While most people recognize the name Wensleydale, it’s usually because of the cheese. However, there is no real connection between the two, other than the fact that the both originated from the Wensleydale area of Yorkshire. A large number of British sheep names are derived from the area they originated from. This is true of the Wensleydale sheep.
So many sheep breed origins are shrouded in guess work and mystery, but the Wensleydale sheep have the unique distinction of identifying not only the foundation ram, named Bluecap, but also his parentage. Bluecap was born in 1839 in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire from a Leicester ram and a longwool ewe (predecessor of the Teeswater sheep) from the River Tees region. His qualities that identified the breed were his blue skin and large body with a heavy fleece. The breed was actually not named until 1876 when it became required to participate in the Yorkshire sheep show.
The Wensleydale breed was developed to provide rams for cross breeding with other English breeds to increase their size, wool length and fertility in the ewe progeny. The wool from the Wensleydale sheep is among the finest of the longwools and the high luster makes this a highly sought after fleece.
Whether in the field or in the show ring, the Wensleydale sheep have a considerable presence. The carriage of their large body, distinctive blue skin on face, ears and legs and their long ringlet fleece add to their dramatic look. They have a forelock of wool on the top of their head and are hornless.
Although the majority of Wensledale sheep are white they do also come in colors. While rarer to find, there are some black and grey Wensleydale sheep.
Long silky and shiny ringlet locks typify the Wensleydale fleece. Possibly the most unique characteristic of the Wensleydale wool is the absence of kemp or guard hairs. This is from their unique wool producing follicles. This makes their wool silky and softer to the touch than the micron count would suggest. This kemp free quality is also genetically passed down from a Wensleydale ram to the offspring of cross bred ewes.
image source: http://wensleydale-sheep.com/?page_id=34
Another desirable quality of the Wensleydale fleece is the consistent quality and uniformity of the fleece from back to belly. This allows for a greater fleece yield in comparison to other breeds as wool from the belly is normally discarded because it is shorter and/or not the same quality as wool from the back.
It also has the distinction of fetching the highest price longwool fleece in the British Wool Boards Wool auction in 2011.
Wensleydale wool produces a strong, silky yarn with drape and shine. The long staple length contributes to the strength and durability of the yarn. The wool dyes beautifully. Woven, knit or crocheted, Wensleydale is a beautiful wool to work with.