Throughout history, black sheep haven’t gotten a lot of love.
Their dark coats, the product of a recessive gene, make them easily stand out from the rest of the flock.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, black sheep were culled because of their color or, at the very least, considered lesser producers since their dark wool couldn’t be dyed.
So prevalent was the distaste, that even today an outsider might be referred to as “the black sheep of the family.”
But in the world of hand-spun yarn, these under-appreciated ruminants are making a comeback.
John and Carol Steitz, of Whitefish, operate Steitzhof Merinos, where they specialize in raising a full spectrum of colored sheep, including black, gray and brown. While traditional mills often prefer uniform white wool, a growing population of fiber artists have taken a liking to these unique colors. Steitzhof Merinos wool is gaining a following and has been sold to hand-spinners and other artists from across the U.S. and even Norway.
Earlier this month, the couple traveled to Eugene, Oregon, for the Black Sheep Gathering, the premier fiber arts show in the West, to see how their flock’s fleeces compared with other producers.
They didn’t come home empty-handed.
The couple was awarded the Black Sheep Cup, the highest honor for producers of hand-spinning fleeces. The Steitzes are also the first Montanans to take home the honor.
“I was a bit in shock, truthfully, because there’s so many good breeders there,” John said. “We’re really excited about bringing this big cup home to Montana. To us it’s the king state of wool, really. It’s not — but it is to us.”
In addition to the cup, they walked away with awards for individual fleeces, including the grand champion and reserve champion for the best natural colored fleece in the show, along with the supreme champion from the Natural Colored Wool Growers Association.
Carol said judges looked for qualities that make the wool good for hand-spinning, such as cleanliness, strength, consistency and length of the fibers. Approximately 500 fleeces were entered in the show in around 40 categories, John said.
To make sure their sheep produce the best wool they can grow, the Steitzes feed them a diet rich in protein and put the sheep in jackets to keep their coats as clean as possible. The sheep are sheared just once a year and the top coats are selected for the competition.
Carol said the wins help the family market their wool to far-off buyers who aren’t able to see the wool in person before buying.
“They can’t come and touch it and feel it, but it’s a way of telling them that it’s a quality product,” Carol said.
Win or lose, the couple simply enjoys the experience of raising animals and the exciting challenge of making the best wool they can.
“This is something that a smaller guy can do. There’s no way for us to go big doing what we do because it’s too much labor, but we can do it small,” John said. “It’s a great thing for us to work on because its changing everyday, it’s never boring … we’re trying to make something better together and we each have input into that. I think that alone is a huge thing.”
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss can be reached at (406) 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meet one of the couple’s Merino sheep during the Fiberfest Eureka, Aug. 2-4, at the Lincoln County Fairgrounds in Eureka. To learn more about the Steitzhof Merinos, visit the website at www.steitzhof.com.