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.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Family Reunion

As many of you know, I love spinning Shetland fiber. After a few years of spinning, I thought to myself hey! Why not look for fiber to spin from OTHER Northern European Short Tailed breeds...aka Shetland cousins! Since Shetlands have a large "family", I thought I'd have myself a little family reunion! Sounded fun, and I couldn't wait to get started!
Peonies from my garden, before the heavy rains came

So I launched myself in first learning the names of the cousins...let's see, there is Spael, Villseau, Icelandic, Da...ok! That didn't take long to get tangled in unpronouncable names in other European languages! So...maybe I can look up each of these breeds and find out statistics about them! That was fun! I combed the internet hours and hours while winter winds whipped outside my window. Huddling each night in my cozy pajamas, I traveled to far away places, read heart-breaking stories, and met new sheep enthusiasts as passionate about sheep as myself, where it was daytime, and I was awake at 2am! Information was hard to find, and breeders even harder to find. One nice site I found early on is called North Shed. It tells about the diversity and general historical uses of the cousins in short form and provides nice pictures! Look on the links here to the right of my blog and you can click on it for hours of fun.

Ok, so after digging like a mole in the darkness, I found some breeders and put in requests for fiber samples representative of that respective breed, and sometimes I felt brave enough to ask for notes on the breed! Air mail!! This was fun!

When packages arrived, I waited to open them for when I could really sit down and document them. After assessing each type of fiber, I slowly began preparing them for spinning, then began to spin. Slowly, in the chill of winter's midst and long into spring's brightness, I carefully drafted the respective cousin's fiber and gained a new appreciation for how diverse the fibers can be!!

Rya Wool from Sweden

This is a lock from the cousin called Rya. It LOOKs like a double coated Shetland lock, except it has much less fine undercoat. Someone not real experienced with Shetland fleece didn't pick up on that when discussing the lock. Another person, who owns Shetlands but doesn't spin thought it was Shetland fiber. It measures just over 7 inches long, and is like our moorit color...both typical of the breed according to the preservationist breeder. The pictures of the Rya sheep stunned me! It was like having Shetland sheep staring back at me in the photos. They were beautiful. I would not have been able to tell the Rya sheep from the Shetland if each was unidentified in a photo, standing side by side. I stared and stared.....Anyway! By looks, you can see lustre, staple length, and many other characteristics typical of Shetland wool. Ok, I thought to myself, they are obviously cousins! But wow! There is nothing to educate a spinner than the spinning itself!!!!!!! I learned that Rya wool LOOKs the same, but sure doesn't FEEL the same in the end! It is a beautiful wool that was quite easy to draft and spin, just like Shetland. However, it has a much different handle to it and the yarn looks and feels much, much different. It behaves strangely to me. as I expected it would be like Shetland. It moves differently, acts differently, drapes, curls, twists, lays differently. I could easily see why this beautiful wool was so valued in centuries past, especially for tapestries and weavings. I suddenly had an interest in finding pictures of tapestries!
While doing that research, I'd come to learn something. Here in America, the word rug means something you make to put on the floor and walk on or wipe your feet on. American rugs are typically placed just inside doors or in cold places where you would stand, or where you'd like some cushion, or a place for children to sit and play with toys. In the primarily non-English speaking country where this Rya wool came from, the word rug carried a shockingly different meaning! It meant BEDCOVERING! Turns out, Rya wool was not a "carpet" wool as we think of it here in America, but a wool used to cover whole families who slept in one "bed". The locks of wool were tied tightly onto a woven material and were used fleece side down to human skin like a quilt for protection from Norse cold!!! (Which suddenly makes me wonder...did the idiom "snug as a bug in a rug" come from this?? :) Rugs were also made to hang over the one entry door to keep blowing snow and wind out. Can you imagine what it took to live pre-furnace days?!? Because this cousin had LONG wool, people and their families were able to survive. Wow. We SOOOOOO lose that point in life today.
Forget-Me-Not Flowers on the forest floor

I have come to find my internet travels, breeder contacts, and new spinning experiences to be full of surprises, excitement, and deeper love for the ability to spin fiber myself. Like the quiet little flowers brightly blooming on the forest floor, I've come to learn we must not forget the roots of Shetland sheep and their cousins, and how bright or not bright their futures may be, for just as the flowers grow mere inches tall, so too the future of these breeds can be overlooked. If someone tells you long fiber is not historical in the Shetland cousins OR the Shetlands themselves, think again door to door salesman. Long fiber has long been the shield of protection from modern milling exploits and commercial interest for both the sheep and the people who loved them and kept them. Wheely Wooly Farm will honor those facts by continuing to protect the Shetland breed as it always was, handshearing and handspinning their wool, and enjoying the stunning garments that result. We will continue to bring the past forward to you, our customers to the best of our ability, without compromise. And perhaps you too, can snuggle in the warmth and protection wool provides from the cold, just as people have done for as long as we know. It's an amazing thing, and for all of that, we are grateful.

1 comment:

  1. I think you have to do what feels right to you where your Shetlands are concerned. I am getting into upbreeding Gotlands with my friend and there are already two North American Gotland groups with different opinions.