yarn, since it means that cabling and other texture techniques will remain sharp and defined over continued use and wear. With a fiber diameter of between 24-30 microns, Tunis falls into the medium-fine range of wools, making it comfortable for most people to wear against their skin. The fiber has good loft, it is extremely bouncy, and has a good luster as well. It also is quite durable. Tunis wool is quite suitable for any number of projects, including clothing, blankets, rugs and more.
Want to get your fingers into some Tunis? We will soon be offering Tunis from a small farm in Arizona in our shop! We will always try to keep some Tunis in the shop, but due to the rarity of the breed and its availability, you should be aware that there may be times it is out of stock. So, do not miss out on your chance to stock up once it arrives – we think you will absolutely love it!