Shetland Sheep: Rich in History, Rich in Textiles

Shetland Sheep: Rich in History, Rich in Textiles! Our farm mission is to enjoy and promote the wonderful diversity of the Shetland breed by fully utilizing to the best of our ability all they have to offer historically. We believe the best preservation and management of this breed includes it's full spectrum of history. We encourage old and new shepherds alike to join in the fun by engaging in fiber arts, especially spinning and knitting, as this breed is so intimately linked with those aspects of the arts.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Non-Shetland Sock...

Here is a picture of a sock I made from non-Shetland wool I spun and knitted into a sock. Notice the gaping stitches along the gusset? (Find the triangle on the inner foot between the heel and the arch...the gaping stitches are the line of stitches at the upper left side of the triangle.) Those stitches are straining in a critical spot. This sock was personally designed to fit perfectly, and it does. However, the fibers cannot take the strain where the sock experiences lots of flex and stretch. Clearly, this wool is lacking in elasticity, and functionality, even though it was crimpy wool. It is also hard to get on and off, for it cannot stretch and respond like Shetland wool can. This sock allows cold air to penetrate, and it will wear out quickly here. This is what I mean.........

You see, Shetland wool has properties to it that cannot be measured. These unique properties give Shetland wool lovely handle. Handle goes beyond how a fleece feels raw on the hoof or freshly sheared. Handle includes how well a fleece takes being put to use! (Afterall, that is THE reason wooly sheep still exist.) Even "coarse" or "non-crimpy" Shetland wool has exceptional handle, in that it makes for wonderful spinning wool, wonderful knitting wool, and wonderful wool to wear in a garment that will work with you, not against you, whether you wear it next to your skin, or layered. That is why it is so famous.

There is no scientific test out there that functions better than the human sensory experience in judging the usefulness and exceptionality of fleece. Europeans (as well as South Americans, Asians, Russians and Icelanders, among others) have known this for fact, their own human sensory judgments of fleeces built exceptional wealth, and put many breeds of wooly sheep in high demand throughout the world over long periods of time.

Since many of you have asked about purchasing lambs or getting started in a Shetland flock for yourselves, I thought I'd start giving pointers here and there on how to get sheep you'll be satisfied with for the long run. While I'm certainly no expert, I'm happy to share what I've learned by being so passionate about Shetlands myself!

Pointer Number One:

Buy from a flock of handspinning sheep. If the flock owner is not an avid spinner and knitter/crocheter, you cannot be certain you are getting good, usable wool. Even if you are not a spinner or knitter, you might want to sell your fleeces to spinners to help support your sheep. (Shetlands arguably are, after all, the foremost handspinning sheep.) A farm using their Shetlands primarily for HAND spinning (not commercial milling as that changes many factors), and the making of wearable garments will proudly advertise that, and will have garments to show you (there are some farms out there that do this, but many don't). The flock owners will be wearing garments made from their wool.

If you go to look at a flock on a cool or cold day, and the owner of the sheep is not wearing their own wool, that would certainly be a red flag!! (I have not bought from some flocks because of this..."Oh yeah", they say, shivering, while covered head to toe in synthetic athletic wear and cottons, "our wool is great for spinning!".) If their wool is not good enough to wear themselves, why should you?

Remember, all the scientific tests in the world cannot match the amazing human sensory capabilities. If test results and numbers are thrown around, clearly the flock owner is not well informed about fleece, and is relying on those tests to "sell" the wool for them. Unfortunately, those tests do not tell the whole story. the ads, pay attention to the primary use of the flock, listen/look for those modern test numbers that pertain to fibers, and notice what the shepherd is wearing. You'll learn who is in the business of selling sheep, and who wants you to be warm and satisfied for the long run.
If you buy into the most famous handspinning breed of sheep in the world, make sure you buy from an avid handspinner.

Post Blizzard Update:
The roosters are crowing again, the birds are chirping, Wooly Bear stopped butting the wall, and every drop of water is frozen stiff. And I think my (formerly wet) mitten is still out there, frozen to the stall door latch. And the driveway is all drifted back in.


  1. I like your focus on my favorite sheep...but I haven't mastered spinning well enough yet to make anything beyond lumpy yarn...I'm afraid I would fail the "Wearing the Flock" test!

  2. Well Melanie, don't stop spinning! I spun lumpy yarn for a long time before it started smoothing out nicely. You'll get there, too! In the meantime, knit up your lumpy yarn into mittens or a hat. You'll learn so much about your wool, and will probably find that despite the lumps, your yarn is very nice!

  3. I sell the majority of my fleeces and usually don't have any left for my own use :( I did knit Larry a scarf from one of our first girl's fleeces, though - and I do have a few items of handspun, homegrown Polypay and Coopworth yarn! So don't turn away from my flock because I don't wear their product!

  4. Don't you have your wooly socks on in all this wonderful Wisconsin weather? Mittens? I couldn't tolerate the cold without them. Don't worry Lael! We all know you raise lovely fleeces and beautiful sheep. Have you heard of the Ouessant sheep? They're fascinating. Learning about them made me think of the lambs you had at Jefferson this fall.

  5. Wow, Amy, I LOVE your blog! Thank you for visiting mine and leaving a comment so that I could find yours - LOL!

    It is a sunny but cold and windy day here in mid-Michigan again and I have my wool socks on, too ;) A hot cup of coffee and now I am off to read some more of your blog - great job!

  6. Great post Amy! As they say, the proof of the pudding .... Personally, there's nothing like actually working through a number of fleeces one lock at a time. As a spinner and sheep breeder you really end up having a good idea of what to look for in a fleece.

  7. My wool socks are Coopworth - and I have a pair of wool/alpaca socks that I bought from Mary Zastrow before I relearned how to knit quite a few years ago. I love those - but I admit to being very lazy and often wear store bought, washable socks in my boots - my wool socks are more likely to be worn inside where they stay cleaner! And mittens? I can't work in them, so wear gloves - at this time of year, waterproof thinsulate - I think from Lands' End! So I guess I'm not a very good walking advertisement, am I?!?!

    Yes, I have heard of the Ouessant, but don't know much about them. Must do some research!

  8. No, guess not! lol You're missing out on Shetland joy gotta knit yourself some socks! They're a cinch to wash, too. The few moments it takes to get them in the water are worth the cush and warmth outside on a yuck-factor day! They are especially luxurious during those raw days of cold spring mud! (Excessive exclamation points runs in the family...)