Sheep are the largest contingent of domesticated animal on the Tibetan plateau. It is said there are about 20,000 in the small village of Ritoma, owned by 200 families. They are everywhere, light spots on the hills around us, moving in the distance like a tide of insects. They are quick to devour the grass, and when the numbers become too high, there is not enough to go around, and they don’t survive the harsh spring. Unfortunately, the local sheep’s wool is very coarse and used only for felting into mats, stuffing boots and matrasses or weaving the rough fabrics the nomads use for drying cheese.
Ritoma sheep are very large, and newcomers mistaken them for goats. They have extensive horns that come in all shapes; rounded, cork screwed, straight, or curlicue. Their owners learn to identify them by their horns. People say they are a breed mixed with the local wild Argali sheep, which is larger and stronger looking, and similar in appearance. They also grow their wool like wild sheep; if not sheared, it just molts, like it does for animals in the wild.
I always wanted to do something with sheep wool. Years ago, I had heard the praise sung over the Lhoka sheep wool used to spin and weave the famous Tibetan woolen cloth, the shema. Tibetan sheep proved to be elusive. The tall local sheep’s wool was not usable, and the Huis at the foot of the plateau only sold wool from Xinxiang, considered the finest in China. With the carpet industry distorted by other influences, most carpet weavers in Nepal were using Australian wool, and Tibetan wool seemed to have receded in the background. In early 2016, Yidam, on a trip to Lhasa, sourced Tibetan wool for our new carpet project. The wool proposed to him all came from the Northern plains or Western Tibet. Though wonderful for carpets, it didn’t impress anyone when it came to weaving or felting. I finally decided I would use the opportunity of a trip to Central Tibet to figure out which sheep was what.
Driving to Gyantse from Lhasa, the driver was asked to stop at every flock of sheep on the road. The first flock turned out to be Australian sheep, identified as such by Yidam, quite a sheep expert, and who scoffed, finding the large nosed creature to be an aberration. Down the road, we finally came across a small flock of the elusive Tibetan sheep that looked quite different; small, delicate with tiny horns. Locals made things clear; Northern sheep as they were called, yielded the perfect carpet wool, the one that had been exported in the old days, and Lhoka and Tsang sheep yielded the fine wool used to weave cloth. Northern sheep found Southern Tibet too warm and Southern sheep couldn’t survive in the north, so they all remained in their places until the global Australian sheep made its appearance. I have no idea how many there are or how much of its wool is used. Another expedition, another story.