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American RBST Foundation Flock USA0001
British Registered Soay sheep


Soay, an Ancient Breed, a Novelty wool

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For hundreds of years St.Kildans rowed from Hirta to Soay in the summer to collect fleece from the shedding native sheep that lived there. The rooed (hand plucked) wool they collected was taken back to Hirta to be processed later in the year. During the dark months of winter the fleece was taken from storage in the rafters and prepared for spinning and weaving. It was so soft it was often used for undergarments.    

Spinners today are still drawn to Soay wool because of its softness as well as its novelty and its color. One of the breeds most historic characteristics is its variability and this applies to its fleece as well. Deb Robson, former editor of Spin-Off magazine says "it is important not to generalize about all Soay based on any particular fleece or yarn you obtain" because of this variety. Fleeces can range from 9-48 microns in diameter. Staple lengths average two inches but can range from one to four inches. Soay are small, ewes weight about 55 pounds, rams about 80 pounds hence they only produce on average 3/4 to 2 pounds of wool annually. Ewes that do not lamb generally do not shed, leaving their fleece to grow another year. These will be heavier with longer staple lengths than normal. This is especially true if they have been supplemented over winter. Because these are double coated sheep, one of the primitive characteristics bred out of modern breeds, their wool is also ideal for felting.  

There are two basic colors of Soay: dark phase which is generally chocolate in color but can vary from light brown to black, and light phase which is various shades of tan. Very rarely white or white markings (piebald) do occur more so in husbanded flocks than in the wild. There are also two basic coat types, woolly and hairy but there are also those animals which are intermediate.  Hairy animals have straight hairs which are longer than the main fleece and are most evident when the sheep is in its full winter coat. Some animals also develop white stiff kemp hairs in their winter coats. When an animal is "rooed" rather than shorn the soft wool lifts off leaving the hairy fibers behind to fall off later. Those that are shorn however, retain the hairs in their fleece, which need to be removed in processing. "Woolly” sheep do not have these extra long hairs and at the extreme theirs is a very even textured coat. For descriptive photos of Soay fleece and its colors visit Soay: Colour and Coat Pattern in Soay Sheep.

In the past Southern Oregon Soay Farms has actively worked with Margaret B. Russell of Antrim Handweaving in Byfield, Massachusetts. A mutual concern for what is easily lost and often irreplaceable, whether it be a  breed of sheep or the art of handweaving, led to an ongoing collaborative effort to preserve both.  What grew out of a simple request for Soay fleece from a Massachusetts hand weaver to  an Oregon Soay breeder evolved into a bi-costal commitment to raise awareness, through its woven wool, of this most legendary breed of sheep. Margaret weaves a variety of different pieces; scarves, wraps, book-marks and table runners. Hand woven Soay pieces are available through her in a limited quantities. 

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Soay wall hanging (commemorative piece) and a Soay table runner           

For more information about Soay fleece Deb Robson and Carol Ekarius published The Fleece & Fiber Source Book, More than 200 Fibers from Animal to Spun Yarn In the summer of 2011 ISBN 978-1-60342-711-1. Their essay on Soay is the most comprehensive I have seen.

For more information about Soay wool and its processing see the
November and December 2010  and  December 2011 issues of Viewpoint

Collecting Fleece

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          Rooing a ewe
From the farm in Oregon ...

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              Shedding of the raw fleece begins around the neck and works it way down the back                                                                                        

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                                                                                          "Is mine in there?"
                                           rooed Soay wool ready for shipment

...to a "wee woolen wrap" in  Massachusetts

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           fleece is spun into yarn, in this case by Still River Mill in Eastford, CT and the yarn is woven into a  Soay wrap                                               photos by Margaret B. Russell, Antrim Handweaving         




Soay, an Environmentally Friendly Heritage Meat

The Soay has a variety of economic uses. In Great Britain it is a heritage breed valued for its lean meat which is tender and has an excellent gamey flavor. It has been prized by chefs in specialty restaurants in London and available in certified heritage breed meat shops throughout the UK for a number of years. Farmers in the US are beginning to discover that beyond their own home use, there are markets where Soay is in demand for special feast days and holiday celebrations. For those who do not wish to do their own butchering many towns have custom butchers who will come directly to the farm. They will handle the entire procedure and provide you with cut and wrapped meat for your freezer. By eighteen to twenty four months of age animals can reach a hanging weight of  twenty-five to forty pounds and the resulting small carcass is easy to handle and will not overload your freezer. To develop additional tenderness and flavor, just as you would with venison or elk, it should be hung longer than you would normally hang mutton or lamb.

Soay Recipes
There are many ways to cook Soay and while there are no cookbooks specific to Soay its meat can be substituted for any wild game or conventional lamb recipe. Because it has no surface fat, which makes it low in cholesterol, it is best covered or casseroled. 

Soay is now available retail in the US in extremely limited quantities in South Carolina.  

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