Lifestyle Podcasts Sustainability

Sustainability: Valais Blacknose Sheep — A Rare Breed

Debbie Trantham with Valais sheep. Photo by Holly Wilbur

By Paula Musto

Fiber art is popular throughout Appalachia, but Debbie Trantham is a rare breed. The farmer-turned-artist is hands-on, from raising the baby lambs to shearing mature sheep, then washing the wool, carding and dyeing it and, finally, creating whimsical artwork that combines a passion for animals with her artistic talents.

Trantham, who lives on a 45-acre family farm off Pisgah Highway in Candler, says she is living her dream. The wool her sheep produce allows her to support the cost of caring for her farm animals while at the same time providing the material to create unique fiber art that she sells online and at local craft fairs.

Debbie Trantham, artist

“Traditionally, spun wool was for making scarves, hats and mittens,” Trantham says. “But now people are using wool in all sorts of creative ways in addition to clothing. I find joy in creating animals—both farm animals and wildlife.” Trantham is also known for her Christmas-themed creations. Fiber Dream Santas are fanciful Santa dolls with long, curly beards that she exhibits at fall festivals, including the three-day Southeastern Animal Fiber Fair each October.

Trantham loves all sheep (most of her 40-plus flock is comprised of Cotswold, Lincoln and Teeswater breeds), but her most prized animals are the Valais Blacknose sheep, a rare and sought-after breed native to Switzerland that has only been in the US a few years. Currently, there are few purebred Valais sheep in the country, but Trantham (who has 12 crossbreeds) hopes to someday have the first flock ever in this region through an artificial insemination process. With imported purebred semen from European Valais rams, her ewes are birthing future generations of crossbreeds; once mature, the inseminated ewes will continue to breed until the sheep meet the criteria for full-breed status.

With their distinctive black nose, eyes and ears, Valais sheep are known for their winning personality and sociability. In many ways, Trantham says, these friendly animals are more like a beloved pet dog rather than a farm animal. And, like most sheep, they are smart. While people often dismiss these animals as dim and mindless followers, Trantham says their brainpower is underestimated. It is thought that sheep have the memory capacity to recognize up to 50 different members of their own flock and family. Sheep are thought to have deep emotional ranges.

“As a shepherd, one of the most important things I do is lay eyes on the flock each day—looking at the faces in the flock,” Trantham says. “These animals can feel fear and even get angry and alert us if there is a problem affecting the flock.”

Growing up in Asheville, Trantham always wanted to live on a farm surrounded by animals. Her first love was horses, but her family never had sufficient room for such a large animal. So, instead, she adopted an orphaned, bottle-fed baby lamb. It was the beginning of an ever-expanding flock. She had three young children while working outside the home when she thought that, perhaps, she could use wool to make fiber art. If she could sell the pieces, it would in turn help support her sheep. So began a cottage industry.

After the long process of preparing the wool (including handwashing to preserve the curls), each of her pieces is handcrafted taking anywhere from 10-40 hours to create, depending on size and complexity of design. “This life is not for everyone,” Trantham says, “but it’s the perfect life for me.”

Among Trantham’s most endearing creations is her version of the classic child’s rocking horse—the Rocking Sheep. The handcrafted heirloom toy is one of her most labor-intensive pieces requiring six to eight pounds of wool, or an entire fleece or two, to produce. Her unique creations also include chickens, ducks and rabbits.

But the Valais sheep may just be her favorite. After all, she says, these fluffy creatures are without doubt the cutest, most lovable sheep in the world.

For more information, visit Paula Musto is a volunteer for Appalachian Wildlife Refuge. Learn more at

Leave a Comment