How many rare-breed sheep can you fit into a skein of yarn?

22 rare breads + 1 passionate spinner = a very powerful yarn


Betsy Alspach cards while her twenty-year-old cat looks on. Betsy says the cat is her constant companion and loves fiber almost as much as she does.

We have invited Betsy Alspach, an occupational therapist from Falmouth, Massachusetts, to be our guest today to share with you her inspired skein from Deb Robson's Handspinning Rare Wools DVD. After watching the DVD and taking part in Deb's workshop at  Spin-Off Autumn Retreat (SOAR), Betsy created a skein of yarn for demonstrations that includes wool from twenty-two rare sheep breeds.

Betsy Alspach: Last winter, I became fascinated with learning about rare breeds of sheep and processing and spinning their fiber. My consciousness had been raised by Deb Robson and her wonderful DVD Handspinning Rare Wools. I watched it over and over and even took it with me on vacation because I couldn't bear to be without it for two-and-a-half weeks.

I live in Massachusetts, so when I learned that last year's Spin-Off Autumn Retreat (SOAR) would be held in New Hampshire and that Deb was teaching workshops on this very subject, I signed up as soon as registration opened for her Thursday workshop. Indeed, it was just the type of workshop that I wanted. She taught us about nine breeds and then gave us their fiber and time to experience it for ourselves.

I returned home even more enthralled with the qualities of rare breeds, their history, and the unique and important niche each fills. The danger of extinction adds to my interest as well as helping in a very small way to encourage breeders to continue their good work with these breeds.


Betsy's skein of singles yarn that includes wool from twenty-two rare sheep breeds, plus two additional fibers that are rare to her.

Betsy's skein and a sampling of the different wools that were included.

After SOAR, I soon decided to spin up a singles skein of rare breed wools and list each one in order. I alternated light and dark so that I could tell the beginning and end of each fiber and started my skein with a purple strand to mark the beginning. I also continued the practice that Deb taught us of making sample cards for each fiber with a spun strand and information about the staple length and micron count.

I used the nine samples Deb had given to us, bought two at SOAR, found fiber for a few more breeds already in my stash, obtained other samples from my friend and fellow rare-breed addict, Christine McClusky (who also attended the workshop), and bought a few more online.

What fun it was to add each one to the skein! And now, to know that when I admire the skein, it consists the fiber of twenty-two rare breeds of which a year ago I had very limited, and often no, knowledge. I plan to take the skein to workshops I teach and public demonstrations of spinning to enlighten others about the uses of the fiber from rare breeds and the importance of their preservation.

The skein includes the following fibers in order: Teeswater , Karakul guard hairs, Portland, Karakul undercoat, Clun Forest, Manx Loaghtan, Wensleydale, Romeldale, Lincoln Longwool, Jacob, Hog Island, Yak (not rare), Shetland, Gulf Coast, Churro, Shropshire, Swaledale (not rare), Soay, Oxford Down, Southdown, Cotswold, Dorset Horn dark, Dorset Horn light, and Leicester Longwool.

I added in yak I purchased at SOAR as well as Swaledale I bought online because both are rare to me; although, they are not on the list we were given at the workshop. As a result, the skein has a total of twenty-four samples.

Of course I plan to hunt for more.

—Betsy

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