Which came first? The chicken or the proto-chicken?

chicken, rooster, hen

In my post about mittens, I mentioned something about using the yarns local to you. I know right now it is a very popular thing to knit with yarns from Norway, Denmark, and Scotland. No arguments from me! I love those yarns, too. Rauma, Jamieson and Smith, Istex Lett-Lopi, and I have been fast friends for a very long time. About three decades, truth be told. But what about our own local yarns made from our own home-grown sheep? The well-known and historic Briggs and Little Woollen Mill comes to mind.

Tied in with this local sheep concept is knitting tradition. The Scottish Isles are renowned for their fine lace shawls and beautiful Fair Isle stranded colourwork. Gorgeous cabled sweaters are a recent hallmark of Ireland which were derived from beautifully textured fishermen jerseys from the coast of Britain and the Channel Islands. Iceland has beautifully coloured yokes but with bolder motifs displayed in fewer colours than their neighbouring Shetland. Norway has a colourwork tradition as well but with still fewer colours, usually only two. Sweden has twined knitting, Austria, twisted stitches… all of these different ways to create warmth using wool*, with air pockets built into dense, intricate texture or two air-trapping layers made by the floats of stranded knitting. (Please realise this is a small smattering of regions to compare while I know there are so many more in our vast world).

But I ask you the age old question: which came first? The chicken or the proto chicken? The knitting tradition or the dictates of native sheep’s fleece characteristics?

This is a lock from my batch of Dalapals fleece. Josefin Waltin studied this breed of sheep and its fleece at length. I encourage you to see her post, if you are interested. 

As I was examining a few grams of raw Dalapals I had purchased from Sweden, this question quietly floated towards my consciousness. The wool is gorgeous. It is soft, wavy, double-coated, lustrous, crisp… In appearance, the locks were akin to Cotswold with their lustre and wave but they were short, about 7cm with some longer and, unlike Cotswold, they were fine and soft and had some bounce when spun. As I fondled this lovely fibre, it told me that it would show up best as a worsted prep and in texture but not texture like cables. Twisted stitches like in Austria. Or twined knitting… this is when that question that had slowly been making its way to my conscious brain finally broke the surface.

Did our ancestors base their sweater making upon the qualities of the sheep’s wool they had on hand? Did a tradition come about due to a perfect match between keeping warm and fleece features? Does Canada have a tradition all its own or have we simply brought those knitting traditions – and sheep – here? Have they altered at all, due to locally available wool? We talk so much about trade influence, particularly with the similar motifs between Norway and Shetland. And I am sure that happened but what about the deciding factor of sheep breeds? Did twined knitting become the usual way to keep warm due to the wool characteristics of sheep like the Dalapals or Gotland?

Twined mittens designed by Beth Brown-Reinsel
An example of the twisting cables and texture of Aran sweaters

Ireland’s native sheep breed is the conservation breed Galway. They are white sheep. Notice that today, Ireland is not renowned for multi-coloured designs but instead for their beautiful use of a single coloured sheep. The fleece on these white sheep is medium-long with a fine texture. They were developed by an importation of British Longwool sheep in the 18th Century. A very suitable wool for three-ply cabled sweaters.

Scottish Isles have the famous Shetland sheep with their array of six natural colours (black, grey, light grey, moorit, fawn, and white). Is it any wonder they created their warm sweaters with stranded knitting, finding ways to showcase their myriad of shades by artfully using all of the natural colours in banded motifs? And what about that soft neck wool for those unbelievably fine wedding ring lace shawls…?

On the left is the Rosemary Shawl by Gladys Amedro, knit in one-ply cobweb.

On the right is the Lynsey Jumper by Joyce Ward, knit in the natural sheep colours in  Jamieson and Smith’s Shetland Supreme Jumper Weight

Iceland’s Lopapeysa (yoke pullovers) use fewer colours in their stranded yokes (black, brown, grey, and white) while Norway’s tradition is to use just two colours, historically white and black/blue, white and red. What colours are their native sheep? Not red, obviously, although I read where their older types of Gamalnorsk and Villsau have shades of grey, known as blue, and brown, known as red. (So, they did have ‘red’ sheep!) But again, single-coloured sheep with high contrast variations such as black and white supporting the two-colour theory.

An Icelandic lopapeysa designed by Helen Magnusson
The traditional Norwegian setesdal motif

As you can see, it is an interesting question, one I have not read about from this angle. I would like to explore this further as there is so much to learn! In the spirit of my quest are the following books for me to read:

One is the newly published Unravelling Canada: a Knitting Odyssey by Sylvia Olsen. She is renowned for her work with Coast Salish knitters and, it turns out, what may be our only home-grown knitting tradition. 

As for the Swedish Sheep breeds and twined knitting and such, Josefin Waltin is a co-author of the book, Knit (Spin) Sweden: a Different Kind of Travel Book.

Finally, there is A Short History of the World According to Sheep, by Sally Coulthard.

Will any of these sources deal with my question? I don’t know. If anyone knows of anything, please provide it in the comments. In the meantime, I have some interesting reading ahead of me as I ponder this age-old question.

~ Robin

*Wool or other protein fibres such as llama, alpaca, goats (cashmere and Orenburg), angora, musk-ox, bison, camel down, and silk.

6 thoughts on “Which came first? The chicken or the proto-chicken?”

    1. Thank you for your validation. This post has been sitting in the ‘draft bin’ for some months. I wrote it because the thought kept me awake at night but it didn’t feel like a legitimate theory. But, to quote Sylvia Olsen in her book mentioned above, who was quoting Albert Einstein: “If an idea does not seem absurd at first, there is no point to pursuing it.”

      1. Albert is quite right. Those seemingly absurd ideas sometimes teach the most interesting of things.

        Wonderful article! And interestingly, I have recently added two of the listed books to my library and will enjoy reading them and seeing what your take is on them as well.

  1. Don’t forget rug making traditions which seem to have flourished in areas with “wool” producing animals that lend themselves to sturdy rugs.

    1. Yes, that wasn’t even anything I considered as I was thinking of clothing to keep warm. I guess the addition of wool rugs would add to the insulation properties of homes and aid in maintaining a comfortable ambient indoor temperature in winter. Also, back to clothing, the Coast-Salish knitters took their traditional rug-making motifs to their sweaters when they learnt to knit from the British colonists.

  2. I think there’s a lot to what you say. I’ve always admired how traditional knitters put a lot of ingenuity into making knit garments warmer by making the fabric thicker, within the constraints of the materials on hand. For example, iwith all white wool (Ireland) knitters developed cables and other heavy textures as a way of thickening the fabric–all that texture makes more air pockets to trap warm air. For another example, as you say: stranded knitting in color patterns requires two colors of sheep (at a minimum). With this possibility, you get stranding which makes the wool warmer by making the fabric double-thick.

    It is a most interesting question and I’ll be looking forward to future installments of what your chicken/egg research will show.

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