History of sheep:
Sheep originated in Central Asia from the wild Mouflon sheep. They were one of the first animals to be domesticated over 10,000 years ago, providing people with meat, wool and milk. The first sheep arrived to the colonies in America in the 1600’s during which time they were found to be very valuable and people went to great measures to improve the industry.
Sheep were eventually brought to Eastern and Central Oregon where there were plentiful grasslands. At the time, there were no laws in place to restrict grazing and the land was considered “open range.” At the time cattle ranchers and sheepmen were competing for land to graze their animals.
Today, over 50% of the nations sheep spend time grazing on public lands. According to the Public Lands Council, livestock grazing has been recognized as an “integral tool for rangeland management on both public and private lands.” (Public Lands Council)
Families who raise livestock on grasslands today act as stewards of the land through their efforts which include preserving clean water resources, controlling invasive plant species and non native grasses, maintaining firebreaks and reducing wildfire fuels loads which decreases the frequency and intensity of wildfires on rangelands.
Sheep in Oregon are primarily raised for meat and wool, but are also raised for other niche markets such as dairy. The wool industry in Oregon has declined over the last hundred plus years, but has now settled into a very distinguishable market. Oregon wool has a reputable name in the fiber industry and companies such as Pendleton Woolen Mills use it for an assortment of top dollar items including clothing and blankets.
Wool Making Process:
Sheep are sheared once a year with an electric tool called clippers. This process is painless, and is comparable to people getting haircuts. Shearing is mandatory in maintaining the health of sheep, because without it the fleece will overgrow and can cause serious health and hygiene problems for the animal. Once all of the wool is removed, it is then sorted based on the body part in which it came from. This is done with a grading system that ranks the quality of the wool. For instance, wool from the sides and shoulders of the sheep usually have the highest grade and is used to make clothing, while the wool from the lower legs is typically lesser quality and is used to make products like rugs.
Once the wool is sorted, it is cleaned to remove debris such as sticks and dirt. During this stage, the lanolin, or natural grease, is removed from the wool and saved for use in various byproducts. Next, the wool is carded, meaning it is run through a machine with metal teeth that combs the wool into thin segments. From there, the wool is spun together to form yarn that is made into fabric. Finally, the wool is ready for the finishing touches which include submerging it in water so that the fibers interlock, shrink-proofing and dying.
We have several resources in our lending library that will help students learn about Oregon’s fiber industry! The Wool Spinning Kit is a hands-on lesson that includes wool for students to make their very own friendship bracelets. We also have different videos as well as books and other resources that all revolve around sheep!