Unless you work in a tannery, you might not be able to distinguish the difference between a sheepskin, a shearling or lambskin wool rug, because technically, they’re all sheepskin. While there is a definitely a difference when comparing the pelt of a lamb -- a young sheep -- and the hide of an older sheep, the sheep’s breed also plays a part in the quality and feel of the wool.
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Sheepskin vs. Lambskin Rugs
Sheepskin rugs cost less to make because the hides are larger than lambskin, but they are not as shiny or soft. It requires more lambs to make a rug because of the overall size of the sheep's pelt. Lambskins are primarily used to line baby carriages or as an underlay for changing a baby because of their hypoallergenic characteristics and softness. Lambskin produces a superior, lustrous wool on a more resilient and flexible hide.
Sheep Breeds and Purpose
Not all sheep are raised primarily for their wool; instead, some are used as dairy animals, while others are raised for the meat they produce – all of which can affect the quality of the rug. Other factors that determine the value of sheepskin rugs include the tanning process and the chemicals used during manufacturing.
While all sheep produce a form of wool, the finished pelts are not the same. Some breeds have soft wool, while others produce more hairy, long-strand or wiry wool. With more than 1,000 breed of sheep worldwide, and about 50 breeds in the U.S. alone, it can get confusing when you want to buy a wool rug. When you purchase a sheepskin rug, the best choices include the breeds raised specifically for their wool.
Sheep bred for fine wool include the following breeds:
- Booroola Merino
- Delaine Merino
- American Cormo
Long-wool breeds include:
- Leicester Longwool
- Border Leicester
A Sheep’s Coat
Sheep are commonly categorized based on the type of their coat and the fibers they grow. All sheep pelts include both wool and hair fibers. Sheep known as "hair breeds" have coats that generally contain more hair fibers than wooly ones; they shed their coats yearly. The reverse is true in wooly sheep breeds; their coats require annual shearing and contain more wool fibers in the pelt.
Characteristics of High-Quality Rugs
Whether you choose a sheepskin or lambskin rug is a matter of preference and how you intend to use it, but regardless of the age of the sheep, all premium sheepskin rugs have similar characteristics:
Wool density – the amount of fibers per square inch.
Wool loft – the ability of the wool to retain its height.
Color – unmarred or stained wool in a natural ivory color.
Length of the wool – quality sheepskin have a minimum of 65 mm or 2 1/2 inches.
Smell – superior sheepskin or lambskin rugs should have no chemical smell at all.
Defect free – examine the rug for defects, small holes or mars on the hide.
Wool texture and feel – a high-quality rug has a soft, silky feel.
Supple hide – the hide must be thick, soft and flexible without peeling or cracking.