Cotswold sheep have always been known for their wool
The origins of Cotswold sheep have been debated for years, and may never be entirely known for sure. As befits an old breed, they are surrounded by legend, and much of their mystery is to do with their wool. It is commonly believed that Cotswolds were introduced into Britain by the Romans, although this is yet to be proven. It is definitely the case, though, that the Romans were great makers and exporters of woollen cloth (the three main exports from the British Isles to the rest of the Roman Empire were tin, hunting dogs and woollen overcoats!) so they would have needed sheep with excellent wool. Later, in the medieval period, Cotswold wool was reckoned to be the best in Europe. The popularity of the sheep has dwindled in recent years, but now, with a rise in interest in rare breed farm animals and a renaissance in the development of wool, Cotswold fleece is again of interest to craftspeople all over the world.
Lustrous, long locks make the Cotswold a handsome sheep
Cotswolds belong to a group of sheep breeds known as the Longwool and Lustre breeds, along with the Lincoln Longwool, Leicester Longwool, Wensleydale, Teeswater and Cornwall and Devon Longwool. Cotswolds are a large, rangy sheep with long legs, completely covered in a lustrous, long fleece which resembles white dreadlocks. The breed standard (the description of the ideal Cotswold sheep) can be found here. The quality of wool is of paramount importance.
Cotswold Churches Built From Wool!
In their heyday, Cotswold sheep did much to shape the landscape of the Cotswolds. In addition to the grazing of large flocks which has created the distinctive field systems we see in the area, some of the beautiful churches and houses we see also owe their existence to Cotswold sheep, albeit indirectly. Rich wool merchants, their fortunes made in the cloth trade, gave money to build churches in some of the towns and villages of the Cotswolds such as Northleach and Cirencester, and they also built themselves magnificent homes.
Cotswold Wool Declines In Popularity
Cotswold wool was popular for generations, but the coming of the Industrial Revolution changed all this. Historically the long locks (or staple) of Cotswold fleeces were used for worsted spinning, a process which produces a hard-wearing and shiny yarn very suitable for weaving. With the development of spinning machinery in the 1840s, worsted yarns could be spun with shorter staple fleece, and need for the longwool breeds declined sharply. By the twentieth century, the demand for British wool generally had crashed, and the medieval boom was definitely a distant memory.
What Happens To Cotswold Wool Today?
Most wool from British sheep is collected by the British Wool Marketing Board, who promote and sell British wool in bulk. Wool prices worldwide are fluctuating, and vary from year to year. There has been a recent rise in interest, fuelled by the craft movement which has swept Britain and America, and consumers have a hunger for natural materials. Cotswold fleeces are again popular with spinners, and small producers are selling yarn made from the wool of their Cotswold sheep. The Society are very interested in helping to promote the use of Cotswold wool, and run events every year to raise the profile of the breed and its wool.
If you are interested in getting your hands on some Cotswold fleece the Society can help! Please contact us to be put in touch with someone who can sell you a fleece, or check out the Members Adverts section of the website.