Often found in the home underfoot as a soft rug in front of the fire, on a baby's changing table, or hung on the wall as a decorative item, unlike cow's leather and other forms of leather, sheepskin pelts are most often tanned with the fleece still attached. Not all sheep's wool is white or curly, as some sheep have hair or a mixture of both; sheep can be black, gray, tan, brown or off-white. Identifying a genuine sheepskin pelt begins with a closer look at its hide and the characteristics of its fleece.
Examine the Pelt
Grab a wool fiber and pull on it. If the hide was tanned correctly, the wool should not come loose from the pelt. Separate the wool to examine the pelt closely. It should resemble the color of the wool and have an even texture across its entire surface, unless it has a scar or two, a sign of a genuine pelt. If you notice a grid backing material from which the wool emerges, it is not a genuine sheepskin, as this material indicates a sewn or weaved backing instead of a sheep's hide.
Fleece Texture and Pelt Shape
The type of sheet determines its fleece type. Sheep's wool can be tightly curled, slightly curled, wavy or hair-like. When the pelt is tanned, sometimes the wool loses its curl, but when touched, it will still have a spongy, soft or fuzzy feel to it. Wool on a sheepskin rug is also dense and thick and sometimes silky to the touch. A genuine sheepskin pelt has an odd shape and won't be that large -- because sheep aren't -- unless several pelts are sewn together. Long-hair sheep produce long, curly and messy-looking dreadlock-type pelts.
As a natural fiber, wool absorbs moisture, but it allows a layer of dry, insulated air next to the skin. This works just as well when it's warm and the body perspires or when it's cold and rainy. Because of wool's absorbent qualities, it easily takes in dye without the need for extra chemicals. To test for a genuine pelt, pour a bit of water on it and touch its surface, which should still feel somewhat dry or at least warm, as wool repels the water, but absorbs its vapors.
When tanned correctly, on the leather side of the hide, a sheepskin pelt is porous and soft with a suede-like texture. The pelt's thickness is based on the age and breed of the sheep. Lambskins have thinner pelts while mature sheep produce thicker ones. Without the wool or hair -- sheep from Africa, specific breeds from the U.S. and the Caribbean have hair with or without wool -- the leather appears mottled.
Wool fibers are naturally resilient, which means they bend without breaking. Tug on a wool fiber from a sheepskin, and though you may stretch or straighten it, it returns to its original shape after you let it go. Fake wool or fur does not produce this same result. With its natural flame-resistant qualities, it resists catching on fire, which fake fur does not. Wool can burn in intense heat, but if you remove the source of the flame, it generally quits burning.
- Humane Society: Field Guide to Telling Animal Fur From Fake Fur
- Vintage Fashion Guild: Lamb -- Sheep
- Sheep 101: Wool Qualities
- Dover Saddlery: Basic Overview of Leather Grains and Qualties
- Sheep 101: Sheep Types
- The Nugget Company: Finished Leather
- American Sheep Industry Association: One Skin Type Cannot Make All Things
As a native Californian, artist, journalist and published author, Laurie Brenner began writing professionally in 1975. She has written for newspapers, magazines, online publications and sites. Brenner graduated from San Diego's Coleman College.