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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Here’s What Colonial Williamsburg Does With the Wool From its Rare Sheep Breed

Elaine Shirley, manager of CW’s Rare Breeds program, lays out a fleece from the Leicester Longwool sheep. (Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

WILLIAMSBURG — Many people might think of sheep shearing as being a springtime occurrence, but in some places, a sheep shearer can be busy almost year-round.

In Colonial Williamsburg (CW)’s Coach and Livestock Department, the crew stays hard at work caring for the flock and maintaining the wool of CW’s rare sheep breed Leicester Longwool.

The rare breed was developed in the 18th century by English agriculturalist Robert Bakewell, who is known for being the first to implement systematic selective breeding of livestock.

The Leicester Longwool is part of CW’s Rare Breeds program, which works to keep genetic diversity in livestock that were around in 18th-century colonial British America.

Along with sheep, the program includes rare breeds of cattle, horses and poultry. Elaine Shirley, manager of CW’s Rare Breeds program, said that Leicester Longwool sheep were written about in a number of publications during the 18th century.

“In the 18th century, these sheep were mega cool,” Shirley said. “We know George Washington had them at Mount Vernon because he wrote about them in his letters and diaries. This bred of sheep went all over the world, and they helped create in part up to about 80 different breeds of sheep.”

What makes the Leicester Longwool breed so distinct, Shirley said, is their wool.

CW’s Leicester Longwool is a rare sheep breed from the 18th century. (Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

“They have extremely long, lustrous heavy fiber,” she said. “And that wool goes into something called broadcloth, which is a heavy outer coating. It’s the kind of thing that if you’re driving a stagecoach from here to Richmond in the 18th century on a typical February day, you want clothing made out of this to keep you warm.”

Though it can be used for many purposes, the heavy wool is primarily best for outer wear and blankets.

“Wool is the best fiber known to man,” Shirley said. “It keeps you warm even when it’s wet, it’s fire resistant, and it’s a renewable resource.”

For CW’s weavers, the fleece from the Leicester Longwool is esteemed for its shine and silkiness.

CW’s weavers are the “end users” of what the Coach & Livestock department does, according to Karen Clancy, CW’s master weaver.

The weavers use the wool for dyeing and other projects, including bed rugs and blankets for the horses. The yarn that they make goes to Prentis Store for sale.

“I will send Elaine an email, like, ‘Hey i’m out of wool,'” Clandy said. “So typically, since we sell the majority of it at Prentis Store for the public, I try to get lambs wool or soft spin-able yarn, because the course stuff the people tend to not like as much, or its not as versatile in any of the projects they’re working on.”

Currently, the Coach and Livestock Department are shearing the pregnant ewes before they are due to lamb in March or April.

“They’re carrying this extremely heavy fleece, and you would shear that fleece off and that would give them a boost of energy because they’re not carrying as much weight at the end of their pregnancy,” Shirley said. “The other thing that does for me is I get a clean fleece because birth hasn’t happened yet. The mom is also better attuned to what the weather is doing, so a shorn sheep is more likely to go try to find a spot where she’s not getting rained or snowed on than a sheep with a full fleece. So its a win-win for everybody.”

The pregnant ewes are typically sheared behind-the-scenes with electric shears so it is a faster process and keeps the ewes from being in an uncomfortable position for too long. However, the other sheep are typically sheared in front of the public with hand shears.

Shirley, who grew up on a dairy farm, came to work for CW nearly 37 years from the perspective of the production world.

Master weaver Karen Clancy winds skeins of dyed yarn. (Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

“I had a lot of understanding of modern agriculture and I think that’s part of what really interested me in the rare breeds,” she said.

Clancy, also grew up on a farm, has immersed herself in working with wool.

Clancy began working full-time for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1989 and wore many different hats before joining the weaving staff in 2009, eventually becoming master weaver several years ago. Weaving has been a personal hobby of Clancy’s for over 20 years.

Clancy credits Shirley for developing her interest in the world of sheep and wool, after Shirley took Clancy to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival.

‘Sadly wool gets a bad wrap,” Shirley said. “People say wool itches. Well, if you get the right kind of wool it doesn’t itch and if you get good wool and take good care of it, it will last you forever. It’s a fabulous product. High end designers still use wool because its such great fabric.”

The weavers work to “dispel myths about wool throughout the historic area.”

“I get ‘I hate wool, I can’t touch wool, I’m allergic to wool.’ They’re usually not allergic to the wool, it’s the chemical processing that people are usually sensitive to,” Clancy said. “But I have them handle washed wool or fabric, and they’re like ‘Oh my gosh, this is so different.'”

The weavers host Dye Days at the Weaving Shop once a month for families to watch as they experiment with different dye recipes to see a spectrum of colors.

Shirley said that they will start having lambs in mid-March that the public can come and see, but in the meantime has “a barn full” of Leicester Longwool fleeces for sale.

“I have fleeces available all the time,” she said. “The wonderful thing about Leicester is you can do so much with it. You can card it, comb it, so you can produce two very different types of finished fabric. And you can felt it. Felting, be it wet felting or needle felting, is really a cool project to do, it’s something kids can enjoy. It’s amazing to be able to take a piece of wool and end up with something, be it a little figure or a big piece that you can then sew into something like mittens or a hat.”

Those interested in buying hyper local wool can contact Shirley at

Prices can range anywhere from $35 to $90, depending on the quality and quantity.

“Some of the fleeces are whiter than others, so those tend to be a little more,” Shirley said. “A big heavy rams fleece thats really white and long and shiny might be as much as $90, but it’s also probably 13 pounds worth of wool, and that’s a lot of wool.”

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