Early U.S. sheep breeds -- what would they have used for coverlet weaving?

What sheep breeds were being used in the early 19th c. for weaving overshot coverlets and other blankets?  Am guessing they'd have used a finer wool rather than a longwool?  The coverlets I've looked at are woven with a very fine, springy wool yarn.


Posted on Wed, 10/19/2011 - 01:29

I worked for many years at a late-18th century farm, and the one sheep we had was a Hog Island breed. This was one of the few kinds that we're pretty sure is similar to what was around at the time. The problem is, distinct breed differentiation (like the kind we know now) didn't really happen on a large scale till further into the 19th century, so those sorts of things are hard to track. Colonial Williamsburg has Hog Island and Leicester Longwools; you can see some information about their sheep here: http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/summer07/sheep.cfm

If you're going to try to use Hog Island, be warned: it's not the best wool. It's not very soft, the staple isn't terribly long, and overall I'd describe it as... what's the opposite of "luxurious"? I've spun it, and it's doable, but would not be my first choice. Haven't tried Leicester Longwool.

By the early 19th century there may have been more breeds available that would still be around now. You could check the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy; they have information about historic breeds: http://www.albc-usa.org/cpl/wtchlist.html#sheep

Posted on Wed, 10/19/2011 - 14:22

Well, most of the "colonial" coverlets were woven later than the colonial period.  During the early colonial period, most of the sheep in the British colonies were meat breeds.  The British were not too keen on developing a wool industry in the colonies to compete with their most valuable export. 

Hog Island and Gulf Coast Native fleeces are highly variable in quality and consistency, but are often used at historic sites here in Virginia.  The Hog Island fleece at Scotchtown was highly contaminated with icky stuff when they first got started.  The Williamsburg Leciester Longwool fleeces were somewhat better.  Meadow Farm, near Richmond, has had some very nice Gulf Coast fleeces, and some very not-nice ones, depending on the individual animal.

I'd use whatever fleece you've got and not worry too much about the "authenticity".  Remember, sheep were often left to forage for themselves and rounded up at shearing time, making for some very rough fleece!


Posted on Sun, 07/14/2013 - 17:46

i realize i'm reviving a very old thread,  but wanted to add what i could for anyone who might be interested.

the area where i live was settled in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.   the most significant in terms of fiber production was a group of german settlers, known as the Harmonist Society who first settled Harmony Pa in 1804.    they raised merino sheep.    i have been told that merino were the sheep that were easily available to them,  and not necessarily their first choice, but i would need to research that further to be certain.

Posted on Sun, 07/14/2013 - 23:35

Here's some info on about when merino's came into the mid-atlantic area

Earlier breeds were the leicester longwool. It is a double coated wool that can be separated or spun togeather but the majority of contemporary mills can't spin it due to the length. Nice wool for handspinners.

We had leicester longwools at Greenbank Mill when I was a volunteer in their early days.


Posted on Sun, 07/14/2013 - 23:46

cool.  thank you.  :-)


it sounds like the Harmonists arrived here just in time to end up with merinos.  a few years earlier and it sounds like they'd have had leicester longwools.....