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.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Thinking about fleece...

Hello's me, Wooly Bear. I'm a purebred Shetland ram lamb. I'm a very tender boy with raging hormones...I think I'm growing up. I really don't recognize myself when I see that black sheep looking back at me. In the short 10 months since I was born, I've grown and changed a lot. My horns have grown longer and are getting thicker. My wool is growing longer, too. Plus, I've grown taller, moved to a new home, rode in a vehicle three times, went to a show, learned to be handled, learned to walk on a halter, learned how to walk on ice and deep snow, figured out why the ewes are so interesting, and met my new buddy, Wilbur. The biggest change was my sweet lamby baa turned into this weird, deep, raspy, manly baa! No one was more surprised to hear me than me myself! And I've learned that when I bash walls during intense storms, my back gets wet suddenly....

Wooly Bear has done a lot of growing up this year. My next tip for new shepherds will lean on this topic (Amy speaking here :) In the meantime, it's good to look back and reflect on all the work a shepherd does everyday...little things that all add up. R & R time is good for reflecting. That brings me to the point of the day...fleece!

You know, I just cannot stop thinking about fleece. I love the sheep, I love shearing them, I love taking care of them, and I love dreaming about how I'll use their wool. I love picking the wool clean after shearing, I love washing the wool, and I love spinning the wool. Then, I lovvvveeee knitting the wool! Then the best part comes! I loooovvvveeeee wearing the wool!

So it's no surprise that I love attending to Wooly Bear's wool, just like all the others. However, since he's a ram, and not a pet, I do not clean his wool as diligently as I do the ewes. And he loves to wear his dinner on his head. So! He has what I would call a "mess" around his horn area. Plus, his horns are tangling his beautiful wool when he turns his head, and they rub on the wool. Rats!

Anyway (!), I noticed something when I was out with them lately. It was a nice day, but a stiff wind was blowing. That changed a nice day to a cold day. The boys, Wooly Bear, and buddy Wibur were outside. Wooly Bear was strolling around, watching the chickadees flit about in the trees, sniffing the breeze, and scrounging for blown leaves on the top of the snow. He meandered all around, just enjoying the day. Meanwhile, Wilbur was at the gate, baaing and baaing for me. He wouldn't meander around or relax. So I watched for a bit. Was Wooly Bear pushing him around? No...nothing like that going on.... so what was it? Why was Wilbur so anxious? After observing for awhile, I realized, he was cold! Bonk! Never thought of that!

So then I got to thinking...they were matched well for their personalities and size. Wilbur is taller, and can defend himself a little better if ever needed. They are both very gentle and tender hearts. But they are not a good match, fleece wise. Why? Well, Wooly's fleece is very long, very thick, and is closed shut tight. The weather doesn't faze him, and wetness rolls right off. The ends of his wool are light and wispy, like feathers the tips are so fine. But underneath is a beautifully dense pack of shiny, wavy fibers. Dreamy!!

The fleece drapes around him in the genuinely Shetland way, giving him a very appealing look. This next picture shows how dense and fine his fleece is all the way up over his topline, and down the other side. Nothing is getting in there. He is cozy warm! That's why I always find him sleeping in the coldest, draftiest area he can find.
You can see how tidbits of hay ride on the outer fluff of his fleece. They don't have a chance to fall down into his wool, except up by his horns. There, it's a mess! I think jacketing this ram would create a serious mess. Shetland sheep were never coated with fabric until recent times. I love a coated fleece, but I can see that with Wooly, it's plum not needed.
You can see, he's smaller than Wilbur. They are about the same age. Wilbur is a Shetland/BFL cross.
But look at Wilbur's topline. Not only is his wool "stuck" and not growing, but it's gaping open! Upon a closer look, I realized the wool gapes to his skin. He's cold!
I've noticed I've had to be careful to keep his topline picked because hay slips down in there quickly. The BFL's are nice sheep, but their wool is of shorter staple than most Shetlands. So his wool seems "stuck" to me! How frustrating to have fleece not grow! After watching fleece grow on my other sheep, it's a strange feeling to know you're feeding and caring for this animal, but the fleece is going nowhere. :/
You can see here that he looks cold, and you can see his wool is practically the same length as it was months ago. It dawned on me just then that he always sleeps in the least drafty places at night. I hope the Shetland side of him comes out more and the fiber starts to grow in spring! He's a really nice boy and we love him a lot, but he is an adjustment for me in the fleece department. So Wooly Bear can be out even on nasty days, but Wilbur will do better with protection. I surely know how miserable feeling cold can be! I'm glad I have indoor quarters for him, so he'll be less stressed. He is very quiet there and much more content. Now I know why.

Below is a picture of some fun balls we are knitting up. What a fun project for kids! A simple color change adds a new skill. The green wool is Shetland dyed with limeade drink mix. The ball is stuffed with washed, picked apart fleece. The pink and white ball is still being knitted. Fun!


  1. I Love W.Bear! What a beauty.
    And OMG... Does he ever look like an ouessant ram! It's so easy to see that ouessants and shetlands are european short-tail cousins!

  2. I can't tell from the pictures, but sometimes a sheep's wool will part along the back if they are thin - of course, some sheep just have fleece like that - and it may be a BFL thing - I'm not as familiar with them. I have a couple of girls who have fleece more apt to part along their backs no matter how much I feed them - but most of our sheep have closed fleeces along the back, no matter the length of their fleece. Maybe he could use a good dose of wormer?

  3. Good advice Lael! My ewe, Gwendolyn had parasite struggles as a lamb and I learned a lesson about frequent body condition scoring and attentiveness to things like ear carriage and such. That ole adage about "there's no such thing as a sick sheep" just isn't true...they give you signs if you keep your mind on it. I don't know much about the BFL either, but I think they might carry a more open fleece than the shetlands do, but I'm not positive about that. He is of good weight and seems happy, but baa's nonstop in the stiff wind of some days. So unless it's a nice day, I think I'll keep him in on those days.

    The coffee cup was my Grandmothers, too! (prior post) Wouldn't it be nice to have those coffee gatherings today, with sheepy friends? The donuts and strudle wouldn't be the only treat...