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, May 14, 2010

Do you know where your Handbook is?

Mona and Wheely Wooly Lerwick; just born

It's time to start assessing lambs! This is where the NASSA Handbook comes out...again! :) The Handbook is a great compilation of basic things Shetland to help you assess the quality of your lambs. If you are looking to buy Shetland sheep, this is a must have! Without the Handbook, you are walking blindly.

On the last page of the Handbook, you will find the Breed Standard. It is a very straightforward document that gives you a good description of what to look for in a good Shetland sheep. You should never buy a sheep without first memorizing the standard, or at least assessing the sheep with the standard in your hand and the sheep in front of you before buying, or you might pay too much money for a sheep that is not as correct. The worst case scenario is you end up buying a sheep (for a fancy price) that is some form of crossbred, but the "breeder" tells you it is a fancy Shetland. How do you keep people honest? The Standard!

So what does a good Shetland look like? There is a LOT of conflicting information out there!!!! That's why it's critical to use the Standard, not what someone says, as your guide. A longtime breeder once told me that all Shetlands are BIG. I wanted a smaller sheep. When I asked about why big, I was told that small Shetlands were "malnourished or something... all the early Shetlands here were big." Upon doing my own research, I learned this was bad advice. Many things "Shetland" are small...ponies, dogs, yarn grist, people (!) spinning wheels, cottages, peeries, and Shetland itself!! The sheep are no exception. Other people tried to tell me that Shetland wool is short. That, too, proved to be bad advice. Things Shetland just are furry, fuzzy and wooly. That is what allows these animals to survive and thrive in a climate with much wind and over 100 inches of rainfall a year. The sheep are no exception.

So how do you avoid pitfalls? READ THE STANDARD! It does not contain secret code. The words are plain and mean what they mean.

So I do.

Here's what Wheely Wooly Farm gets excited about!! This little lamb is Wheely Wooly Lerwick. He is Wooly Bear's son, and he is quite a lamb! First, notice his topline!!! Wooohooo!!! It is STRAIGHT! THAT is what the standard calls for. Sloping backs are disappointing. It is well known in livestock circles that dished backs are weak. You would not be credible showing up in a meat sheep class or dairy class, or even with a horse weak in the back. People who show in these classes go to great lengths to "tickle" their animal into a straight topline when the judge looks their way. Shetlands should not have weak backs, either. Yet this problem is currently running rampant here in the midwest, and weak backs in Shetlands are touted as desirable and right. We are striving to correct this issue. Some of our lambs have dished backs. They are out of AI descended stock. That has been very disappointing. We will be working in the future to get rid of that.

The next thing we get excited about here is wool. Lerwick has wool that nearly gets me hyperventilating! It is sooo much like his sire's!! Woohoo!!! The standard calls for fine, soft texture, longish and wavy. This is what that looks like! His wool is very fine, amazingly soft, and has a lovely wave to it from the day he was born, and is thick and lush and long! Ok... check! Since wool is what we are all about, this is very important to us. We use it for creating (attempting to anyway!) the textiles that made this breed famous. If someone tells you wave means crimp, pull out your standard! You will not find the word crimp on the document! If someone tries to tell you wave means crimp, think door to door salesman!

What else do we get excited about? Expression! This is another thing that is getting lost in our region as sheep are crossbred and pitched as pure. Expression will flatten out, become dull. A good Shetland will have a bright, twinkling expression. That is getting harder to find as "new" genetics get spread around. But you will recognize it when you see it! You can't miss it, actually! Lerwick has that bright expression, just like his sire. Ok...check! We strive to bring correct expression forward. Here is a good start!

A good lamb will stand squarely on all four legs, and not be too narrow in hip or shoulder. Another problem showing up in the midwest is body-builder shoulders. That would not be correct either. Bulging shoulders should not be dominating physique. Bone should not be too heavy or too dainty. If you have your standard in front of you before you register a lamb, or before you buy ANY Shetland sheep, you will know what you are getting/what you have. If the breeder's words and the words on the page don't jive, you know you are in a fishy situation.

So what about the rest of our lambs? We have some dished backs, which we find very disappointing. Overall, I was disappointed with some AI descended stock results. We do have very lush fleeces that are thick and soft. They were born that way, which I still find amazing. You won't find that in many other breeds. Gracie has a lovely fleece that is long (!) and soft and fine and wavy! We did get good conformation other than the back issue, and it looks like we have some nice tails. Pumpkin will be stockier than I like to see, just like his mom. His mom's fleece is not staying typey Shetland as she ages, so I hope his will be ok. Hopefully with Wooly Bear as his sire, it will stay more Shetland-like.

Overall, we are very pleased at the quality of fleece we produced in our lamb crop. All of the lambs had lush, wavy sparse or tight, tinsey knots. I think Wooly Bear passed that on. Our ewes were selected for longer fiber as well, as that is what history reveals as the true fiber of many famous textiles. Having those longer ewe fleeces helped, I'm sure. We also reached our goal of "solid" colors. The spotted sheep are soooo cute, and I always enjoy viewing the lamb pictures of spotted sheep...can't go wrong there! However, my spinning preference is "solid", or with the fading gives dynamics that fascinate me as the sheep ages. I am wildly pleased with the pure black we got with Lerwick. That makes exceptionally nice color to knit up in fair isle and other projects. Finding a nice solid black ram was a challenge in my region, as there were endless kats and guls and spots to look at.

Everyone has different parameters they want to breed for, but the basics of the breed remain the same. We feel very fortunate here at Wheely Wooly Farm to have had such a great first lambing. We feel this is due to luck, and a lengthy/diligent ram selection process. We wish we would have gotten more ewe lambs though! :) It took me years of following Shetlands, and more years of spinning and knitting to learn that our national breed organization was not providing accurate information regarding the breed in recent times, and that I would need to find truthful resources myself. Fortunately, in the age of information, I had access to museums, books, old newsletters, and countless knitting/spinning resources by outstanding authors that consistently reveal the truth about this breed...many of whom live in or near the Shetland Islands, that are not associated with our current national breed organization to my knowledge. The textiles Shetland fiber and the Shetland women created ARE famous after all; history and sheep cannot be broken apart! For that, I am sooooo thankful! Here at Wheely Wooly Farm, that honesty will prevail.

(Gretl's Swallowtail Shawl update: I'm on round 12 of the 14 budding lace pattern repeats. What a pleasant knit! The pattern flows smoothly along and has been a joy to work on.)

1 comment:

  1. Lovely toplines on those little lambs. It's true that very few people appreciate the importance of proper confirmation : topline, nice square legs, etc .... Looks like you have a beautiful crop of lambs this year!