The unaware traveller may be surprised with the colors in the fields of Ipê Farm, in Canela, in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul.
Apart from the green of the woods, preserved by the owner, Liciê Hunsche, sheep of various colors, including black, light and dark brown, dark blue, beige and pinkish, may be seen peacefully roaming the property.
They are animals of the karakul breed, originally from the Middle East, brought to Brazil by Liciê at the beginning of the 1980’s with one objective: having their wool used in the weaving of carpets, blankets and varied garments.
Liciê was the second farmer to import the animals into Brazil. The first was a politician in the state, Joaquim Francisco de Assis Brasil. In 1917, he brought some of the animals from Argentina to Rio Grande do Sul.
The breed did not spread, though, until 1981, when Liciê, who had decided to use karakul wool for weaving, travelled to Europe and bought a group of animals from breeders in Austria and Germany.
The idea arose after the farmer did some research on the production of Persian carpets.
"Since I was a child, I have been in love with these carpets. I can still remember the salesmen hanging products out for my father to choose. The colors were beautiful. I told a friend and she said that the color was natural, that the wool was naturally colored, and not dyed.
"I then started researching what breed had colored wool, and discovered the karakul," explained Liciê. The animal has 17 color tones: black, bluish tones, greys, light and dark browns, beige and pinkish.
According to vet Eduardo Amato Bernhard, who takes care of Liciê’s herd, the karakul breed is probably among the most ancient breeds of domestic sheep.
"It seems like their origin was in the Middle East, and that they followed nomad tribes. Sculptures of these sheep were found in Ancient Babylon – currently part of Iraq," she explained. According to studies by archaeologists, the existence of karakul pelts date back to 1400 b.C. (before Christ).
Despite originally being from the desert, which has extreme temperatures – being very hot during the day and very cold at night – the breed adapted well to the Brazilian climate.
"One of the only problems that the animals have here is their hooves which, due to the dampness of the region, become more susceptible to diseases. But that is easily controllable," stated the vet.
This is so true that the interest in karakul sheep has been rising very much in recent years. "We receive between 10 and 20 orders for animals of the breed every month, but we cannot supply this demand, and need to increase the herd," explained Bernhard.
The price varies according to the sex of the animal and the use. Common males go for around US$ 220 and females for around US$ 90. Animals for breeding, that are registered, cost more: males are sold for around US$ 650 and females for around US$ 440.
The Brazilian herd currently totals around 3,500 heads, most of them – 80% – are in Rio Grande do Sul. The remains are spread around the states of Santa Catarina (also in the south), São Paulo and Minas Gerais, in the southeast, and the states of the Northeast.
One hundred and fourteen farmers raise the breed in the country, according to figures supplied by the Association of Karakul Breeders of Brazil.
Liciê, apart from a pioneer in karakul raising in Brazil, is one of the largest breeders, she has 300 heads, 70 of them registered as pure breeds. Different from many farmers, who also use karakul meat, she concentrates uniquely on weaving. So as to get the desired colored wool, she shears the animals twice a year.
"This is another special characteristic of the herd in Brazil. Due to the rain, it is better to shear the animals twice a year so as to make better use of the wool," explained Bernhard.
After being sheared, the wool is taken to Liciê’s studio, on the banks of Guaíba river, in state capital, Porto Alegre. There, the work is all artistic.
First of all the wool is washed, then it is untangled with iron combs. The wool is then put on spools, a process called carding. The spools are then put on an ancient spinning machine, and then comes the weaving phase.
The machines are from the pre-industrial phase, but that is no problem. The result is impressive. What often arise are colors that do not appear in fields.
"The pink, for example, may be hard to see with the naked eye, but on the loom it stands out," explained Liciê.
Bernhard explained that the phenomenon of the color change is because, different from most breeds, the karakul is not fully covered in wool. The wool is found lower down, and represents just 35% of the animal’s fleece.
"The rest, which is above it, covering the wool, is fur. It grows with age. When this fur is mixed into the wool, it may change the color of the thread," she said.
Originally, the reason for the long fur was to protect the karakul from sandstorms. The animal’s long down-turned ears, covering the inner ear, developed for the same reason. Life in the desert also gave the animal its broader tail.
"The karakul accumulates fat in its tail so as to be able to face its long walks, as does the camel. Different from the hump on cattle, the sheep’s tail has no meat, only fat," explained the vet.
Apart from its colorful wool, karakul sheep are also known for karakul lamb fur, which is the pelt of a lamb that is slaughtered right after its birth. "In the past, wearing karakul lamb fur hats was a sign of nobility," explained the farmer.
For Brazilians, it is strange to slaughter a newly born animal, but this is a tradition in the Astrakhan region, which was part of the Mongolian reign and was conquered by the Russians. The Karakul Lake, formerly also part of ancient Persia, which gave the sheep their name, is also in the area.
"Astrakhan is extremely delicate, rare and expensive. The pores the fur comes out of are uniform, the skin feels like silk. A coat may cost as much as US$ 450," explained Liciê. In Brazil, however, the technology for production of the material does not yet exist.
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