The Tiny Ouessant Sheep

The Ouessant (pronounced we-sahn) sheep is said to be the world's smallest breed of sheep.  Their homeland is the island of Ouessant, a small French island at the western end of the English Channel.  The legend is that they are the descendants of sheep left by the conquering Vikings.  Wherever they came from, the island's harsh weather and grim grazing caused them to evolve into a small, hardy sheep.

Black Ouessant Ram - ouessants-blogspot-com - Photo 911

Ouessant ram looks like a mini Big Horn Sheep.

And when I say small, I mean small.  Smaller than most dogs!  Rams stand about 19 inches tall at the shoulder and ewes are about 17 inches.  Mature weight is about 25 pounds, and lambs are typically about two pounds! It's said that lambs are so small you can fit one in your pocket.

Their small size makes them pretty much worthless for meat production.  Sure, you can eat any sheep (and the Ouessant islanders do eat them), but their daintiness makes the lamb chops so small it's hardly worth the effort.  In addition, they almost always have single births, and a commercial meat farmer wants his sheep to have twins or even triplets with each lambing.

So why bother?  For their wool!  Because of their small size they don't require much feed or space, but that little 25 pound sheep can produce a hefty three pounds of wool ... that's a lot for such a small sheep!  The wool has a long outer coat with a dense, soft undercoat. 

But their most striking feature is their color.  Most sheep breeds are primarily white, with an occasional black sheep.  But the Ouessant sheep are almost all black.  Deep, dark, gorgeous black!  This is the result of selective breeding by the islanders.

Married women traditionally wore black clothing in poor rural villages in much of Europe until the early 1900s.  Throughout the world most shepherds preferred white sheep because only white wool could be dyed using natural dyes (chemical dyes weren't invented until the mid-1800s).  Sure, the poor island women could have dyed white wool black, but why not just start with black wool to begin with!  So while most shepherds butchered black lambs before they could breed and pass on their recessive trait, the islanders kept the black sheep and allowed them to breed. 

Black Ouessant Lamb

A Ouessant sheep showing off
her fabulous coal black fleece.

Today the number of Ouessant sheep has dwindled.  Most Ouessants are kept as pets in groups of three or four sheep, not large commercial breeding flocks, and they are considered a rare breed.  But Ouessant owners insist that it is a great big pleasure raising those tiny frames!

ChiaoGoo Mini Twist Set

The folks at ChiaoGoo agree that great things come in small packages!  Their newest knitting needles, the "4" Twist Mini Set," is the tiniest interchangeable needle set available.  The versatile 4" needle tips give you the flexibility to make a 16 inch circular needle​.  And like the Ouessant islanders' selective breeding, ChiaoGoo has improved this "next generation" of needle tips with a solid (not hollow!) stainless steel needle, which makes the tips and threads stronger. 

Happy Knitting! ... Scout

The History of Yarrow Tartar?

Yarrow - Kohler's Medicinal - 1897

Yarrow as illustrated in Kohler's Medicinal, 1897

The worst part about going to the dentist is when they scrape the tartar from your teeth with that tiny little scraper.  ​I hate the way it sounds.  I hate the way it feels.  I hate everything about it ... 

Scientists have scraped the tartar from the 50,000 year old teeth of five Neanderthals found in Northern Spain.  Like your dentist, they used a scalpel to scrape the tartar, but instead of wiping it on your dental bib to be thrown away they used an electron microscope to study the tartar.  

We think of Neanderthals as meat-eating beasts, but they found little evidence of meat eating in the tartar and much more evidence of plant eating.  ​It could be that Neanderthals (or at least, this tribe or family) ate far less meat than we had suspected, or it could be that the meat just didn't leave a mark on their tartar as well as the plants did. 

They also found that many of the plants had been roasted.  Now, you're not going to go to the trouble to make a fire just to cook plants, so the roasted plants suggests that fire making was easy and common in the Neanderthal household.  You can imagine one Neanderthal saying to another "Hey, let's roast these veggies to make them tastier, since we already have a fire going anyway." 

Of the five Neanderthals, one had evidence of yarrow in his tartar.  The yarrow plant is a bitter herb with no nutritional value - so you wouldn't choose yarrow just to snack on.  ​But yarrow has been used medicinally for centuries ... dating back to ancient Greece.  In Western Europe and China it was used both as a healing herb and as a magical herb used for divination. So while we knew that yarrow had a long history, no one knew how exactly how long, until now. The yarrow in the tartar of this 50,000 year old Neanderthal's teeth is the oldest direct evidence of herbal medication.

Which makes you wonder why this Neanderthal was eating yarrow.  Yarrow is an astringent and anti-inflammatory herb.  Taken internally, yarrow aids in digestion by acting on the gallbladder and liver.  It also improves circulation and can help urinary infections.  We don't know the sex of the yarrow-eating Neanderthal, but yarrow can also soothe menstrual cramps and reduce excessive menstrual bleeding. 

Yarrow, by Walter Siegmund

Pretty yarrow flowers!
Photo by Walter Siegmund.

But yarrow is best known for its use as a battlefield medicine and is sometimes called the "Soldier's Herb" for it's ability to stop a bleeding battlefield wound (and by "battlefield wound" I mean knife and sword injuries, not gunshot).  When applied externally to a wound, the plant's feathery leaves slow the bleeding and help with clotting, while the herb's antibiotic and anti-inflammatory compounds prevent infections. 

In France yarrow is known "herbe de St. Joseph."  According to legend, St. Joseph injured himself while working in his carpentry shop and young Jesus brought him yarrow to stop the bleeding.  The scientific name of yarrow is "Achillea millefolium," named after the Greek warrior Achilles.  Achilles himself was invulnerable to any wounds (except, of course, for his "Achilles Heel"), but he was said to use yarrow to stop the bleeding of his fellow warriors after a battle. 

"Millefolium" means thousands of flowers, because on top of its legendary history and medicinal properties - yarrow is just plain pretty!  With the delicate feather-like soft green leaves topped off with a cluster of tiny white flowers, you'll wish you could wear yarrow.  Well, now you can!  FiberWild's new Yarrow Tunic is a summer-weight pullover with feather-patterned lace at the neckline and bottom. 

P.S.  We call the Yarrow Tunic a "full coverage" garment, which is a polite way of saying that your bra won't show through a bunch of lacy holes across your chest.  The Yarrow Tunic has a stockinette stitch body, with lace only on the neckline and bottom. 

Happy Knitting! ... Scout

Cool Toes for Flip Flops!

Doctors in early America realized that yellow fever was more prevalent in warm climates and cooler weather reduced the number of cases.  So the thinking was that cooling the air would cure yellow fever ... but how could one cool the air during the heat of summer?

Cutting Ice

A 19th century ice team cutting ice.

In 1844 Dr. John Gorrie, a Florida doctor, experimented with air cooling systems. He hung trays of ice along the ceiling of his sick rooms.  Warm air rises and cold air falls, so the warm air would rise to the ceiling where it was cooled by the trays of ice.  Then the cold air would fall, where it cooled the patient in his sick bed.  As the ice cooled the room Dr. Gorrie assumed he would cure his patients of yellow fever.

His air cooling system required a lot of ice, but it's not easy to find ice in Florida! It was common in the northern states to cut ice from ponds and lakes in the winter, then store the ice in a well insulated building called an "ice house" for use in the summer.  Dr. Gorrie purchased ice from the northern states and had it shipped down to Florida.  The time and labor involved in cutting, storing and shipping the ice made it very expensive.  When supplies ran low and prices went even higher, Dr. Gorrie decided to create his own ice. Following vapor compression technology that had been developed in the 1830s, he created an ice making machine in 1844 and received a patent for his invention in 1851.

Ice House - The Official Gazette of the US Patent Office - 1895

Plans for a very well insulated Ice House, 1895.

Everyone was cured of yellow fever, right?  Well, no.  Dr. Gorrie's primitive form of air conditioning made his patients more comfortable with the cooler air, but they were not cured. His patients were dying just as frequently as the patients of doctors who didn’t use his air cooling system.  Today doctors know that yellow fever is a virus spread by mosquitoes.  Yellow fever is more common in warmer climates because mosquitoes thrive in warm weather - not because of the air temperature itself. 

Dr. Gorrie's ice making machine made him an enemy of the wealthy and powerful "Ice King" Frederic Tudor.  Tudor was an American businessman who became a pioneer in the international ice trade.  He made his fortune by cutting ice from his home in New England and then shipping it to the Caribbean, Europe and India.  An ice making machine would drive Tudor out of business!

At the same time Dr. Gorrie also received moral criticism for his invention.  Only God could make ice - did Dr. Gorrie think he was better than God?  How dare he make man-made ice instead of using the natural ice that the Good Lord had provided for us!  It has been suggested that Frederic Tudor may have been behind the moral objections to Dr. Gorrie's ice making machine.

Considering himself a failure, Dr. Gorrie died in 1855 almost 100 years before air modern conditioning became a part of everyday life.

Do you want cool toes?  You could hang trays of ice from the ceiling like Dr. Gorrie, but a more attractive solution is to knit the Flip Floppers toe-less socks.  Show off a pedicure, play "This Little Piggy Went to Market", and wear your favorite flip flops with this cool summertime project! This KAL starts July 6th with Katie Rempe!

Happy Knitting! ... Scout

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