Yes, I know it’s December, but what I don’t know is ‘Where has this year has gone?’ That aside, this 3rd instalment of my ‘Wovember’ inspired series introducing local to me Italian sheep breeds and yarns is spotlighting the Gentile di Puglia sheep. Gentile di Puglia is one of Italy’s ‘merino type’ sheep breeds and is recognised as a wool sheep.
It is often argued to have been developed from the 15th century onwards through breeding Spanish merino rams with local Carfagna ewes in the province of Foggia and is now found across Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria and other southern regions of what is now Italy, although at that time was under the rule of Spanish regional monarchs.
By the 15th century, the wealth of the Florentine wool trade was well established having been built on high quality wool from England and controlled rigorously by the Guild, the Arte della Lana. However, from the late 1330s, British monarchs imposed exorbitant export duties on the best quality wool, such that by the early 1500s very little British wool was imported into Italy. This along with Britain’s increasing focus on meat to the detriment of wool quality are seen as driving the improvement of indigenous sheep as an alternative source of wool, with the prized Spanish merino at the heart of these endeavours.
As always the story is a little more complicated. With English monarchical duties imposed to favour the export of finished luxury cloth, on which the duties were low, rather than the raw wool, and the meatier sheep with a longer coarser staple that suited the processes of enclosure, they were also ideal for the development of worsted cloth and draperies that became favoured over the woollen fabrics made with the finer shorter staple wools, it is argued that eve this local improvement did not enable effective competition with the English wooden trade.
All this said, I have also read that the Gentile di Puglia dates back to Roman times when the soft fleece was used for the togas of Roman citizens. As such these authors suggest that there are grounds for claiming that the Gentile di Puglia, rather than emanating from the Spanish merino, instead was itself the origin of Spanish merino moving from Italy via North Africa to Spain. The story above is the one I have come across most often and those who challenge it acknowledge that this has been the dominant narrative for centuries.
The evidence they bring to bear predates the Aragonese occupation of the Kingdom of Naples and includes documentation that evidences a movement of rams from Puglia to Spain from the first century onwards rather than vice versa, classifications of fine Apulian wool by Roman writers such as Pliny and Virgil, and archaeological finds from the roman period that appear to depict the Gentile di Puglia sheep.
Moreover these latter authors suggest that Florentine records from the 1300s shows fine southern wool already available at 70 lire compared the 100 of the precious English wool and the 50 of the fine Barbary wool, while further documents produced between the 12th and 14th centuries by Florentine and Prato import companies evaluate the fine Apulian wool at the same level as the precious fine wool of Majorca. As such they believe a fine southern Apulian wool to be available and in circulation long before the effects of any possible improvement the introduction of the Spanish merino narrative could have achieved.
Finally they also question whether the required expertise for sheep improvement lay with the Aragonese Monarchy, arguing instead that the expertise with regard to sheep husbandry lay with the muslim occupiers of the Iberian peninsula who they argue were the ‘masters’ of wool until expelled from Spain from 1492.
There often seems to be doubt and compellingly contradictory origin stories of sheep breeds especially given the mobility and trade in sheep and their products across Europe and North Africa over centuries.
However, what is certain is that it was the sheer plumpness of the wool in the skein (and the colours) that drew me to this stall. Only after they had drawn me in did I realise the colours were dyed by Raffaella of La Piantalana. I’ve bought Raffaella’s yarn before and admired the colours she had created on a non superwash merino base. Here with the plumper more matt finish of the Gentile di Puglia she had again developed a wonderful palette of colours.
The base yarn is from the organic Gentile di Puglia flock of the Azienda Fratelli Carrino based in Foggia, the original home of the breed. These sheep continue the long tradition of vertical transhumance, going up into the mountains in May for the cooler summer weather than better grazing where they breed before returning to lower ground for the winter and to lamb. If you want to have a look at these sheep, Raffaella has a saved Instagram stories highlight from earlier this year showing the departure of the sheep at sunrise through local towns onto their arrival in the mountains with great views of the plains along the way. Don’t forget to keep the sound on so you can hear the sheep bells.
While at one time prior to the unification of Italy the numbers of Gentile di Puglia were counted in their million, there are now less than 4000 in the national flock and thus they are deemed at risk of extinction. The ewes are regarded as fertile, and the twin lambing rate is 20%.
While the Tingola sheep of my previous post have droopy ears, the Gentile’s ears tend to stick out sideways at a right angle to the head.
Their white fleece, with a with no guard hairs grows in tufts over the whole body down the forehead and on the cheeks. the staple length is about 6 cm and the wool very crimpy with a micron count of 19.
While developed for its wool, increasingly there is also a focus on meat and establishing the dual purpose credentials of the sheep, itself part of the process of valorisation required to build an economically sustainable model to the preserve the flock and support economic development in rural areas.
And of course, I had to make my contribution to this conservation effort with the purchase of 3 of these wonderful squishy skeins of beautifully dyed wool.
I chatted to Raffaella of La Piantalana for a while and it was clear how proud she is of the sheep from her home region and the Carrino sheep’s wool, and rightly so, it’s stunning. If you go to Raffaella’s Etsy shop she has some sets of bulky Gentile di Puglia available along with some wonderful non superwash merino in her usual stunning colour palette and currently also some stunning rainbow sets. I hope you’ll love her colours as much as I do.
At the Fierucola I bought 3 skeins, initially I was too moderate and just bought 2, but then found myself drawn back for a third. It was only later did I see that the 3 skeins I bought were the same 3 that were at the front of that stall when I took my first picture!
On the left we have Dyer’s Camomile, Indigo in the centre, and Pomegranate with Indigo on the right. Such strong saturated colours. I can’t wait to knit with these skeins. I have an idea of what approach I want to take to combine the colours but need to work them up in a little more detail before I’m ready to cast on.
Have you got something that you’re itching to get onto the needles? If so I’d love to hear about it.
For now, Happy Knitting and we’ll speak soon. Take care,
p.s. we’re just finishing our crate of new season Sicilian citrus so it seems apt to remind you that you can download PDFs of both my candied peel and fudge recipes if you’re looking for edible gifts.