We talk a lot about our love of merino and bluefaced Leicester yarn but we have been also using New Zealand Polwarth wool in our Oakworth yarns for years. To let you know why we love this fabulous breed we wanted to share some information about why they are so amazing.
Polwarth sheep originated in Australia in the 1800s (in fact it is their centenary year this year!) when Lincoln and Merino bloodlines were mixed. This combination was used to attempt to increase the hardiness of the Merino so that they could increase the areas that could be grazed. This was very successful as Polwarths are now able to thrive in a wide range of climatic conditions and as a result have been exported as far as the Falkland Islands and South America.
Imported to New Zealand in 1932, their adaptability to hot and cold temperatures, hilly and lowland areas and a wide range of rainfall makes them an ideal choice for farmers throughout the country.
© Graham Meadows Photography via New Zealand Sheepbreeders' Association website
The breed is medium sized with a large frame with mature ewes reaching between 50-60kgs and mature rams reaching between 66-80kgs. Fleeces can weigh up to six/seven kilos with a fibre diameter of 23 – 25 microns. The wool is ultra-white with excellent length, crimp and yield; and it is fine and soft enough for next-to-skin wear.
Polwarth sheep have many characteristics which make them popular with farmers. Ewes are capable of year round breeding with higher incidence of twin births than other breeds and a good mothering ability. The lambs have lean carcasses making them popular for meat export markets. This coupled with the high quality wool production makes the Polwarth sheep a dual purpose animal with the one of the highest returns from a single breed.
The dual purpose characteristics of the Polwarth sheep reduce the worries for farmers breeding them as they are not as affected by seasonal price fluctuations in either the wool or meat markets. They also provide great opportunity for selective breeding as the most sought after traits (eg, robust animals, high quality wool, large fleeces, good quality lambs etc) are genetically dominant.
Due to the demand for high quality wools, such as from Polwarth sheep, farmers are increasingly able to see good returns from their hardy flocks.
Wool (the best bit!)
As mentioned earlier, Polwarth wool has many desirable qualities. The long staple length makes it easy for spinning and felting but also produces a strong, smooth and silky yarn with good stitch definition that takes dye well and can produce a beautiful woven fabric. Polwarth fibre is also ideal for mixing with other fine fibres like angora, baby alpaca and mohair.
Although white is the most desirable fleece colour, other natural colours such as black, brown and grey are also popular in the crafting world.
We love this wool because it is particularly strong, which makes it great as a pure-wool sock yarn; and yet it's still soft enough to wear next to the skin for most people. It makes a great, hardy, outdoor jumper but just as well makes a nice lace shawl. The good stitch definition and clarity of colour means that it shows off textures particularly well. We carry pure NZ polwarth wool yarns in both 4ply and DK weights (Oakworth 4ply and Oakworth DK) with the DK being a nice robust yarn, especially for a DK thickness.
The yarn itself is a great pleasure to dye because it takes the colours with great clarity and depth, meaning that whilst it shows off semi-solid colourways well, it also shows off variegated colourways particularly well. It's easy to achieve a smudged, watercolour sort of effect, with layer upon layer of colour building up (as in the skeins below).