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National pride takes many forms: parades, a quest for gold medals, bumper stickers that read “Kiss me, I’m Polish” (well, at least in my case). Three hundred years ago, national pride involved dueling sheep breeds, economic ambition, and the quest to create the perfect wool. Gather round and listen to the tale of the Rambouillet sheep.

In today’s world, wool doesn’t even crack the top ten of most valuable commodities, more’s the pity. Hundreds of years ago, however, wool (and later, woolen cloth) topped the list. During the Middle Ages, people of all social classes in Europe needed wool. The weather was cold, houses were drafty, and wool was warm. The softer and finer the wool, the more valuable it was. It didn’t take long for wool production to become a crucial segment of England’s economy. Three specific breeds, all longer-stapled fibers—the Cotswold, the Lincoln, and the Ryeland—produced most of England’s wool. It was considered the finest and softest wool available, the pride of England.

Merino Monopoly

During the 16th century, England’s frequent rival Spain began to develop a new breed of wool, one that would turn the global wool market upside down. Sheepologists differ in their theories of the Merino’s precise origin, though most believe that its ancestors came from North Africa. Whatever the source, Spanish shepherds recognized the potential of this emerging breed of sheep. They began to refine the breed, amplifying desirable traits like the wool’s fineness. In time, they had developed their own sheep breed: the Merino. As the quality of Spanish wool improved, so did its fame. Aided by Ferdinand and Isabella, who issued land reforms that favored shepherding over food crop production, Spanish Merino became the premier quality wool in the European market. Take that, England!

Charles III of Spain by Anton Raphael Mengs

Not surprisingly, Spain jealously guarded its monopoly on Merino wool. Exporting Merino sheep was a criminal offense, punishable by death. While Spain permitted a small quantity of Merino wool to be exported, it was only because Spanish factories couldn’t process it all. And oh boy, did France covet Spanish wool!

RambouIllet Ram

Rambouillet Revolution

Did you ever love a product so much that when the manufacturer discontinues it, you run around buying all you can on eBay and then store the boxes in your closet hoping you’ll never run out? That’s exactly how France felt about Spanish Merino. French advisors knew that the only reason Spain was willing to sell Merino wool to France was because their factories couldn’t handle the quantity. France feared that Spain would build more factories to expand its processing output, then restrict the export of its wool. A prescient French minister named Trudaine decided that France needed to grow and produce its own fine wool. It was a matter of national pride!

chateau de rambouillet

In 1783, France’s king, Louis XVI, purchased a large property near Versailles from one of his many cousins. Louis XVI intended to use the Chateau de Rambouillet to expand his hunting grounds. (Fun fact: When his wife, Marie Antoinette, first saw the chateau, she reportedly burst out with “Comment pourrais-je vivre dans cette gothique crapaudière!”—which translates as “How could I live in such a gothic toadhouse!”) A few years later, Louis XVI built an experimental farm at Rambouillet, the Bergerie Nationale, to study animals, plants, and trees from other countries.

Louis XVI by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis

A request was sent in the king’s name to another cousin, Charles III of Spain, offering to purchase some Spanish sheep. In 1786, Charles agreed to sell several hundred heads from his prize flock to France. A total of 366 sheep, accompanied by Spanish shepherds, survived the trip and were settled at Rambouillet. One source proudly notes: “Observe that this flock, obtained for the king of France, was not a gift. These sheep were selected by the best experts, and all the best qualities of the finest races were represented.” Score one for la France!

After a rough first winter, the flock began to multiply. In the meantime, political heads began to roll—literally. A devoted scholar named Professor Gilbert protected the flock from the ravages of the Revolution. Gilbert later set out for Spain in search of more Spanish sheep, but his attempts were less successful this time. Political relations between France and Spain had deteriorated. Many Spaniards were hostile to the idea of selling more prize Spanish sheep to their political rival. Gilbert persisted but became ill in 1800 and died while visiting a Spanish shepherd.

As the Spanish Merino industry began to deteriorate, the French went flocking wild. They kept their newly acquired sheep at the Rambouillet farm under tight control and got to work. They refused to allow other sheep breeds to mingle with their flock and closely regulated the breed’s availability to other farmers. Some say that a few particularly fine English longwool breeds were carefully crossed with the Rambouillet to improve the wool, although we don’t know for sure. By 1870, the Rambouillet breed was the star of the show at the Paris Exposition, leading one jury member to describe it as “the most perfect type of fine wool sheep in existence.”

Rambo Forever

So exactly what makes the Rambouillet such a fine figure of a sheep? That depends. From a sheep farmer’s perspective, Rambouillet are larger and sturdier than their Merino cousins. Their wool is more plentiful, too, with a fine and soft hand. Rambos are a dual-purpose breed, providing high quality meat as well as beautiful wool. They also adapt well to harsher conditions and can thrive even with relatively sparse vegetation. From a knitter’s standpoint, though, the best thing about Rambouillet sheep is their wool. Rambouillet wool is next-to-the-skin soft—some knitters describe the hand as “cotton-y.” It takes dye beautifully and has excellent elasticity, giving it bounce and sproing. Its loftiness gives it an airy feel and makes it cozy-warm.

Farmer shearing black Rambouillet sheep at Rhinebeck 2021 by Carol J. Sulcoski

The first Rambouillet sheep arrived in the U.S. around 1840. Today, you can find Rambouillet sheep all over the western United States. In fact, it’s estimated that as much as 50 percent of western American wool is Rambouillet, descended from the original flock at Rambouillet, France. You may not be able to prance around a faux farm with a tall wig and petticoats like Marie Antoinette, petting the little lambs, but who cares? You can sit back with a skein of yummy Rambouillet wool and knit until the cows come home.

Top image of a Rambouillet lamb AND OTHER IMAGES IN THIS POST courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


  • This was so interesting; thank you Carol and MDK!

  • I’ve always preferred Rambouillet to Merino, for knitting and hand spinning. Somehow it seems more alive – soft but bouncy. It’s one of my favorites!

    • Really enjoyed this article, thanks!

  • I really enjoyed this brief overview. Thanks so much!

  • Great article!. More like this please

    • yes, please… more wooly, knitty stories, please!

  • For some reason my daily MDK email wasn’t in my “Inbox” this morning so I came in search of today’s post. So glad I did; very interesting article. I have never spun Rambouillet but will definitely be doing so in the near future!

    • Mine wasn’t in my in-box either. Until much later than usual. Been happening occasionally lately

    • Thanks for checking in—we’re having glitchiness with our automatic post notification system right now, but rest assured! We will send an email notification one way or another. We’re Modern DAILY Knitting, after all! ; )

    • Me too! My email was missing today. It is happening with increasing regularity. Like you I turned to Instagram.

    • Mine wasn’t there either. This was a very interesting article. I teach a class of mothers and young daughters,and the girls are always asking questions about knitting history. This is great information to share with them.

      • We should have more classes about knitting history.

  • Who knew? This is great Thanks.

  • I thought Louis XIV was the Sun King? Louis XVI lost his head in the French Revolution.

    • Yup, Louis XIV was the Sun King. Louis XVI was married to Marie Antoinette and was executed during the Revolution.

  • “Sproingy” is one of my favorite yarn descriptors. So glad to see this word getting some use! Really interesting story as well.

  • I miss, miss, miss the MDK Sweet Sixteen knitting pattern contest that used to be played in March. So I am hoping to see posts of great patterns knit with MDK’s new Atlas yarn, showing off the glory of Rambouillet fleece. I know Field Guide #20 will be a great start. Cannot wait to get mine!

  • Fascinating. Thank you.

  • Super interesting read! Thank you. 🙂

  • Thank you for researching and posting this interesting article on Rambouillet. It is so helpful to know the source of the yarns we use. Enjoyed the history lesson!

  • Very interesting. Thank you!

  • Love this article. Wondering if anyone could write about mulesing which I just learned about.

  • Interesting article. I love learning about cultural history. Also I feel more a part of something when I know the history and all the connections. Thanks!

  • The Sun King was Louis XIV, not XVI. Louis XIV was the grandfather of Louis XVI, who was beheaded in the French Revolution.

    • Sorry! We missed that edit in the first round but we’ve corrected it now.

  • Fascinating. Thank you and looking forward to holding onto some Atlas Rambouillet soon!

  • Can you expand this wonderful history lesson and tell us about the Basque connection? I had friends who were first generation Basque sheepherders in Wyoming and I volunteered at their ranch during lambing season way back in the 70’s. They raised Rambouillets. It was fascinating and I treasure that experience.

    • What a special memory! Yes, I too would like to know more about the Basque connection – they have been so involved with sheep raising in the western United States.

  • Always interested in learning about the history of wool, thank you!

  • Wonderful article! Thank you!

  • What a great history lesson, Rambouillet and beyond! So well told. Thank you!

  • Loved this! I am curious, how does rambouillet fare in terms of pilling compared to merino? My experience has been that soft wool pills and sturdy wool is… not so soft. Lopi etc. (I can hear Jillian Moreno in my head). I think chainette construction, as in Woolfolk Far (ooh, what a yarn!) helps.

    But in any case, going to get me some Atlas for research!

  • I raised rambouillet sheep, including sheep with the color pattern called California Variegated Mutant (CVM), for a number of years. I also had a sizable number of sheep that exhibited a brown color, which is a recessive color. Their fleece is lovely and somewhat different from merino in that is doesn’t easily felt. This latter attribute makes the fleece, and yarn, easier to work with (unless you are a felter). White rambouillets were consistently sold to Pendleton Mills by a California farmer who rejected the CVMs that appeared in his flock. I always thought that the long wool sheep variety that infused the breed was romney. Rambouillet wool is a bit coarser than merino but still next to skin soft. Thanks for the article. I never knew where the name came from.

    • Oh my gosh. I am so sorry. I mixed up American romeldales with rambouillets, which are the French merinos. Rambouillet is incredibly soft and lovely and comes in lovely natural colors.

      • You step away from the website for a few hours and the Romeldales come marching in! No worries, Marta!

    • Oh my gosh, I am so sorry. I was thinking of romeldale. Of course, rambouillet sheep are the French merinos. I really got publicly mixed up. Someone should have mentioned this. Mea culpa. everyone.

  • A lot of my enjoyment of knitting is how a yarn feels in the skein and in the needles. Now I’m watching the mailbox even more intently for my Atlas yarn to arrive.

    • Whoops. *on the needles*

  • What an interesting article.

  • Loved the wool article.

  • Educational *and* entertaining! I hope we’ll see more “history of the breed” stories on the site.

  • Nice overview and love the paintings!

  • I love history and fiber, so I really enjoy anything Carol Sulcoski. Thank you for the well-written history of a breed that I really didn’t know anything about. I also enjoyed learning a new naughty French word for a “toadhouse.”

    By the way, Carol Sulcoski’s book on how to understand yarn fiber and manufacture (Yarn Substitution Made Easy) is a deep dive that should be on any knitter’s shelf. She saved me the cost of the book immediately by pointing out the yarn I was lusting after would be a bad choice for its intended project. Further, she walks one through the many facets of making these choices. Priceless!

  • Thank you for the wonderful article! Love this history stuff and am enjoying learning about the different breeds of sheep and associated types of wool. Those portraits!–great contrast of Charles III’s armor and lace cuffs.

  • Great article! Love this history stuff and am enjoying learning about different sheep breeds and associated types of wool. Those portraits!–great contrast of Charles III’s armor and lace cuffs.

  • Thank you for the great article! I like knowing about the fibers and breeds that I knit. So many of the wool is too scratchy, so learning the breeds helps. I wish that every skein of wool yarn had to disclose the breed (s), so if we’re ordering, we know if we cN wear it.

  • I actually need some help on one of the items in the new Field Guide. If someone could email me, I would appreciate. I don’t want to say too much in this field because not everyone has received their Field Guide #20. Thank you.

    • Hi Lynne,

      You can always reach us via email to Look forward to hearing from you!


  • What a great post! Thank you so much. After 2 hours of housework I sat down with a cup of tea and thorough enjoyed reading it.

  • I have recently become acquainted with Rambouillet. The little I have used so far makes me want to use more! It is very nice to knit with but I haven’t to usher ab!locked my scarf yet. I’m looking forward to the final results!

    Question: why is there so much merino on the market and not a lot of Rambo?

    • Wow! I don’t know what happened here!

      …but I haven’t finished and blocked my scarf yet.

  • This was fascinating! Thank you!

  • Thank you so for this article. I am utterly daft for all things sheepy, and, particular info on Merino and like breeds. My go-to for wearability. Also…anybody been to Rhinebeck and watched the sheep competition, cuz, that guy in the last pic has carders in his hands, not a shearing tool. Is the fellow making his sheep pretty for competition? Do they do that?

  • Oh my gosh ! After watching the video I am so much more appreciative of this amazing wool! I just want to squish it all up ! I love tutu because I’m a pink person I love pink

  • This was fascinating. I hope that it is the beginning of a new series…

  • Loved this article, informative and so entertaining: a 10!!

  • So thrilled for this column and that Atlas is Rambouillet! While Merino is so very soft and luscious, it does not wear well and pills as soon as you start knitting with it. It became so trendy, I had to search to find alternatives. That is now turning around and I am so grateful you are adding to this more inclusive movement.

  • Lovely overview of the Rambouillet breed.
    Thank you

  • Thank you. love the sheep, very handsome. They far surpass the Kings in good looks, and usefulness.

  • Thanks. That was lovely.

  • Thank you so much for the history of merino wool. So glad Rambouillet sheep are still cultivated.

  • Really enjoyed reading this, Carol! It answered questions I didn’t know I had. I also thought the accompanying images worked really well. Now off to contemplate how I can bring more Rambouillet into my life!

  • So interesting! Thanks for the article.

  • Loved the writing in this!

  • Love these informative essays plus the added component of Carol’s fine writing. As a knitter knowing more about the wool we use adds to the enjoyment.

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