A skein of Looney Tunis 1 Ply Worsted Weight
Looney Tunis 1 Ply Worsted Weight knitted up and washed
click each image to enlarge

Yarn Profile: Looney Tunis Wool

First Impressions
The Tunis sheep is one of the oldest indigenous sheep breeds in the United States. It dates back to 1799, when the Bey of Tunis shipped 10 unsuspecting Middle Eastern fat-tailed sheep as a gift. Only two rams survived the journey, but they were carefully bred with Longwools and Southdowns and eventually the Tunis breed was born.

It's an unusually beautiful sheep, with a slightly oblong, cinnamon-colored face that's sweet and expressive. The fleece is a light cream color that gets brighter as the animal ages. The fiber's generous staple length and demiluster reflect the Longwool influence, while an overall springiness and body may well be a sign of the Southdown genes.

As popular as this breed may be, finding a millspun Tunis yarn isn't all that easy. I discovered Looney Tunis wool while hunting down yarns for our Knitter's Book of Wool monthly Woolalong. This yarn comes from a small farm called B&Y Farms, located in the Finger Lakes region of New York. While Judy Genova had been working the farm since 1991, the sheep didn't arrive until 2008, when she and husband Allan Freedman welcomed five sheep to their menagerie.

Today they tend a flock of purebred registered Tunis sheep. When I heard that they sent their fibers to the Green Mountain Spinnery in Vermont for minimal processing and spinning, I knew I had to give them a try. I've yet to meet a Green Mountain Spinnery-spun yarn I didn't like.

Judy and Allan decided to add a small amount of alpaca to make the yarn softer and less threatening to the itch-resistant. They also liked the slight "zing" that the alpaca gave to the off-white Tunis fibers, producing a yarn with a pleasantly heathered, milky coffee color.

The Web site currently offers a worsted-weight 1-Ply and a sock-weight 2-Ply version of Looney Tunis, but there's also a 3-Ply worsted-weight version available. This review focuses on the 1-Ply, although I also swatched the 3-Ply.

Knitting Up
Structurally speaking, the 1-Ply looks like a singles but is actually composed of three extremely fine strands of fiber that are gently twisted together—standard fare for most so-called "singles" yarns. It's very similar to Green Mountain Spinnery's Mountain Mohair. This singles construction gives greater strength and stability to something that could otherwise be too fragile and unbalanced for standard knitting.

After a tragic start with a too-pointy pair of Signature Needle Arts circulars that stabbed nearly every stitch they saw, I switched to blunt-tipped bamboo needles and got underway.

The yarn slipped easily through my hands, feeling like a smooth and softer Lopi but still with spunk and character. It may just be my knitting style, but on several occasions my working yarn came un-twisted and even my dull-tipped bamboo needle instinctively headed for one or two of those three strands before I could correct its course and grab the whole thing. I did not trust my needles by touch alone.

The label doesn't give a recommended needle size or gauge. In the 1-Ply I got 5 stitches and 6.5 rows per inch on US 6 (4.0mm) needles. The 3-Ply felt finer, so I used a US 5 (3.75mm) needle to get 5 stitches and 7.5 rows per inch. Obviously everyone's gauge will vary, but those are some ballpark numbers to start.

Blocking / Washing
Part of the beauty of Green Mountain Spinnery processing is that it doesn't use any harsh abrasives or chemical detergents that could strip the wool of its natural oils. What you get still smells strongly of sheep—not the nasty barnyard part but the enticing lanolin scent.

Because this yarn hasn't yet been dyed, it has more residual oils still in the yarn, including any oil that was added during spinning. Both the 1- and 3-Ply swatches emerged from their warm soapy washes happy and transformed, the fibers lightened and beautifully bloomed into place.

The general rule that twist equals energy certainly applies here. The fabric made from the 3-Ply version was extraordinarily strong. It would not pill to save its life.

Even the 1-Ply, once the fabric has been washed and the fibers allowed to settle in place, was pleasantly cohesive and durable. It still met its abrasion match eventually, but it put up quite a fight.

Right off the bat, I know this yarn won't appeal to everybody. For starters, it only comes in one color, a melange of natural sheep and alpaca. But that can be easily remedied with a little Kool Aid or any other friendly acid dye if you're so inclined.

Second, it's also not the softest skein on the market. But as I've said before, if we only give our fingers a steady diet of the super-soft finewools, that's all they'll ever know to crave. Try it for outerwear, like hats or mittens, and give your fingers a chance to refine their sense of the subtle.

And third, cost might come into play. If you just look at the price tag without considering yardage, $25 per skein might seem steep. But each skein's 274-yard put-up is quite generous.

In terms of what to to knit, this yarn would do a splendid job of Jared Flood's Seneca cabled yoke pullover, the medium size of which would need five skeins to complete. If you wanted a stronger-wearing version with higher-relief cables, email Judy and see if she has more of the 3-Ply worsted.

If you tightened up the gauge a little, you'd also have a gorgeous version of Laura Grutzeck's Essential Cardigan in either the 1- or 3-ply worsted yarns. The medium-sized version of this cardigan also takes five skeins and would likely provide enough leftovers for a pair of mitts.

I'm glad to know that people like Judy and Allan are out there raising sheep and trying to make a nice yarn out of their fibers. I appreciate that they chose Tunis, because it's a breed worth saving—and knitting. The fiber has strength and character without being flat-out scratchy or abrasive. And how fun is it to know you're touching a bit of history that even Thomas Jefferson enjoyed?

 Talk about this yarn in our forums