A Knitter’s Guide to Crossbred Wool Yarns

What should you do with your intriguing new skeins of farm-grown yarn? After developing a line of yarns from her own flock, the author and shepherd has some good advice.

Sarah Pope Oct 16, 2023 - 4 min read

A Knitter’s Guide to Crossbred Wool Yarns Primary Image

Farm yarns from the author’s flock and other crossbred sheep. Photo by Sarah Pope

The experience of raising my own sheep and designing unique yarns is deeply fulfilling, but sharing those yarns with other knitters and seeing what they make is even better. It’s probably obvious that when you buy local wool at a farmer’s market or fiber festival, you’re directly supporting a shepherd and a flock. You’re also helping to keep a local economy of shearers and small fiber mills in business. And you may even be sustaining the long arc of a project to develop new fibers especially suited to your region.

4 Approaches to a Small-Batch Yarn

Based on my own experience as a shepherd and knitter, here are some factors to consider when choosing and using farm-grown yarns.

What the Shepherd Knows

Chat with the wool grower about their breeds and reasons for selecting those sheep. Ask what they think the yarn does well. Do a little breed research from a field guide such as Deb Robson and Carol Ekarius’s The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook.

What Your Skin Feels

Hold the yarn against your wrist or neck to feel for prickle—keeping in mind that your skin is more sensitive on a hot day, and what feels scratchy in August may not bother you at all in December. Remember that you can always knit an inner cuff or band in a softer yarn you know you can tolerate.

What You Can See

Consider the weight, structure, color, and texture of the yarn. A chocolaty black color usually signifies a lamb fleece and will be softer than fiber from mature animals. A marled yarn will obscure stitch work with its busy visual effect and is probably best as stockinette. A round, worsted-spun 3-ply will show stitch definition and cabled textures well; a 2-ply is a good choice for lace or open work. A yarn with a bit of thick-and-thin texture may look perfectly rustic as simple, homey garter stitch.

What You Can Make

You’re most likely to encounter 100-gram skeins of DK or worsted weight, perhaps 200–250 yards—enough for a cowl or a hat or a pair of mittens. You could find a pattern, or you might just choose a stitch pattern you like and cast on a corresponding multiple number close to 100 (for a hat) or 120 (for a cowl) and see what unfolds. If you love your taster skein and think you want a sweater’s worth, contact the shepherd or wool company right away. The sheep are always growing more fiber, but each year’s clip is a little different and you probably won’t get an exact match if you mix mill lots.

Whatever garment you make will hold the memory of a place, the heritage of a sheep, and the tangible care of the many hands it took to bring the wool from lamb to skein.

Sarah Pope stewards a 30-acre sheep farm with her family on San Juan Island, Washington, and occasionally designs knitwear. Her wool company, San Juan Woolworks, buys fleeces from farming neighbors to encourage wool production in the community and produces knitting yarns with the help of two women-owned mills in her fibershed.