Fleece from different breeds of sheep (and there are many hundreds) can be very different. Over thousands of years (just like dog breeds) humans and the environment have selected animals and fleece for different needs. As fiber users, selecting the right breed for our end purpose (from rugs that need to hold up to heavy foot traffic to super fine lace shawls) is important for the success of the final product and also ease of use. But how do you learn all that?
To make it easier, wool is grouped into categories that have similar characteristics. Not everyone uses the same categories or any categories at all, and of course, not all breeds fit perfectly into one category. In addition, breeds on different continents may have the same name, but have developed to local taste and environments. Individual sheep within a breed also can have quite different fleece, so all of this is general. Never the less, we think it helps...
Here is a matrix of the five categories we use. There is a page on each type as well.
|Type of Fleece||Description||Best Uses||Breeds|
|Fine||Soft enough to be worn next to the skin. Fine wool fleeces are very refined, fibers throughout the whole fleece should be consistent. Exceptional felting ability. Not a strong fiber.||Creates the finest, softest garments such as shawls, scarves, baby wear. Wet and needle felting||Merino
Targhee (west US)
|Down||Down type wools have a shorter staple length, medium diameter and usually a matte appearance. They are characterized by a well developed spiral crimp, giving exceptional resilience and elasticity.||Fine felts, flannel, baby wear, fine fabrics woven or knitted, blankets, tweeds. Cushioning things: socks, mattress pads, comforter/quilt batts||Clun Forest
|Medium||Medium diameter fibers with a medium to long staple length. They are the most versitile of all the wool types.||Used for a wide variety of knitwear, yarns, blankets and tweeds||
Columbia (west US)
|Long||Larger average fiber diameter and long staple. Easy to hand spin and very strong and hard wearing. Long wool is lustrous and can have a silky feel.||Loop yarn (boucle) woven furnishing fabrics including bags and rugs. Finer types used for embroidery thread. Excellent knitting wool for outerwear, sweaters, hats and mittens, throws and blankets||Coopworth
|Double-Coated||Heritage breeds that retain the primitive fleece character of a long outer coat to repell weather and a soft down undercoat for warmth. Fleeces from lambs will be softer with successive shearings more coarse. Exceptional felting ability||Coarse fleeces traditionally used for carpets, rugs and outerwear. Some have softer character and the down, separated from the outer is used for very fine applications such as Shetland shawls||Karakul