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The Rambouillet breed of sheep got its name from the estate of Louis XVI in France, just SW of Paris, where he bred these sheep.
Louis XVI’s original stock were merino sheep that were gifted from his cousin, King Charles of Spain in 1786. This “gifting” was significant because it was the first time Spain allowed its prized merino sheep outside its borders. Originally these merino sheep came to Spain with the Moors of N. Africa & because their fleece was so fine and dense compared to the typical European sheep of the time, the Spanish kept a tight control on their breeding so they could demand high prices for the wool.
King Louis of France carefully bred these Spanish merino with an English longwool breed for a single generation & then bred these offspring back to his Spanish merino stock. From that point onwards, the Rambouillet were kept “pure” from mingling and crossbreeding with other breeds. The single breeding to English longwool introduced greater length to the wool without compromising its’ softness. As you can see from the photo here, a lock of Rambouillet (pictured right) is far longer thanthe Merino lock (left), yet is still very fine & has exhibits the same lovely crimpiness.
As Spain’s power in the world declined, their once prized sheep made their way to the New World and farther afield where they were bred haphazardly. This “diluted” them genetically over the decades and their fiber became less desirable.
So ultimately it was only the merino sheep at Rambouillet, where efforts were made to keep them “pure”, that preserved the fine original characteristics of these early Spanish merinos (with just a longer staple)!
Because of the divergence & decline of the Merino breed, in 1889 it was decided that the line from Rambouillet should be considered its own breed, apart and distinct from Merino (which although beautiful today, were a rather motley crew at the turn of the century!).
Some still refer to Rambouillets as Rambouillet Merino, but the breed now has it’s own registry and breeding association. The Rambouillet yarn we currently stock is Swan's Island Rambouillet
Ironically, to return the Merino breed to the fine quality it was under Spanish control, most Merinos worldwide had to be crossed back to the herd at Rambouillet to regain the fine characteristics they had lost in the 1800s!
Because of this “back breeding” to the Rambouillet herd in the late 1800s, many of the large range flocks of merino in the western US actually have Rambouillet in them.
Like Merino, Rambouillet has lots of crimp (the tiny little zig-zaginess that you saw in the previous photo. This crimp is what makes it so springy and elastic. This springiness makes it very insulating. The fineness of this Rambouillet makes it nice for next to the skin garments.
Rambouillet can be 19 - 24 microns (most commercially available merino is in the 18 - 22 micron range, as well).
I'm knitting this sweater using the Swan Island Rambo and enjoying the process immensely. The way this yarn is dyed lends it a subtle tonality which gives the fabric a nice richness. It is dyed with chemical dyes - not the natural dyes many of Swan Island Yarns are known for. I say this because quite a few customers have had trouble with the naturally dyed Swan Island yarns running - but this yarn is chemically dyed and set just fine. I've had none coming off on my hands as I knit.