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The True Magic of Karakuls

Originally published in the Winter 1995 issue of The Fiberfest Magazine.

Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep and doesn't know where to find them; leave them alone and they'll come home, dragging their tails behind them.

Little Bo-Peep's sheep must have been Karakuls--many of them literally do drag their tails behind them, and they always come home, especially at dinner time.

Karakuls are mysterious, fat-tailed sheep. In times of plenty they are able to store huge amounts of energy in the form of fat in their tails, and use it in times of lean. Some of the fatty deposits become so large, in fact, that the tail almost reaches the ground. But in reality, the tail doesn't get so large that it needs a wheeled cart to carry it, as those sheep tails in the nursery rhyme might.

Karakuls were originally imported from Russia into Canada, and many died in quarantine or were of poor quality. The Russian sheep first arrived in 1908, and the last Karakul importation came from Germany in 1929. Eventually, only about 87 pure Karakuls, mostly rams, were imported into the United States through Canada. These imported black Karakul rams were bred with local ewes of other breeds, and as a result the American Karakuls are likely to carry some Lincoln, Tunis, Navajo, or other blood and come in a wide range of colors. More information about the breed itself, as well as a breeder list, can be obtained from the American Karakul Sheep Registry.

Many of the American Karakuls have retained the characteristics of their Bokhara desert ancestors--fleetness of foot, hardiness, and the ability to survive. Karakuls are fur sheep and are probably the oldest of our present day breeds. Dating back centuries before Christ in their native home in Russian Turkestan (central Asia) where they were originally domesticated, they survived by grazing vast mountainous desert areas and evading wolves, wild dogs, and poachers.

Over millennia, this little fat-tailed fur sheep probably benefited humans more than any other breed, contributing fur, meat, wool, fat (oil), and milk. Strong, lustrous, long jet black Karakul wool has traditionally been used in the production of the finest carpets and Persian rugs.

Robert Nabours, a National Geographic writer who visited Bokhara in 1914, discovered that Karakul breeding stock was selected almost exclusively on the appearance of the quality of fur at birth, regardless of their adult features. The retention of an individual in the flock, especially a ram, depended on the value of the pelts of his progeny.

Karakuls are the only fur bearing sheep known. At birth the lambs have a lustrous coat of fur instead of wool covering their bodies. This fur coat on the newborn Karakul lamb once gave the markets of the world the highly prized and popular fur known as Persian Lamb and Broadtail, famous for its beauty and durability. Once of major economic importance, these pelts fell out of fashion after World War II when there was no longer an outlet for them in the United States.

Karakul Pelts

According to experts, pelt quality in a newborn Karakul should still be the standard quality indicator. Author Lowry Hagerman states in The Karakul Handbook, "Luster in the fur is reflected in natural luster in the mature fleece and in the head and leg hair. The most lustrous mature animals are those that most probably carried the most lustrous fur as lambs."

And when selecting ewe lambs, Hagerman suggests: "pick out the small curled ones of good quality. Pay particular attention to texture, density, and luster as well as general type. Other factors being equal, select the largest lambs; they will grow out into the largest ewes, make the best mothers, and produce the largest lambs and pelts."

Interestingly, Hagerman tells of a certain imported ram who carried a very strong white spotting gene and produced many black lambs with white spots, as did their offspring. So watch for that black Karakul lamb with a white poll or tip on the tail. It could well be a direct descendant of that ram Hagerman described years ago.

Karakul Characteristics

Although the list of Karakul characteristics and attributes is impressive, even so they are considered a minor breed with rare status. They are extra hardy, and can stand extremes of either hot or cold. As browsers they utilize sub-marginal lands that other sheep cannot. While not considered a mutton sheep, they do produce a delicate meat with excellent texture and flavor. They are out of season breeders, and the ewes are easy lambers and excellent mothers. The enamel forming the outer coating of the Karakul's teeth is supposedly harder than that of most other breeds, giving them a longer useful life. But their unique attribute is the breathtaking beauty of the fur pelt on a newborn lamb.

Karakul sheep are athletic, fascinating creatures. Perhaps more goat-like than ordinary sheep, they are real survivors. Jeff Black's report, Karakul Sheep in the United States and Canada, calls them beautiful and stately animals, aesthetically pleasing and a classic example of an ancient breed with historical significance.

In common breeds the color white is dominant over black, but in the Karakul black is dominant over any other color, including white, which occurs rarely. The Karakul fleece comes in every color imaginable; even spotted or variegated colors are common. Coarse and carpet-like, their fleece is also strong, long-stapled, and lightweight. It is also high yielding and often double coated, with excellent felting and spinning qualities.

In an article in Spin-Off Magazine, Linda Walker says she considers variety of color the most outstanding attribute of Karakul wool, and she suggests using the multicolored fleeces to spin variegated yarns. She also suggests that "in order to preserve as much of the various colors in a fleece, do not card; lightly tease or comb, and then spin." Ellen Champion in her 1989 article in Spin-Off tells how she used Karakul fleeces in three shades of brown to weave beautiful rugs. Another expert, Mary Jane Coble, taught a braided rug making technique workshop at Fiberfest, the Forum, using Karakul roving.

Mary Iselin in her article for Black Sheep Newsletter, "Felt Making: the Magic of Karakul," says that Karakul is definitely a wonderful wool. She believes that we just need to understand it and use it for those things it has done best since at least 6500 BC.

The true magic of Karakul is not only in felt making and spinning; it goes deeper; it goes back to the beautiful, graceful, mysterious, fat-tailed fur sheep of the desert.

References

American Karakul Sheep Registry, Rey Perera, 11500 Highway 5, Boonville, MO 65233.

Jeffrey E. Black, "Karakul Sheep in the United States and Canada," Small Farm Today, 12:20, 1995.

Linda Berry Walker, "Know Your SHeep Breeds: Karakul," Spin-Off, 13:27, 1989.

Ellen Champion, "Karakul: A Tale of Three Rugs," Spin-Off, 12:28, 1989.

Lawry Hagerman, The Karakul Handbook, and The Karakul Fur Sheep Registry, 1951.

Mary Iselin, "Felt Making: The Magic of Karakul," The Black Sheep Newsleter, 74:1, 1993.

Robert K. Nabours, "Land of the Lambskins," The National Geographic Magazine, 36:77, 1914.

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