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.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Old and new breed...

There have been interesting comments on another blog (Psalm 23 Farm). I've participated in those comments, so if you are interested in reading them, please click that farm's blog on the side of the page here.

I've been aware that there are differences in how people think of Shetland sheep here in the Midwest of the USA. There seem to be two ways of thinking:

1. That Shetland sheep are a primitive, unimproved beautiful breed that produces colorful, diverse fleeces which are easy to handspin and knit. Those fleeces can be used in a range of wool products (because fineness and staple length vary head to tail, as well as "lock structure" if you will. This is well documented in museums, archives, ship logs, and the historical content found in many countries, as the Shetland Islands are frequently passed by ships, and those passengers wrote about their purchases (or longing for those purchases!). For hundreds of years, stockings (socks with leggings) were the fame, and believe it or not, nightcaps! Then, after the women of eastern Europe made ring shawls out of the cashmere goat fiber they had, the Shetland Islands became known for wedding ring shawls made with Shetland wool. Later, the fair isle knitting technique, as well as some distinct patterns, and tams (hats) were the fame. Since most of the shearers, spinners, and knitters were primarily women living in poverty (men had to fish in summer to pay for their presence on their croft...American word I think it was called their tithe? to have their family on a croft.) Therefore, every ounce of wool was worth something, and diversity meant more "income" (coins for hundreds of years, then "trade" when new rules, taxes, and inspections clamped down on the crofters, their sheep, and their wool products.)


2. That Shetland sheep were famous for only ultrafine, super short stapled, single-coated fleeces (a goal they themselves admit seems elusive), and that the sheep looked more like merinos with American corn-fed rump bumps. This group insists this is the wool that created all those famous Shetland wool products.


Ok. So here are more of my thoughts. The people of times past on the Shetland Islands had ponies and dogs (among other animals, of course). The ponies were/are long maned and had/have a real bushiness in their hair. (Forelocks, manes, feathering, bushy tails, thick haircoats, delayed shedding out, etc.) The dogs, Shetland Sheep dogs (Shelties), were/are double-coated dogs, with bushy, thick fur head to tail. Obviously, many crofters loved hairy, bushy, furry, thick fill in the blank (fur, hair, wool), and found these traits to be useful in their climate, and pleasing in their eyes. So if they loved those characteristics on horses and dogs, why would they breed sheep to be the opposite (single coat/short staple)? Especially when more fiber meant more basic needs being met by making more money? (Staple growth = good, desired) So if single and short is recessive (not my term), how could economically challenged people afford to cull so much and be so choosy (getting rid of long and varied to keep short and single)??? How would economically challenged people afford to jacket (and maintain) all their short, single fleeces if those fleeces are harder to keep clean? (while the sheep lounged on sandy beaches, slept against grainy rocks, or brushed past low, bushy vegetation?) Or take the time to pick VM-embedded fleeces clean?

It just doesn't add up....................

Ok. So if those Merinoey-looking "Shetland" sheep of today are the "real" Shetland sheep we need to "return" to, then WHY do those new sheep look sooooo different from the Shetland sheep pictured in the archives?

If those ultrafine single coat fleeces are the real deal, why are they so "recessive" (not my term). And why are the old garments in museums made from long stapled fiber? (Gunnister man's gloves are an example) If short stapled fleeces are the "real deal", why aren't the old garments made from that kind of wool?

I think if a group (above number 2) wants to create a new breed, why not? "Classic" (the word they've chosen to describe their sheep) could mean 20th Century Shetlands crossed with something else (Merino?), under the guise of the Shetland standard, to produce fine, short-stapled yarn for delicate wool products or blended yarns. They admit they blend in mohair or something else for strength in a garment. These yarns can be very nice, but that's not genuine Shetland sheep yarn. This group of breeders highly desires a meaty American-type carcass as well, and crossbreeding. There is nothing wrong with selective breeding to create more sheep with characteristics you desire.


If a group wants to maintain a diverse, primitive, historically documented breed, why not? Genuine, historic, Shetlands mean the unimproved Shetlands known for many centuries, which are written about in many countries' museum archives in obscure ship's logs, passenger diaries, household accounts, parish records, estate records and letters, and of which old garments are carefully kept, with long fibers in them. These sheep were known (and documented) to produce the famed stockings (popular for centuries), nightcaps (best-sellers), jumpers (pullover sweaters), caps and tams, mittens and gloves, ring shawls, working woman's shawls, rugs, and items for the home. All of these things were made from fiber easily spun either inside, or while walking. The fiber required little or no processing or separating before spinning. Blending for strength is not needed. Good Shetland yarn is just that, Shetland fiber... soft, long, strong. If a group wants to raise a breed that doesn't require high rates of discard (culling), why not? Why go to so much work, just to get rid of so much of what you reap? I don't want a breed like that. I desire a breed that produces good lambs nearly every time. That's a real Shetland sheep. We have that right now, today. But some chose to not see them.

I know there is a group of people here in the USA that truly believe the short stapled, ultrafine fleeces are the real Shetland sheep, and that those are the sheep we should all be striving for, and the rest "disqualified" or "removed from the gene pool". Who am I to be the expert? I just raise, train, keep, shear, wash, spin, knit/crochet, sell, show, and wear the wool from my Shetlands in my own humble flock (Dailley and UK), in between a passion for reading everything I can find on the history of these sheep, both within Shetland Island archives, and outside. I've owned a Border collie, a rough coated collie, and a Sheltie over 23 years. I've worked with horses and ponies (including Shetland ponies) for three decades; used to get paid for it. My education emphasized science, a subject I love. Who am I to ponder these things?

The Shetland Islands and the sheep we received from there are so special, unique, and treasured. I want to preserve them, not change them. Why is group 2 hiding behind people like me? Why are they trying to discredit the real Shetland sheep? Why are they the only ones who insist longer fibers are trash? Why are they destroying so many beautiful lambs? Why are they trying to take a natural thing and turn it into a hard thing? Why are they afraid to claim the new breed they are longing and striving for?


  1. Very interesting. I doubt that the Shetland Island folks did much culling. They used everything and wasted nothing, as all indiginous people do. I think that if I had sheep I would have the kind that you do so I could make a variety of knit items from one animal. Look how some dog breeds have changed over the years, especially "popular" ones like the Cocker Spaniel, German Shepherd, etc. My herding instructor said most Collies can't even be taught to herd anymore. Seems like it's an American thing to want everything big, fat and fluffy. I'll take unique and "old school" over that any day. Glad you are embracing the uniqueness of Shetlands! Margie

  2. Hi Amy,

    Check out my recent blog flock photos...lots of variety. :) Have you checked out Maple Ridge web sight? They have a lot of useful information and was comforting to me to go back and see I am on the right track. So much so I think my next Shetland ram purchase might just involve a trip to Vermont. A back to basics approach for me if you will. Although do find that I am drawn to F1 or F2 Orion rams...just something about them.

  3. Thanks Margie! We found it to be true in our Collie. He was not interested in herding. Even fetch was a goofy tail-wagger. He'd run to get the toy (a Flippy Floppy), stand by it, wag his tail and smile back at you, then he'd flick it up in the air so it would land on his lower canine tooth to dangle there all the way back, tail wagging. It truly is important to protect what we have, and not take it for granted.

    Kara, the Maple Ridge website is a good one. I have it on my links, along with the African Safari Lion Park, where the Shetlands were first allowed on this continent. The picture on your blog of the little lamb Destiny is soooo cute!

    Laura, Holly's delighted to hear about Cinderella! :)

  4. I'm not sure what you mean when you say Shetlands are an "unimproved" breed, because it is well documented that more than 100 years ago other breeds were introduced to the Shetland Isles to "improve" this or that quality. Eventually, many came to see this as a slippery slope they were sorry to have stepped on, and a breed standard was developed to try to return the breed to as close to its original genetics as possible. This is a fact born out not only by written history but by gene mapping; Shetlands are not one of the "purest" breeds at the DNA level. Unfortunately, some of those outcross genetics ARE dominant, and some do pop rather dramatically in ears, tail, size and/or fleece type. Obviously whether one chooses to keep or cull those "crop-out" individuals is personal choice, and outcross genetics probably don't account for all the variety in my favorite breed of little sheep.

    There are definitely more than TWO ways of thinking about Shetlands, as my favorite type of Shetland (and fleece) is not defined in your essay, and I would say that the majority of the Shetland breeders I have met in person fall outside those two ways of thinking as well.

  5. Hi Michelle,

    1. One thing Stanley Bowie expressed concern about that you can take to heart (I did), is that sheep have been put on, and removed from the Shetland Islands for many centuries with all the ships passing there. These sheep have always been crossed, whether purposely or accidently. I "hear" his concern. We have this problem right now, right here in the USA. Many farms that raise Shetlands are crossbreeding with other breeds, some like crazy. This concern has always existed, and I think always will. You will notice, if you open your NASSA Handbook to the last page, that the Shetland Sheep Standard says "Wool-extra fine and soft texture, longish, wavy, and well closed." (Wooly Bear)I think it is a freakish stretch to say that reads "all Shetlands are super crimpy head to tail, and super short stapled."

    2. Gene mapping, or any genetic study, is an imperfect and young science, barely birthed in 1927, the year the Standard was finalized. There is MUCH more yet to be learned. Micron measurements, for example, have a margin of error of up to five microns either side (I think margin of error should be stated with all micron claims, btw). "Learned" discoveries are often changed when "new" discoveries are realized. For example, excess body fat is genetic...wait! It's diet! Wait! it's lifestyle! Therefore, I do not put all my eggs into one basket to learn about the past. Historians are taught that a) you cannot learn the exact past unless you lived it yourself, and b)you must consider as many sources of info. as you can find to see in the foggy window of the past. Therefore, I consider the historical aspects I mentioned in my above entry to be critical in giving us that view, more important than just a young science. ALL Shetland sheep being short stapled, super fine, and super crimpy head to tail is not supported. The contrary, actually.

    3. I believe I've written many times that Wheely Wooly Farm strives to protect the diversity of the Shetland breed, so yes, your favorite type of sheep and fleece IS defined in my blog entries, my header, and my personal profile on the right side. If you go back and look, you will find it.

    4. Sadly, there is a small segment in the Midwest working to narrow fleece types to one very small parameter. We are not a part of that group. Are you?

    5. The farms working to narrow Shetlands to one fleece type (super crimpy, super short staple) are breeding large numbers of sheep, but only keep a few of the results, and dubbing the rest "throwbacks". That sounds like "improving" to me. If you don't understand "unimproved" (and being the wife of a vet, I find that surprising), you are welcome to research a basic textbook on genetics.

    6.. If your way of thinking about Shetlands is different from mine, why do you torture yourself by coming back to my blog?

  6. I don't want to become a part of this debate ... BUT for the life of me, I can't understand why some shetland breeders can't accept the fact that the shetland sheep is (at least traditionally) a double-coated breed with all that entails. For Pete's sake, if "they" want to breed merinos ... then just go out and buy merinos ... it is such a shame and travisty to compromise the rich genetic heritage of the shetland sheep. I am personally so sick of this stupid notion that super fine, crimpy wool is "THE ONLY WOOL WORTH PRODUCING"!
    Keep up the battle Amy! It is one that is worth fighting. And personally W.Bear is beautiful.
    Hey! Someday we'll have to trade some wool samples! I'd love to get your feed back on my 'primative' wool!

  7. Thanks Diane...I will! I'm finding there are many who feel the same way! You're right about rapidly compromising the rich heritage of the Shetlands. There are many other breeds out there that will yield predictable results in lambing. The shepherds advocating a narrower parameter on Shetlands would truly be happier in such predictability. Shetlands are diverse. This is historically known and accurate. Instead of fighting diversity, they be happier if they embraced it! Amy

  8. Hi Amy,

    Both strains (super crimpy and longer wavy/primitive) are Shetlands. In the 1700's Sinclair writes to Banks about "kindly" Shetlands- ones without "stichel hairs" so even then there were different stains of Shetlands. I personally am breeding for fine soft fleeces in BOTH the crimpy and longer wavier/primitive type. One interesting thing is when they are freshly shorn the crimpy ones don't look any different from the longer/primitive types. The Shetlands in the UK are more of the cimpy strain and the Shetlands in Foula are the more of the primitive stain. In the US we have a mixed bag!

    I do not notice a difference in the average fleece weights comparing singe coat to primitive.

    An interesting thing about crimpy wool vs. straighter longer wool. Crimpy wool holds air and is very warm so can be shorter while longer wools don't hold as much air and are not as warm so need to be longer. (On the animal)

    About Merinos:

    Merinos have a big neck wrinkle and wooly legs. Merinos have a very matte fleece. Merinos have VERY hard hooves and their hooves grow faster than any Shetland I have seen. (The two Shetland/Merino crosses I have inherited the Merino hoof trait.) Merinos are tall and leggy compared to Shetlands and have a very different type of horn (the rams.) Merinos also have long tails!

    I cross breed some of my Shetland ewes for market lambs and commercial ewes, BUT none of the crossbred lambs are EVER registered or sold as Shetlands. All crossbred rams are castrated as well.

    I have hand processed both single coated and longer wavy/primitive fleeces and they were both about the same easiness for me. (I have flick carded and spun from teased locks.)

    The problem I have with some American Shetlands is/are harsh handling coarse fleeces. (Wooly Bear and your other sheep are not harsh.) There are some breeders who do have very harsh wool-ex: one Reg. Shetland ewe's fleece on the NECK was coarser and harsher than Sweeties on the BRITCH.


  9. Hi Laura: I can see why you wouldn't like harsh Shetland fleeces as I would not like them either, but frankly...I've not seen one. I have never seen a Shetland sheep with a mane (other than pictures straight out of Shetland, and the Doane's flock), or with a harsh, or coarse fleece. I have never bought a sheep (or their bloodlines) or fleece from the group of Midwest breeders who are trying to change the breed to super crimpy, super short staples and I never will because I sensed early on something is not right there, and I desired the real thing.

    I have worked fleeces of other breeds with coarse fleeces to educate myself, and that is my only experience with coarseness. As for yarns, the only coarse yarn I've ever felt came from Jaimeson. I was so shocked and disappointed! It made my fingers sore when I knitted with it, so I stopped and put it away. There it sits. I wish I could get my money back. That is the wool Mr. Oliver Henry oversees by the way. That yarn does make for great fair isle knitting though! If you could knit with it, it'd be best for jumpers and cardigans...which is exactly what many Shetland wool products were...something to wear over underclothing. If you look at historical pictures, the Shetland garments are usually shown layered over something. It is very revealing if you take a moment to think about it.

    I think the Merino info. you wrote about is very good. My shepherd neighbor sheared for others, and maintained sheep for six decades. He proudly keeps a flock of merino/rambouillet crosses (averaging 55 cents a pound in the wool pool as it's very common type fleece). The fleeces have a very blocky, short staple and tinsy crimp that goes on forever. It was impossible to spin! (He told me this, but I tried it anyway:) I have never seen this on a Shetland sheep, except in Jefferson. Some of the sheep coming in from other states have that blocky, tinsy crimp and staple structure. Some of those said sheep also carried long tails with rounded ends ( one of which the judge commented shouldn't be in the showring, placing it last), and some with longer wool on the legs that puzzled me. This is what they are proud of, and bring to the show to represent the breed. I would feel bad at hurting their feelings with that statement, but truth is, they know they are deceiving people, but they loudly push on anyway because they have some kind of goal to hijack the breed, and they hide behind the coarse thing. However, their cover has moved and they've been in the sun for a few months now. Many people from several states have come to know and touch Wooly Bear, and know firsthand he is not coarse OR open, stunningly the contrary actually. They see right through this group's insistence that he is coarse AND open. The group of Midwest hijackers have been discrediting themselves; loudly, in the sun since then, apparently unaware. So I can tell them this now, as it has been funny to watch this all unfold. With eyes squinted, they are suddenly realizing the sun is shining upon them.

    My guess would be that since that group now has enough sympathizers, they are poised and ready to branch out on their own, having used the existing Shetlands as a springboard for their desires; a birthing of sorts. There is nothing wrong with attempting to create a new breed based on your desires! It can take a long time to pull it together and build a breed, so the rest of us will have to be patient, but I'm confident there is peace to come. Someday.

  10. Oh, forgot to say, too...
    you commented on sheep looking different with a full fleece, but the same sheared. That, too has not been my experience. If you look at some sheep in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota, their bodies are shockingly different...some very tall, some unbelievably short, but with huge chests, dipped backs, huge rounded rumps, thick bone, and strange faces that I don't recognize, with thick bone straight up in the nose and lots of wrinkles on the end...and a hardened expression that is not familiar to me. I'm not sure what they are breeding, but I know they don't look anything like what lives around here, or what I see in the Doane flock, or in pictures in museums and archives. One of those sheep is pictured on a blog right now, with long, rounded tail showing...their breeding ram.

    When I see pictures of sheep on the East and West coasts, I see what lives around here in Wisconsin...more refined bone, broomstick straight toplines, properly proportioned chest to rump, sweet and bright faces without all those mean-looking wrinkles.

    Whether right or wrong, the sheep look very different, and it continues to puzzle me. Amy

  11. Amy, If you want I can send you a sample (I have two fleeces-one I bought when I bought the entire clip from a friend who had Shetlands 14 were really nice and one is very much like a Scottish Blackface she did not particularly like that fleece. The other was from a ewe that I had. It has long guard hair about 6 or 7 in and the wool under is about 2 or 3 in and it is about 1/2-2/3 hair.)

    About commercial yarn-the final product depends on a number of factors only one being the wool involved. They use sulfuric acid sometimes in the commercial industry(-I'm not talking about the mills that do custom work but the really big ones.)The next factor that affects the final product is how it is carded and how it is spun. If it is spun too tight it won't be as soft and woolen vs. worsted make a big difference too.

    One can find poor quality stock in both the crimpy single coated and in the longer intermediate-double coat/primitives. For that matter there is a flock that I personally visited and they breed for big boned Shetlands-some have legs that could go on a Suffolk. Some of their sheep also have really bad wooly tails. (I actually bought one of their sheep from a different person who was reselling her and she has the worst tail I have ever had one a Shetland-I was told that her tail needed improvement, but I was shocked to see the tail! I am not upset though as I can use her for crossbreeding for market lambs. If you want I can take a picture of her tail.) These sheep owned by this breeder are mostly long double coats and a few are intermediates. I say this as there is poor quality stock in both types of Shetlands, and there is good stock in both types. I agree that poor quality stock should not be shown and either be culled or if the trail is improvable bred to a better ram.

    Oh NASSR News 1991-1994(before it became NASSA) has some pictures of fine single coated Shetlands and also talks about both the single coated and the double coated Shetlands. If you don't have a copy you are welcome to borrow it. (There are lots of interesting articles on a variety of topics too.)


  12. Hi Laura,
    I agree about the interesting photos and articles in the old NASSR and NASSA Newsletter. I have most of the back issues and they are great fun to read! I highly recommend them to anyone who wants to learn what the breed really is. Once you read them, you can clearly see how the breed has become skewed of late here in the Midwest. Good advice!

    You can send the samples if you want. Sounds like fun to see! Amy